As Hammer Studios rode the transition from the Fifties to the Sixties, the father-and-son leadership team of James and Michael Carreras made several efforts at ‘prestige’ pictures, reaching beyond the excellent thrillers and horror films that were the studio’s bread and butter.
Hammer bravely tackled pedophilia in Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1960) and came up just short of several BAFTAs with the portrayal of British war crimes, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959). Both movies still have the power to disturb. Then, in 1961, Hammer undertook a ban-the-bomb picture in Joseph Losey’s The Damned … and got an art-house film far beyond what the studio had bargained for. (Hammer had previously courted Losey to make 1956’s X The Unknown but McCarthyite star Dean Jagger vetoed the Communist director.)
The key decision was to sign expatriate American Losey, already an auteur director in many critics’ eyes, to helm this anti-nuclear work of dystopia in which the good guys lose and the curse of the atomic bomb looms over everything. Losey tossed out the Hammer-commissioned script of fellow blacklist victim Ben Barzman and set Evan Jones speedily to work on a replacement. He also brought in a non-Hammer ensemble of actors and technicians (Oliver Reed being the only familiar Hammer face), as well as—in characteristically obdurate fashion—going over schedule and budget. For a studio that notoriously counted every shilling, this was a cardinal sin. What resulted has been dubbed “the strangest film to come out of Hammer Studios,” although in a complimentary way.
However, Hammer didn’t think so. It ordered additional scenes filmed and even then was unsatisfied. The movie was recut twice, then sat upon for two years in England, and four in America. These Are the Damned (to use its U.S. title and differentiate it from Luchino Visconti’s meretricious Nazi epic, The Damned) was then tossed out on the bottom half of double bills. A few American reviewers realized These Are the Damned’s prescient nature but it remained mainly the province of Losey scholars and university film societies before being rediscovered through home video, most notably in Powerhouse Films’ 2019 Blu-Ray reissue.
By the time, These Are the Damned was released (or more accurately, escaped) into cinemas, Losey had made his breakthrough film, The Servant (1963) and Hammer had pulled back from upscale aspirations—and discovered the joys of mascara-red blood and lots of it. There would be plenty of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy films, some of them quite stylish, but no more pictures like Yesterday’s Enemy (also on Powerhouse) or These Are the Damned. Our loss.
Figure Studies in a Landscape
To the skirling strains of flutes in James Bernard’s score, Arthur Grant’s camera—in glorious Hammerscope—scans the barren seaside cliffs of southern England and over the outdoor studio of the sculptress Freya (Viveca Lindfors), whose misshapen creations look the like the irradiated victims of Hiroshima. This cryptic opening is disrupted by an abrupt transition to the bourgeois resort town of Weymouth and the rude strains of ‘Black Leather Rock.’ It summarizes the rough credo of King (Oliver Reed, The Devils) and his teddy boys.
“Black leather, black leather, smash, smash, smash!
Black leather, black leather, crash, crash, crash!”
King himself is destined to crash before the picture is over but right now he’s riding roughshod over Weymouth, where the lone bobby on the street is helpless against King and his seven followers. They behave like overgrown children and, in their way, as just as “damned” as the radiation-infected adolescents we will later meet. As ‘Black Leather Rock’ pounds the soundtrack, Losey pans down the Weymouth clock tower, debased with a festoon of Christmas lights, past the disapproving profile of Queen Victoria, and over to Simon Wells (MacDonald Carey, Losey’s The Lawless), whose suit and white, floppy hat makes him look for all the world like Jacques Tati’s hapless Mr. Hulot. Like Hulot, Wells is also on holiday and as Joan (Shirley Anne Field, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) saunters by, she picks him up with an insouciant double-entendre: “Never seen a clock tower before?”
(That introductory shot of the Victorian clock tower would be riffed upon at the very beginning of The Servant. There, Losey starts on the royal British coat of arms. He then pulls back—and back—to reveal that it is the centerpiece of the marquee of Thomas Crapper & Sons, famous purveyors of You Know What. So this is what the British Empire has come to, he seems to say.)
