Damned, The (1963)

Note:- This review contains extensive plot information and Spoilers. Also it should not be confused with the movies The Village of the Damned or Children of the Damned.

Dir:- Joseph Losey

Starr:- Macdonald Carey, Viveca Lindfors, Oliver Reed, Shirley Anne Field, Alexander Knox, Kenneth Cope

Scr:- Evan Jones adapted from the novel by H.L. Lawrence

DOP:- Arthur Grant

Producer(s):- Anthony Hinds

Emerging at a time when the threat of a nuclear war between America and Russia was a very close and real one, Losey’s paranoid sci-fi thriller tries very hard to capture some of the pervasive fear of the time. The nuclear threat looms large over the lives of the characters in The Damned, but it is not the only element of early sixties British life which comes under Losey’s scrutiny. Youth and sexual rebellion are also brought into the mix, whilst Losey cannot resist a sly cinematic debate upon the value and purpose of art.

The various thematic concerns come together on a murky stretch of estuary, along ‘the English Riviera’, at Weymouth. Macdonald Carey’s Simon is an American academic and agitator interested in the hush-hush goings-on of a secret government agency, headed by the eerily rational Bernard (Alexander Knox). Having only arrived in Weymouth harbour moments earlier Simon immediately picks up young Joan (Shirley Anne Field) and thus crosses paths with her thuggish, yet dandyish, elder brother King (a smouldering performance from a youthful Oliver Reed). Badly beaten Simon is taken by the police to Bernard, who is also a local figure of authority. Bernard is busy trying to keep his secretive project under wraps, despite the questions of a lady friend, and sculptress, called Freya (Viveca Lindfors) and doesn’t really have time for probing Simon’s situation further.

After further run-ins with King and his gang of biker cronies, Simon and Joan manage to escape the town on a boat. Out at sea the couple hastily enact the various stages of a turbulent relationship: passion, love, rejection, enmity, hate and guilt. Then they opt to hole themselves up in a cliff side house, owned by Freya, that Joan knows. However, King and his gang track them down and the couple only manage to escape by jumping off of the cliffs into the sea. In the water below the couple are rescued by a small number of uncannily polite children, which reveals some of the diabolical cold and inhuman nature of Bernard’s ‘project’.

The future is all that Bernard (Alexander Knox) cares about. Indoctrination via education, makes The Damned one of the most cynical of sixties films.

This unusual movie begins with a chain gang musical opening, as ‘Black Leather’ sounds out at Simon’s arrival and Joan’s flirtation is viewed with psychopathic disdain by King and his boys. In Reed’s blazer clad King there is surely a little of the influence of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which was released just one year prior to the film. King is a violent rebel who isn’t nearly as amoral as the society that surrounds him. The close-cutting utilised throughout this opening sequence heightens the sense of threat, refusing to merely find a focal point in King’s unarticulated rage. Losey counterpoints the beating that Simon endures with Bernard’s evasive discussion with Freya about the nature of his ‘project’. The beating occurs on the busy promenade and the winding back alleys of the harbour, whilst Bernard and Freya’s discussion takes place over tea, in a quiet and stately shore front hotel.

Appearances are not to be trusted and the deliberate vagueness of the characters relationships to one another only further emphasises this fact. Under Bernard’s calm bureaucratic exterior, is a ruthless puritan spirit that will not let anything get in the way of the ‘project’, whilst Joan’s femme fatale figure is merely a young woman mistrustful of the men in her life and unable to get away from the jealously patriarchal influence of her brother. King himself is revealed to be a confused young man, frightened of what he does not understand, hence his vitriolic attack on Freya’s artwork, which actually becomes an assault on the very idea and purpose of art. Freya’s psychological unravelling as King sets about destroying her artworks, appears to suggest that art may be nothing more than an extension of the artist’s ego.

At the film’s core is a criticism of the way structures are utilised to maintain power and control. Bernard’s agency is involved in the controlling and regimenting of a group of young children’s lives, whilst King is carefully, cunningly organising his gang to cause maximum damage to whomever, or whatever, they come across. Even Simon can’t help but show a suitably chauvinistic side in his initial dealings with Joan, which later intensifies when he exhibits a cruel authoritarian streak when the children show a reticence to escape their underground prison. Bernard is ultimately the personification of ‘Big Brother’ government and bureaucracy, whilst King is both rebellious youth and mob rule – a mixture of reactionary and revolutionary. Finally you have Simon, the lone wolf freelancer, who deals with individuals and causes, looking for love and empathy amidst all the fear-inducing authoritarianism and immature anarchy.

