… actually the more things seem to work for me, the less I seem to be able to get what I really want done, because there is more pressure in me to do things I don’t want to do, and it also makes it much harder for me to wait.
- Joseph Losey (1)
I like him because he doesn’t like the world. It’s a good beginning.
- Freya Neilson (Viveca Lindfors) in The Damned
The on-again, off-again relationship between Joseph Losey and Hammer Films was routinely fraught with complication. He was first hired in 1955 to direct the half-hour short subject A Man On The Beach, a project one imagines Losey took on out of sheer desperation. Given its truncated length, it was not going to gain him much attention, but at least Losey’s name appeared in the credits unlike his first two English features, The Sleeping Tiger (1954) and The Intimate Stranger (1956). Part of the deal of his work in Britain was that he would be paid very little and would work anonymously. And so, The Sleeping Tiger was credited to a “front,” Victor Hanbury, and The Intimate Stranger to a pseudonym, Joseph Walton. Soon thereafter, Hammer’s success with The Quatermass Experiment (1955), an adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s science fiction-based television serial, led them to secure Losey to helm another foray in the genre, an original piece by Jimmy Sangster entitled X-The Unknown. At the final hour, Losey backed out, complaining of ill health, though Sangster intimates that the American star of the piece, Dean Jagger, declined to work with someone tainted, as was Losey, by the blacklist. (2)
In 1962, Hammer once again turned to Losey at a particularly fractious time in his routinely contentious career. Losey’s most recent feature, The Criminal (1960) starring Stanley Baker, failed at the box office, and he was thereafter unable to secure work. Fellow blacklisted expatriate Carl Foreman instigated the resumption of his affiliation with Hammer that was now internationally associated with the horror genre and work of a deliberately provocative nature. Apparently, in the years following their previous association, the company’s head, Michael Carreras, tried more than once to entice Losey to work for him, yet the required violence in the company’s material repelled Losey. “I think inner violence is far more terrible and far more effective both commercially and socially … I don’t like explicit physical violence,” he told Michel Ciment. (3) Professional circumstances did not permit Losey to be so choosey, and he accepted the assignment to adapt H. L. Lawrence’s novel, The Children of Light.
Losey possessed little if any interest in science fiction as a literary mode and consequently threw out pretty much all of the novel, except for the image of the gang of teddy boys, led by King (Oliver Reed). He felt the rough framework of the book might act as the vehicle for a commentary upon the proliferation of atomic power and the potential debacle that could lead from its irresponsible use by high-minded technocrats. What more immediately attracted him was the setting he chose for the piece: Weymouth, an out-of-the-way part of England that is bleak, wild and ancient, and associated by the literary with the novels of Thomas Hardy and John Cowper Powys. Losey envisioned the kinds of contrasts that could be drawn between the isolated seascapes that housed the cordoned-off research laboratory overseen by Bernard (Alexander Knox) and the urban hubbub of the town crisscrossed by the motorcycles of King’s cohorts. In his mind, alien as these individuals and their surroundings seemed to be, they shared a common propensity for violence: “one was paralleling different levels of the same society which in effect were, in their own way, doing the same thing: the politicians and the hoodlums.” (4)
Into this turmoil, Losey drops an innocent American abroad: Simon (McDonald Carey), a middle-aged, former insurance executive in search of a new beginning. He believes he has found one in King’s sister, Joan (Shirley Ann Field), although they meet when she acts as a front for the gang to mug him. Later, in flight from her sexually obsessed and seemingly incest-driven sibling, Simon and Joan, and later King, chance upon Bernard’s experiment. He has isolated a group of irradiated children in order to prepare them for survival against an inevitable atomic catastrophe. The interaction between the adults and children proves deadly, for the former are lethally radiated once touched by the juvenile band of test subjects. In order to avoid any revelation of his enterprise, Bernard brings about the termination of anyone who has come in contact with his children. This includes his girlfriend, a sculptor, Freya Neilson (Viveca Lindfors), who has interacted with all the other major characters and observed the forceful recapture of the children whom Simon and Joan attempt to liberate.
