April 19, 1945. The Allied Forces sweep across Europe, liberating cities occupied by the Third Reich as they push the enemy back toward Berlin. In Oslo, Norway, a hastily-assembled Nazi think tank boards a U-boat bound for South America, where they will plot the systematic brainwashing of the entire world according to Nazi ideology that the Third Reich may victorious even in their defeat. Meanwhile, a French doctor returns to his home in Royan following the city’s liberation by the Allies, unaware that he will soon find himself an unwilling passenger aboard this submarine packed with Nazi agents…
This is the setup to René Clément’s 1947 film, The Damned (Les maudits), a tense psychological thriller about the death throes of the Third Reich and one man’s attempt to do the nearly impossible: escape from a submarine at sea. Looking back on my experience of the film, I’m amazed at how consistently total the danger aboard the U-boat seems for Guilbert, the French doctor in question. That Clément manages to establish a nearly certain death at sea as preferable to remaining on the sub, speaks volumes about his ability to generate tension and utilize the claustrophobic submarine setting to its fullest potential. The Damned is equal parts suspenseful and exciting without ever feeling emotionally taxing in the least, and I honestly could not have peeled myself away from it if I had tried. So well-executed is the picture that even when Guilbert recedes from the narrative spotlight in order to more fully develop the tenuous relationships between the Nazi passengers, the film remains wholly captivating. After all, we as viewers understand that the greater the tension gets on board the sub, the more likely it is that Guilbert’s captors will dispatch him before they ever reach shore.
Along with Cohen Media Group’s releases of Tristana, Perfect Understanding and The Thief of Bagdad earlier this year, the release of The Damned for the first time ever on home video in North America establishes Cohen as an essential distributor of classic cinema. The Damned is quite simply one of the most exciting films I’ve seen in ages, one rooted in an inherently suspenseful concept that also explores how exclusive ideologies such as that of the Nazi party necessarily breed mistrust in others. If you’ve yet to explore Cohen’s library of Blu-ray releases, this is without a doubt the place to begin.
However, I should note that while the film may be nearly perfectly-realized in its own fashion, Cohen’s Blu-ray release of the film is slightly more troubled. The film was indeed re-mastered for the release, but it’s obvious from the final product that the film elements from which the transfer was sourced must have been in terrible condition prior to the re-master, as the image quality is somewhat inconsistent throughout. The most curious inconsistency I noted finds the image constantly shifting from straightforward black and white to a black and white slightly tinted purple or blue. Not being an expert in transfers, I can’t account for this personally. And honestly, it hardly matters in the long run, for after initially jotting down a note about this image shift I was quickly immersed in the narrative and forgot all about such oddities.
By way of special features, The Damned includes feature-length commentary with scholars Judith Mayne and John E. Davidson, Dominique Maillet’s 54-minute documentary about Clément from 2010 entitled René Clément or The Cinema of Sketches, and the film’s theatrical re-release trailer.