“Kinder der Eisigen Dunkelheit!” If those words don’t give you a chill, you may be one of ‘The Damned.’ Joseph Losey’s fascinatingly morbid reflection on atomic terror was too much for England in 1961, wasn’t released in the U.S. for four full years, and then only after being shorn of nine minutes of footage. An ‘impossible’ Cold War scenario puts military authority on the same moral plane as delinquent street thugs. Losey transplants his subversive sensibility to England, and the result is one of the top political sci-fi tales of all time.
These are the Damned
Explosive Media GmbH
1961 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 95 min. / Street Date June 13, 2019 /Sie Sind Verdammt / Available from Amazon.de
Starring: Macdonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Viveca Lindfors, Alexander Knox, Oliver Reed, Walter Gotell, James Villiers, Tom Kempinski, Kenneth Cope, Brian Oulton, Rachel Clay, Caroline Sheldon, Rebecca Dignam, Siobhan Taylor, Nicholas Clay.
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Sculptor: Elisabeth Frink
Film Editor: Reginald Mills
Original Music: James Bernard
Written by Evan Jones, Ben Barzman (uncredited) from a novel by H. L Lawrence
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds, Anthony Nelson Keys
Directed by Joseph Losey
Watch out for Sie Sind Verdammt! Almost a year ago the U.K. disc boutique Powerhouse Indicator teased the imminent release of another extras-stuffed Hammer box set, featuring the masterful Losey picture These are the Damned. But in the words of the inimitable William Shatner, it hasn’t happened yet. That makes the just-released standalone German disc from Explosive Media an excellent fallback item … the encoding defaults to Deutsche sprach but an original English language track and subs are on board and ready.
Viewers tend never to forget this movie, especially lucky folk that saw it on a big screen — it’s Hammer Films’ best-looking B&W production by far, an almost perfectly directed picture aimed squarely at subject matter that made people VERY uncomfortable in 1961. The movie features strange kids and has ‘Damned’ in the title, so the first misconception is that it has some relationship to the John Wyndham adaptations Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned. Not so — the source story is a hard-to-find novel that we finally heard a full run-down about from Tim Lucas over at his Video Watchblog page. The film’s first screenwriter was expatriate blacklistee Ben Barzman, and then Losey’s friend Evan Jones did a pass. The story is difficult to describe. Some audiences reject narratives that appear to change genres in midstream — for half an hour we think we’re seeing a Blackboard Jungle story, and then the show makes a left turn into a fantastic government conspiracy.
I’ve already sounded off about the show twice, in a 2007 TCM appreciation piece written before it reached home video, and a short blurb for a Sony DVD in 2010. Let me refer you to those pieces for the general run-down on the movie… so I can ferret myself deeper into the odder corners of Losey Sci-fi-ology.
Joseph Losey was never officially blacklisted, but he split for England when he heard that a subpoena had been issued for him — we forget that individuals that ran afoul of the HUAC were often deprived of their living and had their passports confiscated. All of Losey’s English movies speak to his experience as a political fugitive, but none as much as this one, not even the paranoid Time Without Pity. Losey had to take an altered credit on some of his U.K. exile pictures, and in his scramble for work in late 1955 he signed on with Hammer to direct the “Quatermass” followup, X the Unknown. But the blacklist reached out to squelch that assignment. Jules Dassin talks about being fired by frightened French producers, after threats from Hollywood, and Losey had already had a rough time in Italy directing Imbarco a mezzanote aka Stranger on the Prowl. Not long into the planning for “X”, American star Dean Jagger refused to work with the accused pinko traitor Losey, and he had to back out. Five years later, after building a U.K. reputation as a director of quality, Losey was back at Hammer with the Damned project. Hammer was lucky to get him. Filmed largely on location, the film has qualities seen in few movies from the horror studio.
Clearly finding the anti-Nuke message to his liking, Losey also saw personal significance in the tale. Macdonald Carey’s rather frumpy middle-aged hero (an uncommercial choice to be sure) is a runaway from America, apparently a conscientious objector to the materialistic Rat Race. Having been a big ad executive, Simon can afford to take a permanent vacation on his cabin cruiser Dolce Vita. Simon doesn’t have the answers, and knows it — he’s easy prey for the come-on of street bait Joan (Shirley Anne Field). Carey had a long career, but he’s best known for his performance in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.
Simon is a direct extension of a character in one of Losey’s best American movies, 1950s The Lawless. In that show the journalist Larry Wilder has ‘run away’ as well, from what is hinted as a corrupt news industry in New York. He’s taking it easy running a cozy local newspaper in rural California, until the outside press and local bigots target a Mexican-American kid for a lynching events, and he’s forced to take a principled stand. Macdonald Carey plays Larry too … they could almost be the same person.
