Dirk Bogarde: 10 essential films

Two handfuls of the finest films featuring one of Britain’s greatest screen actors, from his early classics to his later career as a go-to star for arthouse directors.

Neil Mitchell
Updated:

Accident (1967)

Accident (1967)

After making a West End theatre debut in 1939 and then serving as a captain during the Second World War, Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde would, under the less intimidating name Dirk Bogarde, go on to become one of Britain’s finest postwar actors. Handsome, talented and ambitious, Bogarde went from being the ‘Idol of the Odeon’ to a respected, if at times difficult, star of more challenging dramas and arthouse epics. A complicated and guarded off-screen figure sometimes seen as cold and cruel, Bogarde was, regardless of this, a commanding and popular onscreen presence. To celebrate what would have been his 94th birthday on 28 March, here are 10 of his finest films.

Hunted (1952)

Director Charles Crichton

Hunted (1952)

Hunted (1952)

Although Basil Dearden’s The Blue Lamp (1950), in which Bogarde shot to prominence playing a police murderer, is the more iconic film, another early appearance as a killer, in Charles Crichton’s Hunted, afforded Bogarde a more substantial role. Whereas The Blue Lamp’s Tom Riley is a petty criminal turned murderer, in Hunted the otherwise law abiding Chris Lloyd snaps and kills his employer after discovering he is having an affair with Lloyd’s wife. On the run with mistreated six-year-old orphan runaway Robbie (Jon Whiteley) in tow, Lloyd’s remorseful, emotional travails saw Bogarde deliver a nuanced and affecting central performance.

The Spanish Gardener (1956)

Director Philip Leacock

The Spanish Gardener (1956)

The Spanish Gardener (1956)

Philip Leacock’s adaptation of A.J. Cronin’s 1950 novel, The Spanish Gardener, saw Bogarde reunited with Jon Whiteley, his young co-star from Hunted. In similar fashion to the earlier film, though under very different circumstances, Bogarde’s character Jose, the titular figure, forms a strong emotional bond with Whiteley’s Nicholas, the son of a closeted diplomat. Conforming to Bogarde’s matinee idol status at the time, Jose is handsome, athletic and sensitive, the opposite of Nicholas’ father: embittered, ageing and repressed Harrington Brande (Michael Hordern). There’s a relaxed air about Bogarde’s Jose, a self-assuredness in the role that perfectly inverts Hordern’s equally well-judged brittleness.

Victim (1961)

Director Basil Dearden

Victim (1961)

Victim (1961)

Given the contradictory nature of the distinguished actor’s private life and carefully managed public persona during an era in which homosexuality was still a punishable offence, Victim is one of the most symbolically important films on Bogarde’s CV. Though a string of actors shied away from the production, Bogarde had no qualms about taking the role of Melville Farr, a successful barrister and apparently happily married man drawn into a web of blackmail, betrayal and death over incriminating pictures that reveal his true sexual proclivities. A controversial yet socially reflective release at the time, Victim is one of British cinema’s landmark films.

The Servant (1963)

Director Joseph Losey

The Servant (1963)

The Servant (1963)

The first of three collaborations between Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter, this adaptation of a 1948 novelette by Robin Maugham is a tight psychological drama – and a genuine contender for being the actor’s finest hour. Bogarde is fantastically insidious as cuckoo-in-the-nest Hugo Barrett, manservant to James Fox’s wealthy, young and idle Londoner, Tony. A scabrous tale of class relations, sex, ennui and shifting power dynamics, laced with a gay subtext played down by those involved, The Servant retains its creepy atmosphere to this day. Expressionistic in direction and scathing in tone, The Servant is a film that uncomfortably lodges itself in the viewer’s mind.

