Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Damned (1961, Joseph Losey)

Quixotic and capricious he may have been, but former Hollywood enfant terrible and bete noire of the conservative classes Joseph Losey has left behind him an astonishing celluloid legacy - whether one is thinking of immaculate psychodramas such as the Dirk Bogarde vs James Fox spectacular The Servant (1963) or the Harold Pinter authored Accident (1967), the Paths of Glory-esque meditation upon the futility of war and the follies of the militaristic mindset King and Country (1964), or the romantic sweep of L. P. Hartley adaptation The Go-Between (1971).  Perhaps there are folks out there who really dig the pop-art groove and Swinging Sixties psychedelic spy spoofings of Modesty Blaise (1966) (i know i do), or even those demented enough to have a thing for the abortive adaptation of Tennesee Williams' play 'The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore' Boom! (1968) (i suppose watching Richard Burton and Liz Taylor embarrassing themselves might appeal to some).  But enough of this past is prologue preamble!  We are here for other things.
 After making his first feature The Boy With Green Hair (1948), an allegory of the outsider in society and the tragedy exhibited by unreasonable prejudice starring a young Dean Stockwell (yes, Al from Quantum Leap [1989 - 1993], but also The Werewolf of Washington [1973]), and the US English language remake of Fritz Lang's silent Teutonic masterpiece M (1951), Losey soonafter found himself subjected to the interrogations of the McCarthyites of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the grand auto-da-fe of the Torquemadas of the right wing.  Refusing to kowtow to the Committee (his leftist sympathies were well known - he once described Astaire-partnering actress / dancer Ginger Rogers as 'one of the worst Red-baiting, terrifying reactionaries in Hollywood'), Losey left the US to work in the UK.  The Hollywood Hawks' loss was our gain.
 Losey worked in Britain the the '50s under a number of pseudonyms  (including 'Victor Hanbury' for 1954's The Sleeping Tiger) before working with the burgeoning Hammer Films in 1955 and directing under his own name the 29 minute short A Man on the Beach (starring Sir Donald Wolfit of Blood of the Vampire [1958], he did other important stuff too, probably).  this would lead to Losey being employed again by Hammer, after the initial rush of blood to their collective Carreras / Hinds heads from the sci-fi / horror success of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), to direct a rushed and unofficial 'semi-sequel' entitled X: the Unknown (1956).  This effective Scottish-set chiller (featuring a very young 'Jamie off Doctor Who' Frazer Hines) sadly wasn't completed by Losey after the imported American star of the film (following Hammer's utilisation of the inebriated stylings of Brian Donlevy as Quatermass) Dean Jagger's protestations at working with a man he considered a Communist sympathiser led to his replacement by Ealing Studios' Leslie Norman.

However, Losey's work for Hammer would lead just a few years later to them engaging his talents to direct one of my favourite movies - The Damned.
 Adapted from H. L. Lawrence's novel 'The Children of Light' by Evan Jones (and originally entitled On the Brink), the film begins with yet another American Actor in London, Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey).  Wells is wandering around a south coast town (that they forgot to close down) and generally messing about on his moored boat, as well as a scene in which he regards a war memorial on the promenade - leading to some speculation that Wells is a veteran of the Second World War, fitting in with the film's subtle (and sometimes not so much) themes and ruminations upon warfare, violence and the apocalyptic omnipresence of the Third World War (come, come, nuclear bombs).  Here Simon encounters a young woman named Joan (Shirley Anne Field), who is the bait for a mugging by her elder brother King (the always awesome Oliver Reed, giving full vent to his animalistic violence [well, maybe not so much as in The Curse of the Werewolf (1960), but you get what i mean] in a Brandoesque role) and his gang of street toughs.  'Black Leather, Black Leather' indeed.

