Friday, 22 May 2009

The Damned
(Joseph Losey, 1961)

If you take popular culture as your yardstick, it is easy to conclude that Britain during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s was a pretty strange place. Perhaps it is simply due to a weird nostalgia for our parents era, or for the ghosts of the kind of society that was fading out through our own childhoods, but whatever – it is hardly news that the generation currently in their 20s and 30s have imbued the more evocative aspects of that whole era’s film, TV, design, architecture, radio, literature etc. with an inescapable aura of rich, fetishized, near mystical weirdness.

From old Dr. Who episodes and the original Quatermass & The Pit through to movies ranging from ‘Kes’ to ‘Psychomania’ to ‘O Lucky Man’ to ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’, to old BBC test patterns, ‘60s Penguin paperback designs, back issues of the Moorcock-era ‘New Worlds’, to new build polytechnics, ‘Watership Down’, Sandy Denny and the bloody shipping forecast, all these and much, much more are touchstones in a vast network of interconnecting reference points creating a psychotronic alternate Britain – mass subterranean nostalgia on a grand scale, enough of it keep the likes of Andy Votel and Johnny Truck cackling in basements for their entire lives, uncaring of whatever may have transpired since 1985. Not that I’m immune of course, as a card-carrying fan of all of the above (bar maybe the polytechnics); give me a white Bakelite typewriter to play with and some weird quota quickies about Telly Savalas visiting Birmingham, and I’ll be happy as larry. And I mean, I wasn’t even BORN until after Thatcher was elected. Whatever the indefinable textural appeal of Old Weird England is, it doesn’t seem to be fading as new generations with no actual memories of this era whatsoever take up the flame. Dare we say, it’s actually CATCHING.

In recent years, new creative endeavours arising from this morass of whatever (primarily in the musical sphere) have been dubbed ‘hauntology’. Slightly contrived and overly portentous I suppose, but as catch-all phrases go it’s not bad, and I guess it gets more bums on seats than just opening up a psycho-media studies department next door to psychogeography in the nighthaunted polytechnic of our dreams.

(And hey, when do we get around to ‘psychohistory’, the discipline that, as I recall, the dude in Asimov’s Foundation books used to scientifically predict the future or whatever it was? After that, what say we really freak out the square with some psycho-biology…)

But I digress; point is, oh my hauntological brethren, we have here a rarely seen film so rich in authentic British weirdness and such, it’s surprising that it hasn’t managed to yet bag itself a prime spot in the pantheon discussed above: Joseph Losey’s ‘The Damned’.

Director Losey was actually an American, who began his career in the theatre, working with Bertholt Brecht before moving on to cinema to helm a variety of low budget dramas and crime movies, before being blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Relocating to the UK, he proceeded to ingratiate himself with the British film industry, making a sporadic series of films of reportedly highly variable quality over the years, apparently countering accusations that none of them ever made a farthing by stressing his uncompromising approach and his rejection of Hollywood formula.

Both of these boasts, and probably HUAC’s interest in the guy as well, are certainly borne out by ‘The Damned’, produced for (oh yes) Hammer at the dawn of the ‘60s, with results deemed so unpalatable to a contemporary audience that the film didn’t actually see the light of day until it received a limited, and heavily edited, American release in ’65 (when ‘These are..’ got appended to the title).

Perhaps initially born from an attempt to cash in Wolf Rilla’s adaptation of John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ into ‘Village of the Damned’ the previous year, ‘The Damned’ is loosely based on H.L. Lawrence’s novel ‘The Children of the Light’, but Losey and screenwriter Evan Jones expand significantly on the expectations of their precursors, turning in an film that presents a unique mixture of chilling, anti-authoritarian cold war science fiction and teenage-orientated juvenile delinquency high-jinks, set against the backdrop of an authentically dilapidated South Coast seaside resort.

Filmed primarily on location in and around Weymouth, the films setting captures a sense of the town’s reality that can’t be faked, and which, combined with the definitive UNreality of the film’s characters and events, creates an atmosphere that is by turns eerie and positively surreal, whilst still retaining the odd sense of inertia and dislocation I for one have always experienced when visiting similar coastal locales.