Liberal movies forever ask us to become outraged at some evil injustice. In The Lawless Larry is victimized by a vigilante mob, while in The Damned Simon’s simple humanity insures his spiral into a vortex of doom. Neither movie offers any answers. Indeed, The Damned offers the baleful message that nuclear annihilation is a foregone conclusion, a statement that was VERY radical in 1961. Stuffy bureaucrat Bernard (Alexander Knox) represents a ‘responsible’ authority consumed by a Death Wish: since doomsday is certain, he’s not wasting your tax dollars on prevention or preparedness. The only preparations in the works are plans for a New World of Gods and Monsters. On the Beach and Panic in Year Zero lecture us about what MIGHT happen, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire makes a reasonably healthy pro-ecology statment. These Are the Damned is as hopeful as a coffin nail.
I’ve also in the past few years realized that Losey’s show is a thematic remake of his marvelous first feature, the Technicolor The Boy with Green Hair. Both pictures address the existential dilemma of ‘inevitable’ war, at times when society at large was stricken by political fear. Little Dean Stockwell lives in a Sesame Street- like neighborhood bliss until ideas about his lost parents and some posters of suffering war orphans cause him to spontaneously commit himself to ‘dangerous’ pacifist ideas. Dean is terrorized by bullies that take his hair color as a cause for persecution. He imagines that the children in the charity posters come to life — they’re ghosts of living children, dream manifestations of a crying need for humanistic intervention. The parallels between The Boy with Green Hair and These Are the Damned are weird in themselves. Perhaps Joseph Losey became the pre-eminent career example for the Auteur Theory, because his typical themes were so doggedly consistent.
Alexander Knox is perfectly cast in what might be his strongest role — corporate middle manager Bernard maintains his doomsday project as if it were a progressive summer school. Bernard exercises godlike power and authority over his brood of roentgen-enhanced moppets. As the sculptor and free soul Freya (Viveca Lindfors) observes, thanks to his Top Secret status Bernard is answerable to nobody.
After being imported as a Swedish alternative to Ingrid Bergman, Viveca Lindfors’ Hollywood years were mostly wasted. After Damned most of her roles were minor supporting work. Lindfors’ Freya is one of the most positive, forthright woman in ’60s films from anywhere — independent, outspoken and aggressive. Freya is committed to her sculptures but fully open-minded. Near the end it looks as if she’s on the brink of forming a relationship with one of the film’s biker hoods, Sid (Kenneth Cope of Losey’s The Criminal). Instead of a copycat beatnik or trendy hip-chick, Lindfors’ Freya is a rare fully-fleshed personality.
Other roles fare a little less well, perhaps owing to Joe Losey’s penchant for pushing the theatrics a few notches too far. Up’n’coming Oliver Reed would soon reach a stardom of sorts in Curse of the Werewolf; here he generates real screen menace as a promising wannabe. Unfortunately, Losey saddles him with a borderline unworkable character — the Teddy Boy King is a maladjusted near-psycho conflicted with repressed incestuous desire for his sister, Joan. As a bundle of hostility Reed does pretty well — but King’s cheap regressions to insecurity don’t wash. When faced with a common enemy, King finds it easy to take orders from ex-soldier Simon. He’s not too happy when one of Bernard’s ice-cold kids bonds with him… naturally, it’s a kid who likes to fight and has difficulties with his more civilized little comrades.
Shirley Anne Field isn’t terrible, but her casting as the street predator Joan seems a big mistake. Unlike Oliver Reed, Field exudes breeding and poise. She does not seem natural sauntering in search of a date-bait sucker, with a switchblade in her waistband (although that quality might have made her a good fantasy Diana Monti character). But no actress had better luck getting the plum roles — she was booked into a score of highly visible pictures, notably The Entertainer and the trendsetting hit Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Michael Powell was perhaps being perverse when he cast her as an overwhelmed, under-talented actress in his wicked Peeping Tom.
The movie is impeccably designed. The seacoast town of Weymouth is presented vividly, with its beachfront statues and a ‘Penny Lane’ like street crossing; the pub where the adult characters gather in the first scene is a dream location. The action on the craggy sea cliffs projects the drama into a Dali-like psychological landscape. Bernard’s top secret ‘establishment’ is straight out of Quatermass 2, and indeed similar music is heard when military vehicles roll through its gate. Bernard’s special personnel control the hilltop, while their unspeakable project is hidden in caves below, unknown to the citizens of Weymouth. If the Quatermass films and X-The Unknown invent biological invasions from without, The Damned sees a British shadow government invading itself with a defeatist, suicidal conspiracy.
Meanwhile, Freya occupies a weird guest-house bunker built into a cliff — might it have been a WWII defense site for ammunition storage? Freya has no idea what’s going on next door, but her art certainly seems intuitive — the (Elisabeth Frink) sculptures of what look to be charred people and animals address the exact same subject that obsesses her longtime boyfriend Bernard. Is Bernard really that perverse? Was he attracted to Freya because she makes representation of the horrors he embraces? Three years before Kubrick, Bernard Loves The Bomb.