The extreme stylisation of Losey's flamboyant and violent youth is reminiscent of Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.

Aloof from all of the other characters is Freya, the artist, detached from all but her personal aesthetic. It is this complete polarity that makes Bernard and her relationship so intriguing, if infuriatingly unelucidated. Knox plays the ‘Big Brother’ bureaucrat to perfection, showing Bernard to be wholly convinced of his enlightened stance. The actor uses his polished, lilting Scots enunciation to soothing effect, making Bernard the squeaky clean, and rather charming, face of authority, who ultimately puts the artist out of her misery when he shoots Freya and coldly watches her die. For Bernard it is the children that are most important, as they are the future and it is the future that needs to be fought for. The children’s isolation and confinement make them entirely receptive to Bernard’s ‘education’, thus ensuring that in the future it is his ideology that will dominate. Bernard is in fact the only figure in the film with a clarity of vision. Reed’s King is merely rolling on impulse, fuelled by rage. Freya, the artist, has a desire to transform reality through the power of elaborate sculpture. Joan and Simon are both drifting – both literally, when at sea, and metaphorically – but from different ends of life’s journey. Bernard is alone in having executed a plan for an otherwise uncertain future.

One of the movie's failings is the manner in which Simon (Macdonald Carey) and Joan's (Shirley Anne Field) relationship develops.

Losey’s determined realism is awkwardly conveyed through often excruciatingly stilted and empty dialogue. Simon in particular espouses clichés an platitudes at an alarming rate, particularly when all at sea with Joan. This apparent weakness in the film proves to also be the root of its main strength. The alarming pacing of the various relationships – particularly that of Joan and Simon – creates, seemingly effortlessly, a terrible sense of doomed foreboding, as if all the events are cascading toward an inexorable conclusion. Even before King’s hopeless run from the authorities the film has clearly established that nothing good is going to occur for these characters.

The children at the centre of the plot are both innocents and pariahs. Their painful discovery that they are doomed to destroy every living thing they come into contact with is perhaps the strongest moment of the entire film, until the harrowing concluding chorus of “Help us!”. Bernard’s treatment of the children is in some ways justified due to their predicament and could be construed as the actions of a pragmatic and caring father. Losey is particularly devious in the way disperses information throughout the film, making it difficult to get a real sense of what is occurring until almost the very end of the film. Intriguingly from the beginning of the film the audience is made aware of Bernard’s curious relationship with the children, who he converses with through a television set. Here the children appear to be in a classroom and Bernard seems to be almost like a deity. It is only at the conclusion of the movie that the true nature of the children’s predicament becomes apparent, and only then through the slow realisation of the adults, Joan and Simon.

What makes The Damned a real cult British offering is its excellent depiction of the cinematically underused Dorset coastline, creating a suitable sense of withdrawal from the modern world and its terrors. Weymouth, even in the sixties, comes across as a sleepy seaside town where boredom is the worst thing afflicting the citizens. The enclosed harbour location and the estuary land surrounding it also help to heighten the sense of isolation and remoteness, as if this were a place existing only in dreams and nightmares. This insular world that is so meticulously created by Losey and his cinematographer, Arthur Grant, through the use of tightly framed shots and a predominance of claustrophobically rendered interior spaces, means that the intense paranoia’s of a nation seem to be distilled and magnified. In many ways the film is like the young children at its centre: cold, removed and dangerous to touch.

Pros

  • The gorgeous black and white cinematography allows Losey to fetishise the strangeness of the children and the cruelty of the world above them.
  • Has one of the most authentically haunting and downbeat endings ever seen in sci-fi cinema.
  • Alexander Knox is absolutely immense as the very embodiment of fundamentalism.
  • Excellent use of the Dorsetshire coastline.

Cons

  • The script is, at times, unbearably bad, with some dialogue sounding more like fragments from a language learning course.
  • Losey’s deliberate withholding of narrative information results in a very confusing opening thirty minutes.
  • The relationship between Joan and Simon is always an awkward one and doesn’t help to engage an audience.

Rating:- 6/10