Saturday 29 May 2021

The Dorset Riviera Touch… The Damned (1963)

The Damned is very much a film to be seen, for at its best it hits with a certainty of aim which is as exciting as it is devastating, and hits perhaps in a place where it is important we should be hurt... The Times, 20th May 1963

This film was on a list of worthwhile British films beyond the Powell-Hitchcock-Lean canon, prepared by Martin Scorsese for fellow directors Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino. Not sure what Quentin would make of the extensive scenes in Weymouth but the film gradually builds up to it’s quite startling conclusion, skilfully backing audience and narrative into a corner that fully lives up to the title, The Damned for the UK and These are the Damned in the US.

The film is directed by Joseph Losey, blacklisted and exiled from Hollywood in the fifties, and comes immediately before The Servant (1963), first of his collaborations with Harold Pinter, and a string of lauded films stretching well into the eighties. He moved to Britain in the mid-fities and this Hammer film is one of rare vetures into genre territory although he did have a hand in X the Unknown (1956).

Shirely Anne Field and Macdonald Carey

Based on H.L. Lawrence’s The Children of Light, by accounts a pulpier story, The Damned succeeds precisely because it avoids some of the more obvious tropes of conventional science fiction/fantasy and focuses more on character, realistic actions and believable consequences. It’s of its time, inevitably, and that “time” was as close to full scale nuclear war as we have probably ever come… so far.

On the front at Weymouth, with its stunning rows of Georgian buildings, there’s altogether more mundane violence at play as a gang of motor cyclists let by King (Oliver Reed) gather by the statue in honour of George III. An attractive young woman, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), walks along the prom towards them in almost indecently tight-fitting slacks and gets noticed by a middle aged but spry American, Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) who begins talking to her across the road. Simon walks with his very much younger new friend away from the front and is ambushed by King’s gang who have marched to the spot like prototype droogs.

The age of senseless violence has caught up with us too.

Kenneth Cope in helmet and Oliver Reed in jacket wait for the man

The gang skips off, all whistling the violence’s ever-present rock tune which starts off sounding like pure British fakery, mock ‘n roll, and gets more menacing all the time as its rhythms match the kicks and punches on Simons body. It’s Black Leather Rock by James Bernard (music) and Evan Jones (lyrics), and the naïve, repetitive lyrics soon turn bitter… Black leather, black leather, rock, rock, rock, Black leather, black leather, smash, smash, smash… and by the end of the film… well, you’ll just have to see. 

Simon is rescued by two gents Captain Gregory (James Villiers) and Major Holland (Walter Gotell) who help him back to his hotel where he encounters their commander, Bernard (Alexander Knox) and his girlfriend, Freya (Viveca Lindfors) a sculptor who is surely far to bohemian and for that matter, young, for him. Before Simon’s arrival, Bernard had been trying to get her to return to London and we don’t know why… clearly there’s more going on in Weymouth than mugging and fine art and, obviously, the martial and world-weary Bernard is at the heart of it.

Bernard Knox and Viveca Lindfors

Freya as played with splendid assertiveness by Viveca Lindfors, completely changes the tone of the film just as much as Bernard and his “Mysterious project”. She clearly does not approve of her lover’s secrecy or his links to the military, she is a free spirit and quite at odds with violence of any kind not to mention secrecy. She immediately takes to Simon with his jaded frankness; a man of principle who just hasn’t found anything worth fighting for yet. But her relationship with Bernard is fascinating, an artist who clearly has a deep connection with this man of deadly secrets.

Who ever I am, I’m not who you think…

Talking about our American friend… he’s visited by Joan on his boat in Weymouth Harbour; she’s not exactly contrite – the quote above echoing Albert Finney’s line from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning which also featured Shirley Anne. Joan is intrigued by Simon’s honourability as even if he tried to pick her up, he did offer his arm as they crossed the road; a common courtesy her strangely possessive brother would not allow. Sure enough, King and the gang catch up and there’s a tense face off before Joan gives them the slip and jumps onto Simon and his boat. A pursuit begins across the bay and over to Portland Bill, the huge rock housing a large naval base and a prison along the causeway from the town.

Decent actor Macdonald Carey, he was in Days of Their Lives for thirty years

It’s here that Freya has her workshop where she makes her tortured figures and it’s here where Bernard’s operation is… and, as Simon and Joan find out, its here where the film’s real mystery begins. 

Any bully can command obedience, only a gentleman can command loyalty.

Bernard’s base is populated by a group of scientists who speak to a group of children via video link. The children are living in an underground bunker and in isolation, they are obedient but questioning to which Bernard responds that they to be told everything they need to know when they are old enough to understand… After the film’s opening this is quite the turn.

The narrative strings are, of course, joined together when Joan and Simon are discovered by King’s gang and, in escaping by falling down the cliff, find a network of caves and Bernard’s children, who rescue them and start to reveal their secrets. There’s much mystery left and the ending is still startling.

Remote learning for the class of '63...

Dusty verdict: The Damned deserves its reputation as a smartly strange Hammer tale and normalises the science horror by spending a good deal of time of the human elements. Two key interactions take place at Freya’s workshop on the edge of Portland, one between Simon and Fiona who discuss their newfound love and ambition and the other between King and Freya as the conflicted gang leader fails to have a grown-up conversation with the artist… This later exchange sees both actors excel and it’s hard not to see the destructive battel between artistic striving and King’s traumatised fear/anger as being emblematic of the choice facing our race. 

Bernard has a different take on things and it’s one that’s a pertinent today as it was in 1961 when The Damned was filmed. It exists today in restored full-length Blu-ray at 95 minutes whereas the released cut - delayed in both the UK where it was cut to 87 minutes, and the USA where the censors took a further ten minutes off..

Art versus anger.

The sculptures featured were all by British artist Elisabeth Frink who not only donated them but also gave Lindfors lessons in how to build the clay. The actress’s skill made up for the rest and when she wrestles with King after he hacks away one of her sculptures, it’s amongst the film’s most convincing emotional moments.

Watch it for a thinking person’s Hammer and wonder at how little has really changed… and who is really damned?




There's an interesting comparison of book and film at Tim Lucas' Video Watch Blog!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A rare example, especially in SF, of a film that gets better as it goes along. Awesome cast all the way through (I think one of the younger bikers is Anthony Valentine), some killer lines and themes (it's implied that the experiment is failing anyway), fantastic ending. Some of the science is a bit dodgy, but what can you do?

    Hammer had this thing - don't know if it was intentional or not - that their serious films, at least until the mid 60s, were in black and white (eg Yesterday's Enemy and the co-production Ten Seconds To Hell); the same with their proper thrillers (eg Cash On Demand and Taste Of Fear). Whereas their 'Grand Guignol' horrors were all in brash colour.

    And good luck getting that bloody song out of your head afterwards!

    1. Darn it's just popped back into my head now! It's naff but it does prove the point!

      It does get better and is a strong film in spite of the wayward science in the fiction. I didn;t see that ending coming fro a while although it's pretty clear that there's no escape for the children any time soon - it's that helplessness that raises the story above lower budget items and, as you say, the acting is good throughout with even secondary characters given a chance to shine.

      It's a haunting film too all the more so for being set in Weymouth!

  3. It's a terrific movie. I'm now keen to read the novel but used copies are eye-wateringly expensive.