After opening with a sombre credit sequence featuring a series of unnerving expressionist sculptures set against windswept cliff tops, we move to Weymouth’s promenade on a sunny afternoon. Joan (Shirley Anne Fields) utters the film’s first line of dialogue, as she strides past the war memorial, a switchblade stuck into her slacks looking like she just stepped off the front of a pulp paperback;

“What’s the matter, you never seen a clocktower before?”

I don’t know about you readers, but I was sold on this film from that moment onwards.

Her remark is aimed at Simon (Macdonald Carey), a world-weary American tourist who seems to have been casually ogling her. The film switches to a silent aerial shot showing the town from overhead as he apparently decides, what the hell, he might as well try his luck, switchblade or no, and follows her down a few streets, attempting to make conversation.

Little does he know, this is the signal for a gang of leatherclad biker/teddyboy guys to set out behind them. Joan leads Simon down a blind alley, where the teds rob him and beat him senseless. Joan looks guilty. “Are you happy in your work Joanie?” sneers one of the gang, and they leg it.

Accompanying this whole sequence is the film’s nominal theme tune, James Bernard’s ‘Black Leather Rock’, a song which is nothing short of insane. Sounding like a middle-aged soundtrack composer’s idea of the kind of music juvenile delinquents might listen to, it consists of a sort of light big band mambo, over which a crooner-like vocalist lustily sings “black leather, black leather, crash crash crash! Black leather, black leather, smash smash smash! Black leather, black leather, kill kill kill!”, etc. The track continues in this vein for several minutes with little in the way of variation. It’s absolutely hilarious, goofy and kinda hypnotic, and seems to be one of the things people remember most about the film.

Anyway, in turns out the biker gang is masterminded by Joan’s sister King (Oliver Reed), who seems to eschew the teddyboy look in favour of a tweed overcoat, driving gloves and a jauntily swung umbrella. Reed, in one of his first significant film roles, casts a magnificently menacing shadow across the film, his portrayal of King as a self-made thug with hidden depths seeming to prefigure Malcolm McDowell’s legendary turn in A Clockwork Orange a decade later to such an extent that it’s hard to believe Kubrick and/or McDowell weren’t looking to this film as a reference point. King’s style and mannerisms seem like a deliberate restatement of conservatism in contrast to his rocker pals, and indeed he seems to stand for a sort of hard-edged puritanism, sneering dismissively at his gang's irresponsible japery whilst enjoying an intense, quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister, controlling her movements and forcibly preventing her from associating with other boys or from having a life outside of the gang.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to the more sinister side of the film’s plotline, in the shape of Bernard (Alexander Knox), a nervous, haunted-looking civil servant who is in charge of a top secret Home Office/M.O.D. project based on the cliffs outside the town. Bernard is taking a spot of tea in a crumbling sea-front hotel with Freya, a bohemian sculptor played by Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors (yes, the cliff-top sculptures in the credits sequence were hers). It seems Bernard is letting Freya live and work in an isolated cabin on M.O.D. land whilst the two enjoy an ambiguous on-off sort of relationship.

Freya seems to like being a bit mean to poor old Bernard, despite his apparent generosity, but when she ribs him about the secrecy of his work (“they say when a civil servant is in danger of losing his top, he just starts stamping everything ‘top secret’..”), he becomes deadly serious, informing her in ice-dripping tones that if her were to utter but one word about his project, it would put her in mortal danger.

So something a bit rum is definitely going on, and indeed, we next see Bernard going about his business in another cliff-top portacabin, where, after the obligatory confrontation with some military hotheads (“I suppose you’d rather raise these children to be damned beatniks!”), he has his science guys set up some broadcasting equipment, and calmly delivers a daily lesson and question & answer session via video link-up to a class of unnaturally pale, well-spoken children who appear to have never seen any other adults, and are utterly ignorant of the outside world. Yes, it seems the British government have their own collection of weird children, whom Bernard is raising in complete isolation in a complex of sterile bunkers within the cliffs, reassuring them that they will have “an important role to play”, “when the time comes”. The children seem pretty bored and unhappy, no longer entirely satisfied with the vague answers they get to their questions. It seems they had a pet rabbit once, but it started to get sleepy, and succumbed to “the black death”. There are a lot of radiation suits hung up in Bernard’s office. What the hell is going on?