Losey’s excellent direction maintains a high degree of menace, with only dibs and dabs of actual violence. Launching the film’s offbeat tone of suppressed brutality is the James Bernard song Black Leather Rock, an inauthentic concoction written by a non-rocker, to represent Rock’n’Roll as an expression of violence. It’s surprisingly successful, with a strong stomping beat and a dour, insensate lyric line. It always gets a laugh in screenings because it’s so audacious; audiences sometimes laugh derisively when King’s gang whistles it as a signal. But it’s the perfect counterpart to Bernard’s Quatermass- like nervous strings for the dreaded Secret Project. Audiences that think the show a bad mixup between a JD epic and a Sci-fi picture, must not get the connection: the street gang’s senseless violence is a mirror for the institutionalized violence of the cold warriors raising a brood of doomsday moppets. I eventually warmed up to the intentional ugliness of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but I still think that The Damned delivers much the same message about anti-social rebellion, in a less repetitive package — King’s Teddy Boy rules a squadron of Droogs, not all of whom are ‘happy in their work.’
The film’s stuntwork is really, really good. A shot where Joan leaps into Simon’s speeding boat, followed by a biker who doesn’t make it, must have been even riskier than it looks. And what’s the secret behind the crash of a Jaguar through a bridge? In one unbroken shot, the car passes us, veers and goes right through the rail. If the car was somehow remotely directed, the illusion is perfect.
The giant Sikorsky helicopters at the finale (top image) establish the rotor craft as an icon for science fiction — whenever futuristic business is being conducted, helicopters are a must. Spielberg abuses them by having them fly unreasonably close to the ground, for cheap visual impact — for Losey they buzz the highway with good reason. They’re extremely effective, and also dangerous — when one tilts after stopping King’s car, that rotor cuts really LOW.
Was there ever a film with more commercial-political problems? Pauline Kael wrote that she thought the film may have been quietly suppressed, a suspicion echoed by Variety. My feeling is that, on their own, distributors might have labeled the film a hard sell for a number of reasons. In no particular order, 1) it’s a big downer, 2) it’s a negative statement about England that might hurt tourism, 3) it’s critical of authority, the military, the government, 3) it’s anti-Nuke, 4) it’s morbid and defeatist, 5) it’s ‘cruel to children,’ 6) it’s defensive of loathsome street gangs, and 7) it’s perfectly pinko. If the BBC later tried to bury Peter Watkins’s The War Game, might some consortium of London toffs have persuaded distributors that Hammer’s production was just an unpleasant, uncommercial inconvenience? That last sentence would make the show a must-see in my book, but few of my favorites are popular hits.
This time through I appreciated Shirley Anne Field and Oliver Reed more, enjoyed the ‘you are in Weymouth’ realism of Arthur Grant’s fluid cinematography, and in general appreciated The Damned as a cinematic extension of the Quatermass ethos. Of the kids, Nicholas Clay grew up to play Lancelot in Boorman’s Excalibur and Kit Williams became a producer, but most of the others had limited careers.
Explosive Media’s Blu-ray of These are the Damned is a very good encoding of Sony’s HD transfer of the uncut 1961 picture. It’s one of those Columbia titles that received excellent restoration attention in the 1990s — I heard the stories of its full-length revamping from the same close associate that ‘saved’ the long cut of Night of the Demon.
Should U.S. disc buyers go for this release, knowing that an Indicator disc will be on the way in a year or so, perhaps sooner? That’s an individual call. At the moment it’s the only option out there in Blu-ray. The picture is fine, with just a bit of instability in the optical opening. I saw no scratches or damage and the grayscale of blacks looks correct. The strong audio beats the DVD encoding, no contest. I did opt to use the subtitles during some of the quieter dialogue moments, but that may be due to my changing hearing. Yes, Indicator may allocate more bit-space to the encoding, and they’ll likely come up with especially special extras.
Like I said, the disc is fully compatible with Region A players and has full English language options. It is primarily intended as a German release, so all the menus, the liner text, etc. is in German (but easy to navigate anyway). I contributed a liner note essay for the disc’s insert pamphlet — translated into German!
I’ve never seen attractive ad material for this show, in any form — a gallery has some lobby cards for an Italian release carrying the title Hallucination. The American poster used for Explosive’s front cover is one of the ugliest ever — it all but screams ‘go away, you don’t want to see this.’ The show could have used some kind of abstract image, the Saul Bass sell. Or in the middle ’60s, was the ‘arresting graphic’ sell becoming old hat as well?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
These are the Damned (Sie Sind Verdammt)
Sound: Excellent, English, German
Supplements: trailer, photo gallery, essay by Glenn Erickson.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, German (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 3, 2019
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Here’s Joe Dante on Losey’s incendiary classic –