By Tony Williams.
This short, but concise 120-page monograph belongs to a developing series initiated by Auteur Publishing: Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV. Akin to those BFI monographs usually written by those carefully selected by the good graces of the BFI establishment, this (and other aligned) series offers opportunities for new writers to contribute their expertise to films either well known or marginalized over the past few decades. This study of Joseph Losey’s Hammer film The Damned (1962) is one such example of the latter category, a film needing closer attention both in terms of the director’s authorship and also within the cultural context of a British cinema that he spent most of his working career contributing to. University of Bristol writer and editor Nick Riddle has contributed a solid and coherent contribution to this series. The blurb also mentions that he has written jokes for BBC Radio 4. It seems that the contemporary British landscape is not bereft of such people, since I have come across another example of a film writer, also a stand-up comic, elsewhere within the Carbondale version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Perhaps Brexit, Boris, and Nigel have something to do with this British version? However, let’s leave such speculations aside and concentrate on the review.
The Damned (re-titled These are The Damned for re-edited American release) has long formed a challenging anomaly in the director’s career standing between his pre-blacklist Hollywood work and his later prestigious British and European Art Cinema ventures. However, the author supplies his answer to a riddle less challenging that that facing Oedipus with the Sphinx. He elucidates the film’s significance in terms of relevant issues involving Losey’s authorship, the contemporary cultural historical formation influencing the work, its unusual placement within the context of Hammer Studio, and its inherent claim to be regarded as a significant part of Losey’s work and not merely just a bizarre anomaly. Framed between introduction and appendix detailing relevant “stray elements” that often creatively disrupt any concept of film as a “closed system” (Colin McCabe’s now justifiably forgotten Screen “Classical Realist Text” theory notwithstanding), the monograph contains ten concisely written short chapters covering elements such as Losey’s role as a journeyman director in this period, cultural resonances, violence, absurd heroics and the damning nature of a heartless institutional British bureaucracy (similar to that depicted in Quatermass II) a significant issues structuring the film.
In his introduction, Riddle makes substantial claims for the film’s transitional importance that he justifies in following chapters.
Its theme of surveillance and its (arguably) heroic pessimism about the power of individuals to effect change anticipated the `political paranoia’ films of the early 1970s such as The Parallax View (1974) and The Conversation (1974) and its stylised rendition of gang violence, as many have noticed, foreshadow Kubrick’s use of similar imagery in A Clockwork Orange (1971. (9)
The author makes some critically astute comments about The Damned‘s significance that he will support in following chapters.
The Damned is an unstable film, filled with volatile elements – from its exiled director and some of its actors to its subject matter, its uneasy mix of genres, it inconsistencies and incongruities, even some of its accents. Its central incongruity – a lethally radioactive living being that can survive its own radioactivity – is at the core of all this absurd behavior, and far from being the `unacceptable science fiction premise’, as Losey believed, is actually…the apotheosis of all that has gone before. (10)
Although one French critic noted a laboratory abstractness in character construction in this film, Riddle refers to the alternative influences of Losey’s first feature, The Boy with Green Hair (1948), and how a common longing to connect existing between various characters display poignant, but telling, moments within the film itself (21-22).
Riddle pertinently associates the film with absurdist nuclear paranoia treatments of the late 50s that would reach their logical (or “illogical”) culmination in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Alexander Knox’s Bernard and McDonald’s Carey’s Simon (the latter not “saving the day” as his imported American predecessors, played by Rod Cameron, Howard Duff, and Forrest Tucker, would have done in the 1950s) display this in certain ways. These occur “not least in the logic Bernard uses to justify raising the children in isolation and killing anyone who discovers his secret – and it contaminates the notion of heroism, when Simon’s determination to free the children, even after he realizes that they are lethally radioactive to anyone they come into contact with, begins to seem absurd” (43).
Despite the collaborative nature of this particular production, can we also not detect the influence of a particular type of French existentialist absurdity typified by Albert Camus’s play Caligula (1938/1945) subversively “infecting” this text, especially by one of those blacklisted American aware of European associations?
It dramatizes the absurdity of the era, deals in the nuclear uncanny and its human consequences. It dramatises the absurdity of Cold War logic as practiced by the nuclear state – an absurdity expressed many times, but summed up thus by Masco: `…in order to prevent an apocalypse the government apparatus has prepared […] meticulously to achieve it’ …The children, with their life that is no life, represent the political state of existence that Orwell, in `You and the Atomic Bomb’, described as a `peace that is no peace’ (1945:10). (87-88)
Such are the many insightful readings found in this monograph deserving attention. While remaining unconvinced concerning the acting talents of Shirley Anne Field at this stage of her career (a feeling also shared by Losey and Michael Powell), I wish to cite one error that future editions of this monograph will correct: Michael Redgrave is not the father of the children in The Innocents (1961) but an uncle who has inherited their care that he wants to transfer to the governess (see p. 64).
Tony Williams is an independent writer as well as a Contributing Editor to Film International.