One can only imagine how hamstrung Losey felt himself to be by the potentially banal elements in his scenario: teenage hoodlums, irradiated innocents, power-driven bureaucrats and ineffectual men mired in mid-life crisis. He almost certainly was convinced he would have to fully exercise his imagination in order to transform these hackneyed materials into something even marginally memorable. Nonetheless, despite his protestations, I find The Damned one of the most effective and affecting of Losey’s films, resonant with the persistent “soul-fight” Raymond Durgnat observed in his work between the forces of energy and entropy, violence and passivity, emotion and enervation. (5) To my mind, far from being stymied by the requirements of a genre he disdained, Losey utilized what he thought to be onerous inhibitions to embody ideas and observations that might otherwise be vagrant and unfocused. In this regard, Andrew Sarris’s comments about Losey in his groundbreaking 1968 The American Cinema continue to ring true:
Losey seems almost more effective when he transcends conventions than when he avoids them altogether. Genre movies give him the distancing he needs to writhe expressively on the screen. By contrast, movies about Life and Time and the World seem to make him relatively subdued, functional and impersonal. (6)
Virtually all the commentators on Losey’s career, Sarris included, compartmentalize his body of material by separating the overtly commercial work as a hired hand produced in America and his first decade in England from the later, upscale films that brought him critical visibility and industrial prestige. They also erect a crucial barrier between the period before and after the release of The Servant (1964), the initial collaboration with Harold Pinter as screenwriter whereby Losey transformed himself from erratic artisan to art-house auteur. While it is irrevocably true that Losey established his most widespread fame through the releases that came after 1964, I retain my allegiance to the less arch and lacquered, more convention-driven and genre-focused material that appeared before. The artistry and effort illustrated in particular by the trilogy that Losey produced along with Harold Pinter – Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1970) in addition to The Servant – conveys to me a body of overpowering emotions compacted and contained under exceedingly rigid, almost anal discipline.
That reflexive urge to guard himself against the profanation of his artistic impulses had any number of causes. The blacklist loomed large as did the need to hide under pseudonyms when he arrived in England. The most immediate influence, however, had to be the evisceration, in his eyes, of Eve (1962) by its producers, the Hakim brothers. Twenty years later, in his interviews with Michel Ciment, he continued to castigate those “couple of peanut men” with all the considerable vitriol in him. (7) Having failed to watch out for himself in this devastating instance, Losey learned his lesson and, subsequently, guarded his flanks on all occasions.
I protected myself all the way, all the time. Although I try not always to protect myself too
much, because I think that if you don’t have any vulnerability, then you’ve got nothing worth saying. To protect yourself completely is to negate yourself completely. (8)
By contrast, Losey is wide-open, nervous system to the wind, in The Damned. His obsessions and anxieties resonate in every character and incident. The very core of the film focuses upon vulnerability and risk, albeit in the context of a plot that concludes that putting oneself out for other people or acknowledging the brutality of individuals in positions of power can only lead to a dire fate. Nonetheless, the film also makes it very clear that the alternative, if alternative it can be called, to taking chances is a kind of death-in-life, a state of being embodied by the irradiated children. Being forced to illustrate these dynamic and daunting themes in an audience-friendly and generically motivated mode paradoxically commanded Losey’s powers of imagination rather than crushing them. The picture may have been nothing more or less than a commercial assignment to Losey, yet he did not treat it as beneath him. His good feelings for the picture were not mitigated even when, as had happened on other occasions, the final product was held back from release in England for nearly a year, then cast to the bottom rung of a Hammer double feature along with the Psycho rip-off Maniac. Then, to add insult in injury, the American premiere was yet two years later and in a truncated form at that.
Unsurprising considering the troubled history of the film’s release, The Damned is presently unavailable on any commercial format. I fortunately viewed it on a letterboxed, time-coded bootleg of the complete print and concur with Robert Murphy that it comes across as “one of the most complex and interesting of British science fiction films.” (9) To draw this and earlier points out further, I want briefly to examine three elements of the picture: its use of physical location, its deployment of physical violence and the characterization of Freya. She is at the core of the narrative and one of the most well elaborated and compelling female characters in all of Losey’s work, a body of material not known for its vigorous and assertive women.
