Noirvember: These Are the Damned
This past weekend, we headed over to the Siskel Center for a double feature of what they were advertising as a program of British noir. Although both movies had their merits, calling them noir was more than a stretch; that was particularly true in the case of the first, 1963’s These Are the Damned. (It was released in England simply as The Damned, and I suspect that its multiple name changes may have had something to do with its release date being not too far from that of the thematically similar Village of the Damned.) It’s one of those movies that starts out as one thing and ends as something entirely other, with a lot of very strange detours along the way.
Directed by American expatriate Joseph Losey, an underrated filmmaker who ended up in the U.K. thanks to the blacklist, These Are the Damned somehow manages, in its brief 77-minute run time, to cover at least six and a half different film genres, none of which are even remotely noir. It’s a real whiplash ride trying to keep up with what direction the movie is going, and while it never quite manages to make much sense, it definitely keeps you guessing, and offers some pretty pleasurable moments along the route, confused as it may be.
The Damned starts out like it’s going to be a youth-in-revolt picture of the sort that was popular in British cinema around this time: fickle Joan (Shirley Anne Field) is strolling around the lovely English seaside town of Weymouth when she gets picked up by a pasty dud named Simon Wells (veteran actor Macdonald Carey, phoning it in), a retired insurance man farting around Europe in his yacht. That’s when Joan’s brother, a vicious teddy-boy named King, pounds the tar out of old Simon and nicks his wallet, and his bomber-jacket-clad motorcycle gang tool around the city singing the ridiculous, and ridiculously catchy, theme song, “Black Leather Rock”, which you can hear here and never get out of your head again. Is this thing going to turn into a musical? No such luck.
Creepy old perv that he is, Simon gets picked up by a couple of Army guys in town and runs across a couple of curious locals: Freya Nielsen (a tremendous Viveca Lindfors), a retired sculptor who lives in a small cottage by the sea, and Bernard (a cold, heartless Alexander Knox), a mysterious authority figure who shares a past with her. They exchange some cryptic comments and get Simon back into shape, after which he encounters Joan again; this time she expresses discontent at her life hustling cons with King and his boys, and it seems as if she wants to hook up with the decrepit Simon after all. At this point, These Are the Damned looks certain to transform into a gross May-December romance, but it only stays in that mode for a brief while before taking its next, most bizarre turn.
King — played by a young Oliver Reed, who is both a terrific actor and smoldering hot — has, well, let’s say a very special relationship with his sister, which apparently was made more explicit in the longer U.K. cut of the film. He’s not going to let some American senior citizen in high-water trousers make off with his sister, so he gets the gang together and engages in hot pursuit, hoping to win Joan back and send Simon to a not-particularly-early grave. That’s when things get really, really complicated: trying to escape from the Black Leather Rock boys, the couple blunder into a secret military base inside the mountain where Freya’s cottage is located. Inside, they find nine kids, all under ten years old, who are being held captive by Bernard and prevented from having any knowledge of the outside world. They’re kept in total isolation, they have no idea where they are (one boy speculates that they’re in a spaceship, hurtling away from a ruined Earth), and the only other person they see is Bernard, who acts as their guardian and tutor from a huge two-way video screen.
By this point, the movie has turned into a deeply strange amalgam of cold war government conspiracy theory thriller and apocalyptic sci-fi nightmare: it’s revealed that Bernard is some kind of high-ranking government official in the intelligence services who is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that a nuclear war is not only inevitable but imminent. The children are mutated freaks of nature, born in different places and at different times but with the common trait of being both highly radioactive and immune to the effects of radiation; Bernard believes that they are mankind’s only hope for survival after the atomic holocaust. Once again, the movie changes form on us: it initially looks like it’s going to be an action-packed chiller where the kids are rescued through the brave efforts of Simon and King, and there are a couple of pretty good chase scenes at first. But These Are the Damned lives up to its title by not letting us off the hook that easily: everyone involved in the rescue is either killed or dies of radiation poisoning, and the poor kiddies are dragged back screaming to a life of eternal imprisonment, so soon after finally seeing the world outside.
It’s hard to figure out why, exactly, anyone thought of These Are the Damned was a noir picture; the only characteristic it shares with my favorite genre is the deeply fatalistic — well, let’s be honest here: despairing — ending. But then again, what else are you going to call it? It’s a little bit drama, a little action, a little thriller, a little sci-fi, and none of those things all at once. It’s not a bad movie; it clearly lost a lot of material in the cuts that might have made it make more sense, and a lot of the acting (Reed, Lindfors, and Knox aside) is pretty stiff. But it’s tensely edited, has some inventive action sequences, and is beautifully lensed. Neither fish nor fowl, it’s a movie that keeps you on your toes — right up until the moment it pulls the rug out from under you.