Darling (1965)

Director John Schlesinger

Darling (1965)

Darling (1965)

John Schlesinger’s swinging 60s drama is a flawed but culturally significant snapshot of its era. Clearly Julie Christie’s film, with her portrayal as bored, beautiful and promiscuous model Diana Scott earning her the Academy Award for best actress, Bogarde is, however, just as memorable as one of the men in her life – roving reporter Robert Gold. Gold’s narrative arc, from unfaithful husband to paternalistic partner and, finally, spiteful ex-lover, was adroitly executed by an actor evidently at ease with essaying turbulent emotional journeys. The latter sequences detailing the couple’s disintegrating relationship bristle with tense energy, Bogarde’s dialogue, and his delivery of it, being particularly cutting.

Accident (1967)

Director Joseph Losey

Accident (1967)

Accident (1967)

The last of his films with Joseph Losey saw the actor cast opposite another British cinema great in Stanley Baker. Their frosty off-screen relationship adds to the edgy onscreen dynamic in Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Nicholas Mosley’s 1965 novel, Accident. Told in flashback, this fittingly pessimistic tale of warring egos, thwarted passions and emotional suffocation gave Bogarde and Baker, Losey’s two favourite British actors, the chance to verbally spar via Pinter’s icy screenplay. A chilly study in intellect clashing with emotion, Accident strips away the veneer of material comfort inhabited by the film’s educated, outwardly successful characters and finds moral bankruptcy lurking underneath.

The Damned (1969)

Director Luchino Visconti

The Damned (1969)

The Damned (1969)

By the end of the 60s, Bogarde completed the transformation of his on-screen persona and entered into fully-fledged arthouse territory in Luchino Visconti’s The Damned. He took top billing in the by turns camp, seedy and brutal two-and-a-half-hour epic, which focuses on the collapse of the Essenbacks, a wealthy industrialist family torn apart in Nazi-era Germany. Bogarde excels as Friedrich Bruckmann, the insecure and ambitious outsider seduced and then destroyed by the doomed family’s power in a quagmire of incest, paedophilia, matricide and suicide.

Death in Venice (1971)

Director Luchino Visconti

 Death in Venice (1971)

Death in Venice (1971)

Visconti called on Bogarde’s services again for his unabashedly auteurist adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice. Stunning cinematography, impeccable production and costume design and the use of Gustav Mahler’s compositions for the film’s score provide a sumptuous canvas for Bogarde’s BAFTA-nominated portrayal of ailing composer Gustav von Aschenbach. Dying and fearing the loss of his humanity, von Aschenbach becomes obsessed by the presence of a strikingly beautiful, and hugely symbolic, young boy, Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen). Bogarde dominates proceedings, whether displaying haughty dismissiveness, lovestruck yearning, elated rejuvenation or a palpable sense of anguish and emotional and physical pain.

The Night Porter (1974)

Director Liliana Cavani

The Night Porter (1974)

The Night Porter (1974)

The most controversial role of Bogarde’s career came in Liliana Cavani’s arthouse/Nazisploitation tale, The Night Porter. Cavani’s self-penned effort was, on release, the subject of a scathing one-star review by Roger Ebert, who called the film “a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering”. When Bogarde’s former SS Officer Maximilian Theo Aldorfer is drawn back into a sadomasochistic relationship with Charlotte Rampling’s concentration camp survivor Lucia Atherton, their lives are endangered by other surviving Nazi officers intent on wiping out witnesses to their past atrocities. Troubling and confrontational, The Night Porter is as divisive as they come.

Despair (1978)

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Despair (1978)

Despair (1978)

Bogarde’s penultimate big-screen credit came in the shape of Russian émigré chocolate magnate Hermann Hermann in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair. Adapted by Tom Stoppard from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name, Despair is, like Visconti’s The Damned, set during the Nazi rise to power in 30s Germany. Bogarde gives a powerhouse performance as Hermann, the cold, ruthless businessman whose growing insecurity at the social upheaval in his adopted homeland tips over into violent delusion. An actor and director both at the very peak of their respective powers expertly handle Hermann’s mental disintegration and changing physical appearance.

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