 After recovering from his assault, Wells soon finds Joan latching onto him to escape the controlling and incestuous nature of her violent brother.  Their fleeing, and King in hot pursuit, leads to sanctuary (ha!) in the surrounds of a top secret military project run by icy scientist Bernard (Alexander Knox) to breed a race of cold-blooded radioactive children who will one day emerge from their hermetically-sealed world (their home sweet prison) to inherit a world laid waste by the nuclear fallout of World War Three.  These chilling wunderkinder Children of Light have been told that they are aboard a spaceship heading to a new world that they are to colonise (cough, Doctor Who - Invasion of the Dinosaurs, cough).
There is a similarity to be read into the twin threats of both King and Bernard.  Although this seems ludicrous at first (Bernard is a cultured and refined educated man, in seeming binary opposition to King's gangland sociopathy), at least King is an honest threat to makes no pretension about the things that he does, whereas Bernard's gentility masks the fact that not only he as much of a controlling monster as King - a scientist who experiments upon children like an animal vivisectionist in order to achieve his scientific goal.  Bernard does not allow his work to be restricted by morality - and his immoral amorality is seeded long before his brutal gunning down of his artist girlfriend Freya (Viveca Lindfors) once she has discovered his work.
 The film ran into a great many troubles, firstly with Losey's legendary intransigence over final cut hitting the roadblocks of the BBFC in 1961 over their requesting of the editing of the scene wherein King beats Wells.  The cuts, along with others made by Hammer against the auteur's wishes, were finally made for a UK release two years later in 1963, shorn from 96 to 87 minutes.  An American release took even longer, whether it be due to Losey's Stateside reputation, the anti-government nihilism of the film's theme, a general H-Bomb paranoia of the times or a combination of these.  It finally emerged in 1965, shorn of a further ten minutes, under the title of These Are The Damned.
 This troubled history has led to a tragic neglect of this opus, as far as i'm concerned.  It has been neglected by Hammer film scholars who concentrate more on the studio's more famed Gothic horror output as well as by film historians in general.  Like a neglected child locked in the cellar (or, perhaps, a seaside cave bunker) someone has to love it.  I do.

A fantastic fatalistic fantasy.


  1. 'Quixotic' is one of my favourite words. However, bĂȘte noire is problematic, and should be replaced by a GIF of Iain Duncan Smith ecstatically cheering the cuts to the welfare budget.

    Harold Pinter wrote a film? Was it semi-comprehensible and filled... with long... pauses? Because it's cheating to write a 90 minute film if 45 of the minutes are just people staring at each other.

    If you write a review of the Modesty Blaise film I'll link to it from the wiki.

    I should probably watch The Boy With Green Hair at some point, because I think that 2000 AD might be referencing it in one of their current strips, which also contains yet another parody of Margaret Thatcher.

    Ironically, 'Huac' looks like a Vietnamese word. And the idea of something being classed as 'un-American' and therefore banned is itself un-American. You'd never guess it was a country founded by people who fled from oppression and stole the Native Americans' land so they'd have a place to live where they (those who fled) would be free.

    The phrase is 'off of', as in "Jamie off of Doctor Who."

    I suppose "come, come nuclear bombs" is one of those popular music references you youngsters with your phonographs are so fond of making, but I'm afraid it just makes me think of 'maranatha', the end of Jane Eyre and Yeats.

    It's not evil if you do it for science. Like Mengele.

    Wait, it's a film about incest and people experimenting on children, and the bit the censors had problems with was somebody being beaten up?

    The poster is totally wrong, because it's the adults we should be scared of, not the children. Apart from anything else, the children don't have nuclear bombs. Only sane and important adults are allowed access to nuclear bombs. Still, I suppose people remembered those poor little gits in the Hitler Youth. What it makes me think of is the primary school kid whom Tristram Hunt interviewed, who said that if he could vote he'd vote Ukip to, "like, get all the foreigners out."

    A friend of the family was surprised to hear the other day that my great-great-grandfather was an immigrant tailor who came to England from County Mayo after the Irish famine. Did she think that the name 'McGough' was Anglo-Saxon?

  2. I'm glad that you're Pinterested in 'Accident'. I assume that's what that Pinterest website thing is about, i dunno.

    'Off of' rather than 'off' or 'from' is a 'Muricanism i sometimes use just to amuse myself, but i think i was almost in semi-serious mode here. Frightening. It doesn't happen often.

    I'd like the Mengele gag, but it's doubtless problematic.:p

    The whims and caprices of the British censor can never be computed. The time that BBFC head James Ferman told Tobe Hooper that, yes, both you and i might understand what 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' is about, but a welder from Leeds for example might not,so banned it is, springs to mind.

  3. Even if you're being semi-serious in your review, it won't stop me from being flippant in my comments :-P

  4. Ah but did Ginger do her red baiting backwards and in high heels?

    Fascinating stuff, and actually I saw this film featured on a UK doco about British SF from about 6 or 7 years ago, it looked quite heart wrenching. So it's not totally been forgotten.