“You’re so frightfully soigné,” John Schlesinger said to Dirk Bogarde when offering him the role of tweedy television interviewer Robert Gold in Darling (1965). At his most iconic, Bogarde is all polished sophistication: the effete international star of the ’60s and ’70s who worked with such formidable directors as Joseph Losey, Luchino Visconti, Alain Resnais, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But in the first part of his career—from his screen debut in 1947 until 1961—Bogarde often starred in minor British comedies, romances, and dramas. Included in the Walter Reade’s 11-film retrospective are several early Bogarde vehicles, such as the comedy Doctor in the House (1954), in which he plays Simon Sparrow, a green, eager medical student. Doctor is certainly B-movie fluff, but watching Bogarde as a tremulous naïf affords many pleasures.
He established himself as a serious performer in Basil Dearden’s controversial Victim (1961), one of the first films to plead tolerance for homosexuality. Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a married, gay, highly virtuous barrister who stands up to a blackmailer. Although limited by its thriller-meets-social-awareness format, Victim is still a noble production, greatly enhanced by Bogarde’s astute performance. (Taking the role “was the wisest decision I ever made in my cinematic life,” he writes in his memoir Snakes and Ladders.) As the aesthete Gustav von Aschenbach in Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), Bogarde exudes both prissy imperiousness and swooning desire. In Fassbinder’s loopy Despair (1978), based on Nabokov’s novel, Bogarde is appropriately fey as Hermann Hermann, a chocolate magnate who is prone to spells of dissociation.
Bogarde is also a master of the small, nuanced gesture. Watch him stroke his bottom lip in Darling or smooth a napkin in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1973)—a welcome bit of subtlety in this infamously ludicrous Nazi s&m melodrama. It is in these films, too, that Bogarde maintains a graceful balance with his younger female leads, who were in star-making roles. (It’s too bad, though, that one of Bogarde’s most remarkable screen pairings, with Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing , is omitted from the series—it’s Garland’s last film, and in their final scene together, Bogarde, fittingly deferential, is at his most gentlemanly.) With Julie Christie in Darling, his world-weariness offsets her mod verve; in The Night Porter, he and Charlotte Rampling manage to retain their dignity in spite of a contemptible script. Bogarde’s performances in both reveal the finesse of a true sophisticate.