Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Damned (1947)

Director: René Clément                                    Writers: René Clément & Jacques Rémy
Film Score: Yves Baudrier                                Cinematography: Henri Alekan
Starring: Henri Vidal, Paul Bernard, Florence Marley and Marcel Dalio

After World War Two, when trade relations between Western Europe and the United States normalized, French film critics noticed a trend in the backlog of films made in the U.S. during the war. The style the noticed was dubbed film noir and almost immediately French filmmakers attempted to replicate the style. They didn’t need the gritty realism of the urban settings of the U.S., however, because they had their own post-war landscape to play against, as well as the stories of intrigue coming right out of their war experience. The Damned (Les maudits) is a terrific war film, part film noir, part suspense film, part psychological thriller. Before François Truffaut trashed him in print, writer-director René Clément had a tremendous reputation as a post-war filmmaker in France and had won six first prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, including one in 1947 for this film in the adventure and crime film category. Fortunately, his work is being rediscovered and his greatness is gradually being recognized.

The film begins with Henri Vidal coming home to Royan on the Atlantic coast in April of 1945 after the Germans have been driven out. But once back home in his room his voice-over in the present lets the audience know that the entire film is a flashback to when his fate was determined the very next day in Oslo. There, onboard a German submarine, ideological Nazi’s from all over Europe head for South America to start a new front. French newspaper man Paul Bernard, Italian industrial magnate Fosco Giachetti and his beautiful German wife Florence Marley, Nazi general Kurt Kronefeld, Scandinavian girl Anne Campion and her scientist father Lucien Hector, SS collaborator Jo Dest and his young criminal assistant Michel Auclair, are all believers in their lost cause, attempting to cross the ocean undetected to continue their efforts for The Third Reich. But first they have to pass through the English Channel and, when a depth charge goes off nearby, Marley receives a head wound that puts her into a coma. Without a doctor onboard they decide to stop in Royan to get one, and Vidal is one. But Vidal is also keeping a secret that could cost him his life.

The photography is excellent. It’s not Hollywood with its depth of focus, but it is effective. The scenes on the submarine are claustrophobic, though without the kind of realism that would come later with Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot because there is absolutely no movement in the interior scenes while the war footage of the sub shows it rising a plunging on the surface. The scenes in Royan and South America, however, are wonderful in their use of shadow and chiaroscuro lighting, as well as some great high angle shots and moving camerawork, which are every bit the equal of studio productions in the U.S. Henri Vidal definitely carries the show, but Paul Bernard is also very good. The French actors playing other nationalities are less convincing. One of the real treats in the film, in a small role as the agent in South America who is supposed to take possession of the cargo of Nazis, is the great French actor Marcel Dalio who was in lots of Hollywood films but is perhaps best remembered for his role as Emil the croupier in Casablanca. The Damned definitely suffers from its post-war financial limitations but, considering that, it makes the film all the more impressive. In the end it’s a terrific French film that takes on recent history with a lot of artistic flair.

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