As stated earlier, Losey intuited how the contrasting settings of the out-of-the-way city of Weymouth and the surrounding seascape illustrated the parallelism between the crude and direct aggression of King’s assembly of hooligans and the refined and anonymous violence of Bernard’s minions, whom the children nickname “the black death.” His narrative correspondingly shifts back and forth from the waterfront and two-lane highways of the urban environment to the bare rock and institutional barracks of the military installation. There is no escape from violence in either sphere, no pastoral alternative to the bleakness of the run down city. The disharmony of the one place bleeds into the other. Losey emphasizes the deliberate continuity of worlds through elaborate and effective tracking shots that lead, in effect, nowhere. The Damned was the first film in which Losey employed widescreen cinematography. Arthur Grant’s Cinemascope compositions play off the horizontal lines of characters running across the landscape or vehicles racing down the asphalt against the sudden and anxiety-producing vertical intrusions into the frame of the helicopters associated with Bernard that hover overhead, spying like newfangled carrion birds over the trapped figures below.
Losey reinforces the sense of circular entrapment that pervades the piece through the effective opening and closing sequences. In each case, the town and the barefaced cliffs behind which the irradiated children survive are linked together through montage, drawing out an all-encompassing atmosphere of inhibition and isolation. Even the open sea that lies just outside their confinement, ordinarily an arena of liberty and self-determination, is coupled with the overwhelming atmosphere of defeat. In the final shot, we observe Simon’s boat, ironically named La Dolce Vita, cruising toward an unseen horizon as one of the helicopters hovers overhead. From an earlier comment of Bernard’s, we know that its pilots await Simon and Joan’s inevitable fate when they succumb to radiation poisoning.
This oppressive denial of alternatives and sense of life as a murderous moebius strip reminds one of the similarly circular construction of the subsequent Accident. This later film concludes with the off-screen sounds of the crashing car containing the ill-fated Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) and William (Michael York) as we watch the Oxford don, Stephen (Dirk Bogarde), reenter the home we now know not to be the sedate and untroubled façade it conveyed as the story began. The disquieting resolution of both these films reinforces Sarris’s characterization of how Losey’s material incorporates “time and again that psychic spasm, that futile gesture a character makes to register a personal protest against cosmic injustice.” (10)
The plentiful violence in The Damned comes across as yet another illustration of the narrative’s all-pervasive futility. For all their bluster and bombast, each display of physical power proves in the end to be ineffectual. The delinquents led by King appear to be engaged in a kind of adolescent role-playing. When we first encounter them, their leather jackets and belligerent tone are undercut by the fact that some of them wear children’s hats. Their leader engages in an equally incompatible costume, an adult’s suit and rolled up umbrella. King’s use of military language and the group’s lining up in formal procession strikes one as a mockery of discipline, not the genuine article. Even their roughhousing with Simon seems driven less by deliberate brutality than King’s oddly obsessive distaste for any display of sexuality. He allows his sister to flirt with men only so he can beat them up and force Joan to withdraw her affections. In much the same manner, Bernard’s efforts to keep his experiment with the children under wraps remain equally doomed to ineffectuality. The young guinea pigs question his authority, and his proposition that they can survive the world’s destruction flies in the face of the fact that more than one has died of unknown causes. For all the brusque and efficient business conducted by his troops, nothing will change the perception on the part of his charges that they are the “black death,” agents who embody the abuse of power. The military men come across as equally adolescent as the gang.
The efforts to counteract these contrasting figures embodied by Simon and his hope for a better future prove altogether futile. Well-intentioned as his efforts to liberate the children might be, he ends up only killing himself, Joan, King and Freya in the process and further traumatizes those he wishes to assist. The fact that Losey cast the American actor McDonald Carey in the part draws one back to the similar role he played in the director’s second feature, The Lawless (1950). In both instances, Losey makes Carey what he calls a “false character” in “an effort to express some sort of liberal middle way.” (11) When he first encounters Bernard and Freya, Simon observes, “I like to listen to people who know what they’re talking about. The only trouble is I don’t believe what they say.” That comment brings about the striking phrase of Freya’s I quoted at the start of the essay, yet, despite her admiration for what she believes to be the American’s prescience, Simon initiates little that one can admire. He preserves his misguided sense of optimism even to the end when he and Joan have nothing but a slow, agonizing death to answer for their efforts at heroism.
