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A French Post-War Thriller From 1947: Had the Potential To Be A Claustrophobic Classic, But Left Me Largely Uninvolved
on August 8, 2013
Of all the recent releases on the DVD/Blu-ray market, I was particularly excited to catch the debut of "The Damned" by French filmmaker René Clément. Clément was one of the strongest post-WWII era directors to emerge from France with a resume that included such fantastic classics as "Forbidden Games" and "Purple Noon" (both of which I own). I had never heard of the "The Damned," but I was eager to experience the 1947 wartime thriller. Despite my enthusiasm, however, the movie never really connected with me. It is a serviceable entertainment, to be sure, but I found its shifting narrative perspective a bit awkward. Ostensibly the story is told from the vantage point of a French doctor co-opted onto an enemy sub. At times, he is the film's narrator which can provide a claustrophobic and harrowing effect as he tries to figure out what is going on. Many more times, though, the screenplay simply abandons this viewpoint whenever convenient for the story. More problematic (for me) is the lack of character development. I simply never felt close enough to the protagonist to really get caught up in his plight. It's a shame too, because the story itself is intriguing. It all just felt a little undercooked.
The movie kicks off in promising fashion. Near the end of the war, an assortment of characters associated in some way with the Reich (either specifically or as sympathizers) are boarding a submarine bound for South America. Sometimes they allude to a mission, most of the time it appears to be an evacuation. Whichever, it remains relatively vague throughout. Among the passengers are an Wehrmacht General, an Italian businessman with his wife (who also happens to be the General's mistress), a ruthless SS leader and his personal assistant (wink, wink), a French reporter, and a scientist and his daughter. When an accident incapacitates one of those fleeing, the sub makes an unscheduled stop at a French village to recruit a doctor. This new prisoner soon sets his sights on escape, but the submarine offers little hope of survival. Along the way, we see the environment take its toll on everyone as the trip loses its allure for several of the principle characters. Sometimes focused on the doctor, sometimes on the others, neither avenue is explored in much depth. When you put a cast of volatile and diverse characters into close quarters, you always have the makings for great drama. I never felt like "The Damned" took real advantage of this.
In the end, the movie does stage an over-the-top finale that wasn't particularly convincing. The potential for searing human drama was evident throughout, but I always remained emotionally distant from the proceedings. Still, if you are a fan of Clément, this might be worth a look. The movie is alright, but the Blu-ray release also has a couple of great bonus features. A feature length documentary from 2010 called "René Clément or The Cinema of Sketches" provides additional insight into the director's legacy and an audio commentary with film scholars Judith Mayne and John E. Davidson is interesting and informative. While, obviously, I wasn't in love with "The Damned," I still think it's great that the film was discovered and released for Clément enthusiasts. As one of his earlier works, it shows the promise of what was to come. Overall, though, the film is not something I would revisit with frequency (if at all) but am glad I had the opportunity to see it once. KGHarris, 8/13.