A Dirk to the Heart

In all honestly, I didn’t really take a lot of interest in the actor Dirk Bogarde in my younger film watching days. This was mainly due to the series of  ‘Doctor’ films he made from the mid 1950s, which popped up on our TV screens all too regularly. To my mind he looked and acted like a bit of a fop at a time when I was discovering the work of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay and the other ‘angry young men’ of the cinema coming though.

Then I saw ‘Victim’ his film from 1961 and everything changed. This was very controversial at the time of its making and it was brave for Bogarde, himself a closet homosexual, to take it on at a time when homosexuality was viewed as a crime.

Set on location in and round the West End and the St. Martins Lane area in particular, a part of town I knew well, the film quickly became a firm favourite of mine.

It was obviously time for me to take a fresh look at the work of Bogarde and it was then that I discovered just how much of it there was. For example, he had made 35 films by the age of 40.

The first film of note, that most people associate him with is ‘The Blue Lamp’ from 1950 in which played the thief and general spiv at large Tom Riley. In the film, he is the killer of policeman PC Dixon played by Jack Warner. Warner later came back to life as Dixon for the TV series ‘Dixon of Dock Green.’

Bogarde then appeared in the series of ‘Doctor’ films I mentioned earlier from 1954 to 1963 playing Simon Sparrow in the Ralph Thomas directed farces. Then he changed gear and went on to make ‘The Servant’ (1963) ‘Darling’ (1965) ‘Death in Venice’ (1971) and ‘The Night Porter’ (1974) among many others.

Christened Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde, he was born on March 1921 in West Hampstead. Father Ulric was of Dutch descent, and arts editor of The Times newspaper, and mother Margaret, a former actress.

Aged 16, he studied at the Chelsea School of Art and then appeared on stage and screen from 1939 as Derek Bogarde, before his agent changed his name to Dirk.

He served in the British Army as an intelligence officer during World War Two, rising to the rank of Captain. He was among the first allied officers to reach the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in Germany in April 1945, an experience that had a tremendous effect on him.

‘After the war I always knew that nothing, nothing, could ever be as bad, nothing could frighten me any more, I mean, no man could frighten me any more, no Director, nothing could be as bad as the war, or the things I saw in the war.’

After the conflict, he quickly rose to become a matinee idol for the Rank Film Organisation. Within a short space of time, Bogarde became a huge box office draw, proving more popular at the time than Brando, Monroe, Hepburn, Presley and Sinatra.

But by the late 50s, Dirk had decided to leave the organisation in search of more challenging roles.

One of those being ‘Victim.’ In it, he plays a married London based barrister named Melville Farr who decides to take on the blackmailers of a young man of his acquaintance, with whom he is engaged in a secret affair. The young man then commits suicide instead of revealing his lover. Bogarde’s character then risks all, career and marriage, to find out the identity of the blackmailer.

“You won’t be content until I tell you, will you, until you’ve ripped it out of me. I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Can you understand – because I WANTED him.’

This was the first UK based film to tackle the subject.  The 1967 Sexual Offences act, which then decriminalised homosexuality, was partly brought in as a result of the film. 

Other notable films from then on included ‘I Could Go On Singing’ (1963) which was Judy Garland’s last film.  Then in the same year ‘The Servant’ written by Harold Pinter. In this, Bogarde plays the valet Hugo Barrett alongside James Fox, in a tense, class riven role reversal drama. Bogarde won the Best British Actor Bafta of 1964.

Next up, ‘Darling’ (1965) Directed by John Schlesinger, it co-starred Julie Christie as a bored model who sleeps her way to the top of the London fashion scene. It also featured a guest appearance from Laurence Harvey.

1966 serves up the frankly now dated ‘Modesty Blaise’ in which Bogarde plays the villain of the piece Gabriel, alongside Monica Vitti in the title role, and Terence Stamp in this silly comic caper based on the original comic strip.

‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ (1969) co-stars Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier among an all-star cast directed by Richard Attenborough. John Mills, Maggie Smith, Ralph Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave all appear in this anti-war musical.

1971 finds Bogarde entering the European art house scene, with ‘Death in Venice’ in which he plays Gustav von Aschenbach in the film by Visconti.

Controversy followed ‘The Night Porter’ from 1974. In it we find him working as a night porter in a Vienna hotel, randomly meeting up again with Charlotte Rampling’s character, a concentration camp survivor.  Dirk plays her former Nazi tormentor Maximilian Theo Aldorfer and they soon rekindle the sado-masochistic relationship they had ‘enjoyed’ from their time in the camp together.

Bogarde published six novels, and seven volumes of his best selling memoirs in his later years.

He had a minor stroke in November 1987 and in September 1996, underwent angioplasty to unblock arteries leading to his heart. Sadly, he suffered a massive stroke following the operation. He was left paralysed on one side of his body, which affected his speech and left him in a wheelchair.

He died at his home in London from a pulmonary embolism on 8 May 1999, aged 78. For me the film ‘Victim’ changed attitudes to the work of Bogarde, not only mine of course, but film industry in general.

‘Victim was the wisest decision I ever made in my cinematic life,’ Bogarde later said. ‘It is extraordinary … to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three.’

The Mumper of SE5