Tuesday, July 03, 2007

This Is THE DAMNED


If you were lucky, on Monday night you were able to see Turner Classic Movies' premiere broadcast of Joseph Losey's Hammer film THESE ARE THE DAMNED (known in the UK simply as THE DAMNED), made in 1961 and first released in 1963. This showing marked the first time it has ever been shown on American television in its original Hammerscope 2.35:1 width and its original length. Until last night, I don't think I had ever seen a version longer than its 87m US running time, but TCM's print ran 95m 9s.

This is one of a select number of films, and perhaps the only Hammer film, that I find grows more profound with the passing years. I've always admired it, and always for different reasons. In my teens, I admired it for its alienated quality; in my twenties, for its nihilism; in my thirties, for its irony; in my forties, for its doomed idealism; and now, in my fifties, I am most impressed by the previously unsuspected depths of its realism. (Losey was in his early sixties when he made it.) This film still speaks with great urgency to our world and the cruel ways in which it operates, like a candle burning toward its center from two lighted ends, but also with a certain resignation. It's a film that believes in survival, while questioning the idea of survival-at-all-costs.

Oliver Reed as King, his earliest fully realized performance. Kenneth Cope as Sid, another important character, at frame right.

Scripted by Evan Jones and an uncredited Losey, the film is said to be loosely based on "The Children of Light," a story by H. L. Lawrence. The script is ingeniously aimed at the eventual convergence of three separate male-female relationships representative of different phases of life. The first is between King (Oliver Reed), the neurotic leader of a Teddy Boys gang, and his younger, independence-craving sister Joan (Shirley Anne Field); the relationship of these young people is predicated on the past, as it has been traumatized by their abandonment by their parents. The second is between Joan and Simon (Macdonald Carey), a middle-aged American tourist whom Joan lures into victimization by King's gang, but she is drawn to him by his old world gallantry, which makes her feel more a woman than a child; their relationship is predicated, as with all new lovers, on the future they might inhabit together. The third relationship is between two middle-aged lovers, Freya (Viveca Lindfors) and Bernard (Alexander Knox), respectively a sculptress and a former public servant whose professional ascent has left him in charge of a Top Secret military science program whose nature must be kept under wraps at all costs. Their once appealingly provocative oppositions have aged into dangerously divergent philosophies; their relationship is thus predicated on the past, because only in the past was there cause to believe in the future. Freya finds solace from reality in the pursuit of her art; Bernard has no such consolations.

Viveca Lindfors and Alexander Knox.


As I watched THESE ARE THE DAMNED again, I found myself most drawn this time to the different stages of life reflected in these three relationships, as well as the film's subtextual conviction that the world would be a much better place if we could all simply find a way to do what we most like to do. If this is a naïve idea, the film argues, that is its saving grace because any philosophy more cynical lends us as a civilization to our doom. This is an idea that comes out, as do all the film's meatiest philosophic exchanges, in dialogue between Freya and Bernard. As Freya suggests at one point, Bernard's ambition to public service was not his failing, but rather that his morals were different to hers. The film runs riot with divergent morals, and the worst we can do -- the film seems to say -- is to believe the conservative propaganda that there is only one valid morality, because therein lies the key to fascism and the ultimate instrument of political blackmail. Bernard has turned this key in his own heart, and his strict need for secrecy has closed him off, made him cold -- and coldness figures in his secret itself: the existence in a subterranean complex of nine naturally radioactive children who are being groomed to inherit the Earth after the inevitable nuclear devastation of the planet.


Bernard's clandestine classroom -- note the looming shadow of Freya's "cemetery bird" sculpture visible in frame with him.

Bernard's tenure in the world of politics has left him worse than a cynic; he's become a fatalist, too beaten down by bureaucracy to believe any longer in human solutions to human problems. His entire approach to his life and future has a basis in death. He's also a hippocrite, bemoaning how "the age of senseless violence" has reached the British Isles with the vicious antics of the Teddy Boys though he represents a far more conscious and final brand of senseless violence. For her part, Freya -- being a sculptress and daily engaged in the process, discipline and indeed the religion of creation (not creationism!) -- scoffs at Bernard's stoic certainty that such a day will ever come, and when she finally learns of the existence of the children, she rightly questions (as perhaps only a woman can) exactly what kind of world Bernard is preparing them to inhabit. It's my reading of the film that what Bernard hopes will survive the holocaust is not really the children, but rather the principles with which they have been inculcated, so that these creatures of radiation might endure as a tribute to the extinct ideals that promulgated them. Freya's accidental discovery of the children shatters her romantic covenant with Bernard, and naturally signs her own death warrant, and in this way Losey emphasizes that any government that keeps secrets from the people is by definition our enemy, deranged and fascist. When the light of the outside world touches upon Bernard's dark secret, the result is chaos in the classroom -- an anarchic rebellion among the children, itself an indictment of the postwar realities that gave rise to the Teddy Boys' own brand of violent anarchy.


Anarchy in the U.K., fifteen years before the Sex Pistols.

