Get Judge Daryl Loomis on a boat with a fascist and, I swear, they're going to have a stern talk.
The hate would grow contagious.
René Clément was one of the giants of post-war French cinema, but over time, after disparaging comments about his style from some of the next generation's filmmakers, mostly François Truffaut, and one monumental box office failure in Is Paris Burning?, his reputation didn't last the test of time. That's a shame, because the main film he's remembered for, Forbidden Games, is fantastic and representative of a very strong career. Now, we have his previously lost gem, The Damned, an early work that shows, once again, just how much skill he had to wield.
Facts of the Case
As the fight between the Axis and Allied powers comes to a head, things aren't looking so hot for the fascists. A disparate group of them, from a Scandinavian scientist to an Italian industrialist, board a submarine with a promise of sanctuary in South America. But with a traitorous soldier on board and a dishonest contact at their destination, not everything is as easy-going as these Nazi escapees believe it will be.
The Damned is a film just dripping in ennui; its high tension doesn't come from crazy action or danger, it comes from the pure existential dread that Clément bleeds out of the script, which he adapted from a story by Jacques Companéez and Jean Didier. When the fascists board the submarine, it's like they're entering some kind of hell.
These characters are fascists of varying levels of importance, from general to bureaucrat to schoolgirl, but they are all united in their lack of desire to answer for what their governments did. Once under water, the sub becomes a ship of lost souls. The war is not yet over, and most of the passengers still swear loyalty to the fascist movement, but they're running away to a promise that will never be fulfilled.
Their journey doesn't take up that much of the film's running time; tensions don't really start running high until they get close to their destination and an explosion injures Hilda (Florence Marly, Tokyo Joe), the wife of an Italian industrialist (Fosco Giachetti, The Dream of Butterfly) and the mistress of General Von Hauser (Kurt Kronefeld), both of whom are on the ship. For aid, they send a scouting party to kidnap a French doctor (Henri Vidal, The Gates of Paris). Once aboard, he knows his fate, so fights them with psychological warfare, causing dissent by manufacturing a diphtheria scare that acts as a wedge between the parties and tearing their little family apart, before they even have an idea that they won't get to leave the ship.
Clément uses the tight confines of the submarine in interesting ways. The narrow halls help to create tension, making it feel very much like something Hitchcock might have made. At the same time, though, he is able to give a sense of the sheer size, or at least length, of the place, making it seem at once tiny and massive. To do this, he gets an incredible tracking shot of the doctor walking from one end of the sub to the other. This was before there was a Steadicam to make this easy and this a long, technically brilliant sequence that also serves to give a rundown of the passengers as he moves past them.
The psychology in the writing is spot on and the performances are all very effective. He keeps things ambiguous, with shifting loyalties that never seem entirely on the level, and there are genuine moral questions that the characters have to reckon with. The ending is kind of stupid, but the story has too much momentum to really mar the experience. It's slow moving, but the great acting and near perfect staging keep it from ever seeming dull. This is a great film that, no longer lost, will finally get some much needed attention as it arrives on Blu-ray.
The Damned comes from E1 as part of the Cohen Film Collection. This isn't the best release they've put out, but given its obscurity, the disc is quite good. The 1.33:1/1080p image is nice and clear, with very good detail throughout the frame and almost no damage to the print. Clearly, there was a solid restoration job done on the film, though there are problems that remain with contrast that is often inconsistent and wavering, even within the same scene. It's not a deal breakerâ€"the image still looks very good, especially given its status as a previously lost film, but it isn't as gorgeous as what I've seen previously from the label. The sound is very good, as well, though nothing particularly special. The lossless, dual-channel PCM mix fares just fine, with solid dialog, music, and sound effects, but it isn't the most dynamic mix in the world.
There are only two substantial extras, but both are solid. The first is an audio commentary with Judith Mayne and John E. Davidson which, really, is better described as a series of comments about the film. It's extremely intermittent, a few sentences followed by a lot of silence, but those few sentences are almost always interesting and valuable. The total speaking time, though, probably runs little more than half an hour, so it's not as complete as it could be. The other is an excellent hour-long documentary on the director that is filled with outstanding and informative interviews that are well worth watching. The original trailer for the film closes out the disc.
Even if René Clément doesn't carry the name value today that some of his country's later directors have maintained, his work matches every bit of their skill and talent. Hopefully, the Cohen Film Collection's work on this previously lost film will help in the rediscovery of the director. The Damned may move at a deliberate pace, but it goes deep into the heads of its submarine dwellers and delivers the kind of psychological drama that could only have come from post-war France. Well written, beautifully shot, and expertly performed, this is great stuff and an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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