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July 14, 2017

It was the first English language film to use the word “homosexual”. It premiered in the UK on 31 August 1961.

Dirk Bogarde was often accused of being in the closet but, arguably, this film did more for gay rights than his coming out might have done. The findings of the Wolfnden Report were shelved yet this film moved many people to urge for change in the law.

A successful barrister, Melville Farr has a thriving London practice. He is on course to become a Queen’s Counsel and people are already talking of his being appointed a judge. He is apparently happily married to his wife, Laura.

Farr is approached by “Boy” Barrett, a younger working class man with whom Farr has shared a romantic but non-sexual relationship. Farr rebuffs the approach, thinking Barrett wants to blackmail him about their relationship. In fact, Barrett has been trying to reach Farr to appeal to him for help because he has fallen prey to blackmailers who have a picture of Farr and Barrett in a vehicle together, in which Barrett is crying with Farr’s arm around him. Barrett has stolen £2,300 from his employers to pay the blackmail, is being pursued by the police, and needs Farr’s financial assistance to flee the country. After Farr intentionally avoids him, Barrett is picked up by the police, who discover why he was being blackmailed. Knowing it will be only a matter of time before he is forced to reveal the details of the blackmail scheme and Farr’s role, Barrett hangs himself in a police cell.

Learning the truth about Barrett, Farr takes on the blackmail ring and recruits a friend of Barrett’s to identify others the blackmailers may be targeting. The friend identifies a barber who is also being blackmailed, but the barber refuses to identify his tormentors. When one of the blackmailers visits the barber and begins to destroy his shop, he suffers a heart attack. Near death, he phones Farr’s house and leaves a mumbled message naming another victim of the blackmailers.

Farr contacts this victim, a famous actor, but the actor refuses to help him, preferring to pay the blackmailers to keep his secret. Laura finds out about Barrett’s suicide and confronts her husband. After a heated argument, during which Farr maintains that he has kept the promise he made to Laura when they married that he would no longer indulge his homosexual attraction, Laura decides that Farr has betrayed that promise in having a relationship with Barrett and decides to leave him.

The blackmailers vandalise Farr’s property, painting “FARR IS QUEER” on his garage doors. Farr resolves to help the police catch them and promises to give evidence in court, despite knowing that the ensuing press coverage will certainly destroy his career. The blackmailers are identified and arrested. Farr tells Laura to leave before the ugliness of the trial, but that he will welcome her return afterward. She tells him that she believes she has found the strength to return to him. Farr burns the suggestive photograph of him and Barrett.

Compromises were made so the hero would be acceptable to a mass audience, but nothing dishonest wound up onscreen. Farr is a pillar of society who left his gay past behind. Great pains are made to establish that Farr did not have a sexual relationship with Barrett. Farr only befriended the lad and gave him rides home. When Barrett fell in love with Farr, the renowned public figure ended their friendship, leaving his “sainthood” intact. Most significantly, Farr is played by Dirk Bogarde who was England’s leading matinee idol. It was a brave step for Bogarde, who was gay himself, but he desired to play more challenging roles.

The famous scene where Melville Farr (having been confronted by his wife about Barrett) finally admits to her that he “wanted him”, was added at Dirk Bogarde’s request and was partially written by him. Bogarde states in his autobiography that he felt the screenplay lacked credibility because it was too ambiguous and did not adequately explain Farr’s involvement with Barrett, and skirted around the issue.

Unusually, the many scenes in the pub were all filmed in a real public house, not an interior set on a sound stage. The pub in question was The Salisbury, a famous Victorian gin palace situated on the corner of Cecil Court and St Martin’s Lane, next to the Albery Theatre (where “Oliver” was playing at the time; the posters can be glimpsed in some scenes). This pub was a famous gay pub for decades especially popular with actors, until the brewery installed a new management team in the early 1980s and it was turned into a tourist pub and ceased to be gay-friendly. However its original interior features remain and one can still see the ornate lamps, doors, mirrors as they appear in the film. It was undoubtedly chosen because it would be immediately well-known to gay people who would see this film and would have been familiar to many of the gay actors who appear in the film.

Homosexuals are condemned by several characters but one well-meaning figure remarks that being homosexual is “punishment enough,” why do they have to be persecuted too? Most of the ruder comments are uttered by low-lifes. A bartender who doesn’t mind taking money from the queers who frequent his tavern nonetheless mocks them behind their backs. One of the blackmailers, a woman who resembles an old grade school teacher who probably has never gotten laid in her life, makes the most damning moral judgments. (Actually, her words are not unlike comments by Pat Robertson.)

Detective Inspector Harris: I can see you’re a true puritan, Bridie. Eh?

Bridie: There’s nothing wrong with that, Sir.

Detective Inspector Harris: Of course not. There was a time when that was against the law you know.


Detective Inspector Harris: Someone once called this law against homosexuality the blackmailer’s charter.

Melville Farr: Is that how you feel about it?

Detective Inspector Harris: I’m a policeman, sir. I don’t have feelings.


Frank: Well it used to be witches. At least they don’t burn you.

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From → Film, Sexuality

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