Two great films today. One hot out of the Official Competition section and the other from Treasures from the Archives in the Dare section. To start with the second – Victim with Dirk Bogarde and Syliva Syms in a ground breaking film of the 1960s. Written by Janet Green and John McCormick, directed by Basil Deardon and produced by Michael Relph, this dramatic and devastating film was about homosexuality and blackmail; it came out before the Wolfenden Report and at the time it was made homosexual acts, even in private, were illegal and punishable by imprisonment.
In the days of ‘selfies’ and ‘sexting’ it is hard to imagine what a young audience (and there were plenty of them in NFT 1 this evening) make of this secretive and tortured situation. The story is so well known that I am not afraid of spoilers here.
Dirk Bogarde made a breakthrough in his career with his portrayal as the young, successful barrister, Melville Farr who in spite of the ignominy and the effect on his career pursues the blackmailers who have been responsible for the death of his friend, Boy Barratt and later the death of another victim, Henry the hairdresser. He approaches several people, all of whom are too afraid of their own positions to do anything but pay up and shut up; but Melville continues his pursuit and finally finds one person who will help him stop the blackmailers in return for some incriminating letters. Melville is married to Laura, played by Silvia Syms. She evidently knows of Melville’s past history, since a previous friend from Cambridge, Stainer committed suicide. While it is clear from the film that Melville actually has nothing to fear, Boy Barratt didn’t realise this and has been paying the blackmailers to protect his hero, sadly he is caught eventually by the police and commits suicide in a prison cell at the police station. He has tried to destroy a scrapbook of cuttings about Melville Farr and it is his death that leads Melville to seek out the blackmailers.
Sylvia Syms was in the audience and she is still passionate about the subject and about the importance of this film, although for her to play in such a challenging film at that time must have taken some courage, since many other actresses had already refused the part.
Although it may seem extraordinary now, this film was actually used in evidence during the discussions of the Wolfenden Committee, as an example of the damage caused the Blackmailer’s Charter, that is the various laws relating to incriminating homosexual behaviour; getting well known homosexuals to give evidence was for this reason exceedingly delicate, though three were found. What is even more extraordinary possibly is that in order not to embarrass the women on the panel, the two categories under discussion were referred to throughout as Huntley and Palmers (a biscuit manufacturers): Huntley for homosexuals and Palmers for prostitutes. It sounds impossibly bizarre now!
The other film was Parkland, the first feature film by the documentary maker Peter Landesman. One might be tempted to think “do we really need another film about the assassination of JFK?”, but that would be to miss the whole point of this film, which is specifically about all the ordinary people involved in that terrible day and the four following days.
Parkland is the hospital when JFK was taken after the shooting, the film starts at the airport with the arrival of John and Jackie Kennedy, we see the FBI people and the security people and the Dallas Police Department; we see the company where Oswald’s brother works and we see Abraham Zapruder, a small time businessman in Dallas, who just happened to cinefilm the whole event; we see the doctors and nurses who tried desperately to save the life of The President and the aftermath, when all attempts fail. The undignified argument when the Dallas Attorney insists that there has to be an autopsy, the body has to stay in Dallas and the fight over the coffin, he is over-ruled and then the coffin has to be manhandled into the airplane because the men cannot imagine putting the President’s body in the hold, “like a piece of baggage”.
Parkland hospital is a training hospital, no way would you normally have a President of the United States visit, dead or alive and yet, these rookie doctors fresh out of medical school and still learning, normally on the poor have to try to save the dying man, they fail – we all know that already, but we did not know until now how hard they tried, we did not know either that Lee Harvey Oswald also went there after he was shot, and the nursing sister redirected his stretcher away from the operating theatre where only four days previously they had tried to save the President.
We meet Lee Harvey Oswald’s demented mother who to her dying day insisted that he was an agent of the secret police; and we meet Oswald’s brother, Robert who spells out to his brother in their last interview what devastation he has wrought on all their families. At the end of the film, while JFK is being buried with state honours in Arlington Cemetery, the body of Lee Harvey Oswald is buried in an out of the way cemetery near Dallas, no Church nor Chapel will agree to hold a funeral service and Robert Oswald has to beg the photographers to help him lift the coffin from the hearse as there are no pall bearers. This film exposes all these smaller and very painful stories, reminding us that no stone falls into water without making a ripple, the bigger the stone the greater the effect. This is an astonishing achievement, a great film about little people.