Nonetheless, despite her overestimation of Simon, Freya does embody the possibility of another perspective not based on either deliberate aggression or wishful thinking. Of all the figures in the plot, she is the only one who remains committed and engaged to a creative, life-affirming enterprise: her sculpture. When Bernard conveys to Freya the inevitability of her demise once she has discovered the circumstances of the children, all she can tellingly reply is that any further conversation will erode her little remaining time. The manner with which Viveca Lindfors conveys the character adds to her vitality. The mellifluous syncopation of the Swedish-born actress’s voice and individualistic tempo of her line readings draws attention to her idiosyncrasies. (12) Furthermore, when she encounters another character, Freya repeatedly makes an effort to understand their position rather than defensively promoting her own. She quizzes King when he intrudes upon her studio and treats him with respect until he lashes out by destroying one of her pieces. In one of the most interesting scenes in the film, a member of King’s gang, Sid (Kenneth Cope), breaks in upon her and initiates a dialogue about choices in life. Unlike King, he asks her about her art and, then, out of the blue, declares “I know this is kid’s stuff, knocking about in a gang, but what else there to do?” The necessities of the narrative don’t seem to permit the prolongation of this discussion, but Freya is the only character who would wish to delve deeper into the mystery of human motives. Losey says of her that she “represented the necessity and the right, if you can exercise it, to make your judgements on the merits of each case, which represents some kind of freedom.” (13)
Freedom is not a circumstance that exists in abundance in this or very many others of Losey’s films. By and large, he is a dramatist of deception and double-dealing, an architect of environments that entrap and extinguish their inhabitants. The visionary dimension of science fiction as a genre may have permitted him the opportunity to imagine an existence outside his customary cinematic purview. In a way, odd as it might seem, The Damned, for all its tragedy and desolation, alludes to the possibility of an expansion of the imagination that calls to mind Shakespeare’s The Tempest. One can conceive of Bernard as a twisted analogue to Prospero, Joan as Miranda, King as Caliban and Freya as Ariel. The touching moment when Joan and Simon lead the children out of their antiseptic, underground abode bears parallels to the introduction of a “brave new world” the Bard depicts in his final play. Unlike that work, however, the “sea change” Losey’s characters undergo remains altogether lethal. Despite Freya’s intimations of liberation, The Damned by and large confirms Bernard’s dire injunction, “It’s too late to do anything in private life.” Durgnat once characterized Losey’s films as being tragic but stopping just short of nihilism. (14) Whatever one’s view, in the case of this production, the “soul-fight” is won by the forces of brutality, and the innocent lack any means of protection.
- From Losey on Losey, edited and introduced by Tom Milne, Doubleday, 1968, p. 35.
- “There are two versions of what actually caused him to quit. The public story was that he caught pneumonia. I believed it at the time, firmly convinced that he’d been determined to catch something to get him off the picture. The other, more likely version is that Dean Jagger, the American star, refused to work on a movie directed by a man on the Hollywood blacklist.” In Jimmy Sangster, Do You Want It Good Or On Tuesday? From Hammer Films to Hollywood! A Life in The Movies, Baltimore, Maryland, Midnight Marquee Press, 1997, p. 32.
- Michel Ciment, Conversations With Losey, London: Methuen, 1985, p. 195.
- Ciment, p. 198.
- Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror For England, London: Faber & Faber, p. 251.
- The American Cinema. Directors & Directions 1929-1968, New York: E.P. Dutton, p. 96.
- Ciment, p. 224.
- Ibid., p. 215.
- Robert Murphy, Sixties British Cinema, London, British Film Institute, 1992, p. 185.
- Sarris, p. 97.
- Ciment, p. 203.
- It should be stated that Losey found her an exasperating collaborator, for Lindfors, trained at the Actors’ Studio in New York City, routinely strayed from the script and improvised. This particularly frustrated Alexander Knox, a stickler for line readings, and led Losey to confront the actress. He reported to Michel Ciment his harsh words led to her having a nervous breakdown that required half a bottle of brandy in order for the scene to be completed.
- Ibid., p. 202.
- Durgnat, p. 258.