Joseph Losey, of course, made this film as an American expatriate working abroad, during the time following his blacklisting in the United States. Though Michel Ciment's career-length interview book CONVERSATIONS WITH LOSEY finds the director not overly enamored with the film, nor with science fiction as a genre, it's hard not to see powerful personal currents coursing through it. The importance that Losey places on doing what we love to do is most effectively illustrated with Freya's decision to return to chiselling away at her sculpture-in-progress, though she knows she has only minutes left in which to live. Though she lives in almost complete isolation, she has chosen to live in accordance with her ideals and beliefs, and truthfully tells Bernard that she will not live in denial of what she knows. She is, then, a victim of her own honsty, rejecting the offer to join Bernard in his world of shadows, much as Losey himself was sent into exile from a supposedly free country for his political beliefs. In the film's closing moments, seen from the God-like vantage of a government helicopter, we see Bernard's project in ruins, with many lives traumatized if not ended and much faith destroyed, and a barren seaside landscape only modestly removed from desolation. What most survives in the film's closing tableaux is the power of Freya's art, much as the power of this film has survived the political turbulence of Losey's own life and times.

Joan and Simon -- literally kept at sea by the forces of intimidation on a yacht flying the American flag.


It's hard to believe that critical reaction to the film was lukewarm at best. The cutting of ten minutes from the film may have done it no favors, but it didn't really damage it or obscure its bravery and brilliance. Among other things, Losey was criticized for hiring "the bland American actor"Macdonald Carey for the lead role of Simon. What I see in Simon's relationship with Joan -- again, at my present age -- is an illustration of how people necessarily go through life, on some levels, wearing rose-colored glasses, preferring to believe in a fantasy of life rather than look too closely at the true complexion of the world they inhabit. Vacations are always invitations to romantic fantasy, of course, and we imagine that the relationship between Simon and Joan is unlikely to endure even if they survive their accidental exposure to the contaminated children. It is dreams such as they discuss while in each other's arms that makes day-to-day life bearable under the best circumstances. That said, when they are made aware of the hideous truth buried beneath the craggy cliffs surrounding Freya's studio, they show righteous outrage and dedicate themselves to the children's cause. If they ultimate do more harm than good by following their hearts, it's because Bernard's experiment has nothing to do with matters of the heart, or even common sense.

Carey may be unlikely casting, but he conveys a strong humanistic quality in his performance, quite genuine in contrast to Field's initially cool but increasingly warm portrayal, and he's convincing too as the film's only truly pro-active character. Field's dead-on performances as a vapid girlfriend in HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and as a vapid actress in Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM were responsible for her earlier excoriation in the British press, but her scenes here with the children, or when she asks Simon to put her back ashore, convince me that she was better than competent, seem to me just what the Joan on the page needed.

Joan and Simon discover the cold children who do not turn warm when touched.

Seeing the film for the first time in its correct aspect ratio made me more aware of the specific importance of a supporting character, Sid, played by Kenneth Cope. Sid is first singled out by the film's framing when King (Reed) asks Joan if she thinks he'd ever let another man's hands touch her; it's cropped offscreen in standard ratio prints, but here we can see Sid's wounded reaction to King's words as he realizes that he, too, will have to tangle with King if his secret feelings for Joan ever come out.

Speaking of the film's cinematography, THESE ARE THE DAMNED is without a doubt one of the finest showcases director of photography Arthur Grant ever had. Though overshadowed in his career by the likes of Freddie Francis and Jack Asher, Grant was a master of widescreen photography in his own right, as this film and Roger Corman's TOMB OF LIGEIA show in particular. Both films, in fact, accrue a certain ambience from the presence of calcified rock -- the abbey in LIGEIA and the stony seaside cliffs of Portland Bill in THE DAMNED. The opening moments in the town square of Weymouth, set to an original James Bernard '50s-style rock song called "Black Leather Rock," offer us a fascinating idea of what A CLOCKWORK ORANGE might have looked like had a film been made closer to the time Anthony Burgess wrote his original novel. (Its first edition appeared in 1962, the year after THE DAMNED was made.)

King, Simon and Joan strike a temporary truce as they begin to succumb to radiation sickness.

But moreso than giving rise to appreciations of how well it is acted, directed, constructed, and photographed, viewing THESE ARE THE DAMNED reminds us of what a positive social tool the science fiction genre used to be, in the years before it succumbed to special effects, comic bookery, and soul-sucking nihilism wearing the expensive disguise of style. It was once a cinema of ideas and aspirations. At its best, science fiction could be a political force. As downbeat as this masterpiece may be, it has always left me feeling somehow more alert, more alive, with my hopes for the future in the ascendant. Part of that feeling is based in my own fundamental alliance with Freya's life philosophy -- it's not that I deny that bad things may happen, but that I refuse to live my life in service to the certainty that they will. Another part is my belief that the wisdom of this world-weary (yet world-loving) film is so eloquent and undeniable that -- as long as it can be seen by young people who might someday rise to positions of power -- our chances for survival should be in good hands.

Which brings me to my closing statement: This film has been out of circulation for too long. It's a profound pleasure, perhaps even a relief, to welcome it back.

3 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:23 AM

    please could u help me to find where to get this movie on dvd or a way to have it on dvd?my email addresse is steven.marchant@live.com thanks very much

    ReplyDelete
  2. It is not on DVD as yet, but a release is reportedly being planned as part of a forthcoming Sony box set.

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  3. There's a UK dvd available from Moviemail http://www.moviemail-online.co.uk/film/dvd/The-Damned-Losey-1963/?gclid=CLGUzozAjbACFYt-fAodn2Ojqg and Amazon which runs 91mins 23secs from first columbia logo to the fade out of the one at the end (Amazon claim it runs 87mins but I just checked mine), don't know if this is the same print (could frame rate account for the difference in running time?), but it's definately in full Hammerscope. It's a really good movie. Glad to see it getting some love.

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