11 October 2015, YouTube
An amazing British film from 1961 about a secretly gay magistrate who pursues a gay blackmail case at the his risk of his own outing. And that’s back when homosexuality was a criminal offense in the UK. I imagine this was pretty controversial in its day, especially as it questions a widely held view and basically advocates that the law be rescinded. But aside from the politics, the story is a taut thriller that works very well on its own terms.
Dirk Bogarde (who was supposedly gay in real life) is a well-known lawyer with a brilliant career, beautiful wife, prospects of being named a judge – and a dark secret. He learns that a young man who had desperately been trying to reach him, and whom he was equally determined to avoid, has been found dead. We discover that the boy was an ex-lover, and Bogarde had thought that the boy was trying to blackmail him; in fact, the boy was himself being blackmailed over a photo of the two of them together and simply wanted help. In the end, the boy was arrested and hanged himself in his cell rather than reveal the lawyer’s identity. Bogarde grimly makes it his quest to find the murderer, but the search proves tough. Other victims are afraid to step forward since they might be exposed, and the blackmailer begins to go after Bogarde himself. The question is whether Bogarde will choose simply to pay up, thus keeping his secret and maintaining his social status, or pursue justice in the interest of his integrity whatever the threat to his career and marriage.
The story is tightly written and paced, and the characterizations are vividly drawn. It had just enough twists to keep things interesting, such as the true face of the female bookstore worker, while remaining entirely logical. More than that, I liked that while it puts forward the idea that people should not be punished for their sexuality, that was nicely understated and not overly preachy. The point is made through plausible characters and storyline rather than a soapbox, a much more cunning approach. All was in service to the story, which is quite right. I miss this type of filmmaking.
Bogarde beautifully shows, in an unfussy British sort of way, both his character’s inner torment and his determination to do what’s right. Sylvia Sims was equally memorable. I was a bit confused by the ending; she leaves for the duration of the trial that’s going to expose her husband, but says she thinks she should have the strength to return once it’s over. What does that mean? Rewrite, please. But her acting itself was flawless. Other standouts were the main police officer (who questions the law against homosexuality), the hairdresser and Noel Coward-ish actor. A very fine film.