Losey now executes a reverse of him downward-and-right pan, moving left across King (whose signature umbrella is suspended on the phallic horn of a sculpted unicorn) and his teddy boys then upward along a statue of King George III, supremely oblivious to the violence that is hanging in the air. Joan functions as King’s “honey trap” and Simon is her mark. She signals King with a couple of phrases of ‘Black Leather Rock,’ whereupon the gang pounces on Wells, robs him, and kicks him senseless, all with cold indifference.
We now meet the other, more powerful couple in the story, Bernard (Alexander Knox, Accident) and his lover Freya, whom he greets with a brusque, “You go back to London!” Bernard has more than his share of secrets to keep, yet he allows Freya to maintain her studio right over the cliff from his top-hush installation. For the moment, all we know is that Freya has brought Bernard another of her morbid, raven-like bird sculptures (“My graveyard bird.”), which he is only too happy to receive. Despite being named after the Nordic goddess of spring and fertility, Freya’s preoccupations are as morbid as Bernard’s. He is the real power in Weymouth, symbolized by his right-hand men, Major Holland (Walter Gotell, The Stud) and Captain Gregory (James Villiers, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb).
Freya: Captains and majors. Do they both belong to you?
Bernard: Aye and I keep a pet colonel in the kennel at home.
As you can see, Evan Jones’ screenplay—which devotes far more time to character development than the average Hammer script—verges on poetry and it would be sorely tempting to simply reprint it. Brought to Bernard by his underlings, Simon explains his philosophy to the scientist: “I like listening to people who know what they’re talking about. My trouble is I never believe anything they say… The people who know all the answers are much happier.” Prophetic words that will come back to haunt him later. They’re echoed in the name of his yacht, Dolce Vita, both a nod to Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece of modern spiritual malaise and an expression of Simon’s hedonistic outlook.
Freya: I like him because he doesn’t like the world. It’s a good beginning.
Bernard: It’s hardly enough.
Freya: I agree.
Alluding to Bernard’s “military friends,” Freya now addresses the meat of the story, Bernard’s “mysterious project … When a bureaucrat wants to keep his job he stamps everything ‘Top Secret.’” Bernard doesn’t disagree even though Freya says “I hate your secrets,” but issues a not-so-veiled warning not inquire any further.
The love/hate dynamic between Bernard and Freya is nothing compared to that between Joan and King. They grew up rough on the streets, which forged a close bond—too close in King’s case. Commentators on the film frequently refer to King’s attachment to Joan as “almost incestuous” but there’s nothing “almost” about it and King’s pathological jealousy of Joan’s growing interest in Simon will be the lethal mainspring that drives the plot. (Joan was even locked in a closet for a week by King for dating another man.) With King in hot pursuit, Joan corners Simon aboard Dolce Vita and begins to strip off to further arouse Wells’ interest.
Joan: It takes two to play pretty little games.
Simon: Now look, I invited you for a drink.
Joan: You didn’t. You didn’t invite me anywhere. To you I’m a little tart who you picked up on the street.
Simon: Well who are you, Lady Godiva?
Joan: That would make you Peeping Tom.
Simon’s reductive view of women is expressed by his “With a figure like that you don’t need to a name.” Still, when King’s gang shows up and threatens Wells at knifepoint, Joan throws in with the American, leaping aboard Dolce Vita as it pulls out of the canal. King dubs Wells “Simple Simon” (an apter nickname than we realize at the moment) and vows hotly, “When you come back to shore, Simple Simon, you’re a dead man.” Not that Wells is any great improvement on King. Once at sea, he forces himself upon Joan (“You’re just what King said you were”). Simon belatedly apologizes for being “clumsy and brutal” but doesn’t ease up on his oafish courtship, which is visually punctuated by Dolce Vita’s American flag—Losey cocking a snook at his former homeland.