A Star Reborn

Culture & Anarchy Film
Not just a pretty face: Onetime matinée idol Dirk Bogarde

In 2004 John Coldstream published a life of Dirk Bogarde so good that no one should ever feel the need to write another one. Coldstream was a literary editor by trade, and in that capacity had enticed Bogarde to review books for the Telegraph. Bogarde, who was by all accounts (including Coldstream’s) not the easiest man of whom to win the trust soon came to trust Coldstream. The decision that this sensitive, thoughtful and intelligent man should write the life of the actor was inspired.

Happily, the biography was not to be Coldstream’s last word on Bogarde. The British Film Institute has just published a monograph by him on one of Bogarde’s best and most interesting films, Victim, made in 1961 (BFI, £9.99). Those of you unfamiliar with the film should buy the DVD and see it. It reminds one how, in certain respects, half a century ago England was another planet. Bogarde plays a barrister, Melville Farr, who has all the trappings of success: a sumptuous house on the river at Strand-on-the-Green, a large amount of work, the respect of his clerk and his chambers, and a beautiful and devoted wife, played by Sylvia Syms. There is one problem: Farr is homosexual, and has had a brief and it seems unconsummated relationship with a young working-class man. An attempt is made to blackmail him. Farr chooses to give evidence to help have the blackmailers locked up; and to take the consequences. We do not see what those are, but in the era when homosexual activity between men was still a criminal offence, they would probably have included professional and social martyrdom.

The film probably is the high watermark of Bogarde’s acting career. It was brave of him to do it, because (whatever the publicity machines of the studios he worked for said at the time) his own private life was open to the same assaults as Farr’s. He turns in a brilliant performance from, as it were, the heart. Jack Hawkins had been the intended star, but was too committed elsewhere — or at least that was the official line. The film did well commercially, drawing on Bogarde’s lingering appeal as a matinée idol. But he had been a matinée idol without ever engaging in the hearty masculinity that characterised Hawkins. For Hawkins, playing such a role could have been career death.

Coldstream’s book helps confirm the view that Victim is a considerable and important film, and not just for its propaganda message about the iniquity of criminalising a form of sexual behaviour between consenting adults. But it also invites consideration of how good an actor Bogarde actually was. In his later life as an habitué of the chat show — many of us can see him in our mind’s eye on Michael Parkinson’s sofa, plugging his latest book — he seemed to disparage much that he had done earlier, notably the immensely popular, ineffably lightweight roles such as Simon Sparrow in the Doctor films of the 1950s and ’60s. They are period pieces now — indeed, they seemed period pieces when I saw them on television as a child in the 1960s. The roles he played fitted ill with the image Bogarde clearly wanted to cast of himself, as a brooding, sophisticated intellectual. Victim did that for him perfectly.

Anyone who has seen his role early in his career in Quartet (1948) as a would-be concert pianist who kills himself when told he will not make the grade, or in The Blue Lamp, made in 1949 at Ealing, will require no further evidence of what star quality Bogarde had. His incarnation of the vile, manipulative, shallow delinquent who shoots Jack Warner, playing a policeman, outside a cinema in the Edgware Road is utterly convincing, and contributes to its being one of the pivotal moments of British culture. Bogarde is superb, too, in portraying the fear and panic of the murderer as the police net closes in upon him. The film made him a star, but what would happen in the 1950s when what passed for the British film industry sought to exploit that stardom was often pretty regrettable.

There were, unfortunately most memorably, various Doctor films — these lasted until 1963. There were various star vehicles with him playing either vexed, suave individuals or vexed, unsuave ones. He managed to get miscast with alarming frequency, usually when playing men of action (though Bogarde himself had had a good war). His portrayal of Paddy Leigh Fermor in Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) is at times risibly camp. If attempts to have him play NCOs were designed to display his range, they did not work. His part as a gibbering wreck in a life raft in The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954) does not quite come off, and as a sergeant in The Password is Courage (1962) he is never near convincing. In some respects, Bogarde is almost a one-man representation of the decline of the British film in the 1950s: poor scripts, poor roles, the directors always looking over their shoulders at big brother in Hollywood.

But Victim seemed to usher in a period in Bogarde’s career in which, whether he became more discriminating or directors and writers realised the opportunities they were missing with him, he started regularly to make not just good, but sometimes exceptional films. Victim was the first of these; then, in 1963, the same year as his last outing as Simon Sparrow, his role as a gentleman’s very ungentlemanly gentleman in The Servant. In 1964 he distinguished himself as a compassionate officer in the Great War drama King and Country; in 1965 he was with Julie Christie in Darling; in 1967 there was Accident; and in 1971, having reached the age of 50, he was exactly right to play von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. By that point, after a promising start and a troublesome continuation, Bogarde really had shown himself a great film actor.

Consideration of these films from the late-middle period of his career reminds us of his enormous talent. It also demands a serious retrospective. I can’t recall when I last saw one of his great 1960s films on television, though his rubbish is on all too often. But Coldstream reminds us to go back to Victim and the Bogarde revaluation should start there.