Viewers are left to ponder this for quite a while, as we return to our scheduled juvenile delinquent yarn. Joan has apparently decided that Simon, more than just another victim, could represent an opportunity for her to assert her independence from her dominating brother, and returns to visit him on his fishing boat, where he’s chilling Papa Hemingway style, presumably reflecting on how he doesn’t much appreciate having quit his high-powered job and travelled across the Atlantic in search of freedom, just to be bashed in the face by some limey punk with an umbrella the first time he speaks to a dame.

So one thing leads to another, as it is apt to do in the movies, and before we know it Joan and Simon are off on the run, skirting along the South Coast, with a furious King and his gang in hot pursuit, vowing to kill them good & proper.

As you might expect, this night-time chase brings both parties first to Freya’s cabin, where an increasingly psychotic King has a memorably existential showdown with Freya in one of the film’s best scenes, and subsequently across the barbed wire, through a hidden doorway at the base of the cliffs, and into the bowels of ‘the project’, where dark secrets are revealed, and the confused and over-excited children start to see the intruding adults as champions who can assure their escape.

And, in most other films, escape of some kind might be on the cards. But not here, as Losey propels the film’s various strands toward a conclusion so disturbing, chaotic and unremittingly bleak, it’s breathtaking. If the ending of ‘The Damned’, and the political/moral questions it raises, are still chilling and unsettling today (and they are), it is hard to imagine the subversive weight it must have carried in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is little doubt that this is the main reason such a fine film was shelved for years, only emerging in heavily edited form five years after it was shot.

Losey pulls no punches as, via a succession of increasingly disturbing imagery mixed with Bernard’s self-justifying rhetoric in a manner that seems to hint at the influence of Eisenstein, the film makes clear that nuclear annihilation is inevitable, and that the authorities, in their confused and inadequate preparations for it, are prepared to sacrifice all vestiges of morality and civilisation, in order to ensure that a crippled, mutated new strain of humanity may limp on into the post-nuclear age; a new strain which is already so mortified by the conduct of it’s bungling masters that it is ready to destroy itself rather than march in line.

You’re all fucked, Losey seems to be telling his 1961 audience with deadpan sincerity, and the lies and crack-brained scheming of your government are doing more to drag you toward the brink than the “enemies” and their missiles ever will.

Up to this point, ‘The Damned’ has thrived on ambiguity – it’s a testament to the strength of the intelligent, character-driven script and the fine ensemble performances that the whole thing seems like a real ol’ ripping yarn, despite the fact that none of the relationships between any of the protagonists seem at all stable or healthy, despite the fact that mash-up of different genre conventions renders the film’s tone bizarrely inconsistent, and despite the fact that the audience are kept in the dark about the main details of the plotline through most of the running time.

But, with the film’s conclusion, Joseph Losey really puts his cards on the table, marking himself out as a filmmaker whose radical agenda prefigures not only Kubrick’s work in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but the concerns of other uncompromising British directors such as Peter Watkins and Lindsay Anderson too, and all in the guise of a bizarre teens-on-the-rampage / science fiction flick that’s got to rate as one of the most startling, entertaining and compelling British films of it’s era.

I quite fancy the idea of taking a few trips down to the South Coast this summer. I’d love to hit Weymouth, soak up whatever’s left of the atmosphere, and see whether I can still hear that familiar refrain faintly echoing on the sea breeze….

Black leather, black leather, crash, crash, crash….


JRSM said...

OK, I must watch this IMMEDIATELY. Wow! This sounds mind-boggling in all of the best ways.

Stew said...

Great post Ben. I caught The Damned on BBC2 last summer as part of a Hammer season, but it's far removed in mood and style from the studio's usual output. At first I thought it was going to be a bit of tedsploitation youth gone wild corn, but Reed is so menacing, like an English gentledroog. It was this performance, more than any other, than made me understand why so many have said he would have made a great Bond. Also, Shirely Anne Field = swoon.
I'd really like to see this again and soak up the weird atmosphere. Considering his brilliant chapter on Michael Reeves et al in Lights Out For The Territory, I wonder what Iain Sinclair would make of The Damned.