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Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned is the kind of film that advocates of commercial culture like to use as evidence of the power of the popular. It is also nearly unique in offering the work of a high art auteur working in exploitation before breaking through to international fame. It is no slight to other Hammer directors to suggest that Losey is probably the greatest directorial talent to have worked for the studio. And at the risk of painting the film with an elitist brush, it is the intersection between the Hammer approach and Losey’s distinctive contributions that make These Are the Damned worth watching.

The situation is implausible, pretentious, more than a little contrived, but still harrowing. A group of children who were born radioactive are being kept locked away in an underground laboratory at the government’s behest. Several characters from the local village stumble into this outrage, and what had started out as a hyperbolic melodrama involving teenage gangs, a disaffected artist, a bored, cruising American tourist and a typically pompous British bureaucrat transforms into a life-and-death struggle to free the children from their captivity.

Summarizing the plot cannot really evoke the film’s power, however. This is a violent, cruel world, in which people’s best instincts are thwarted by the realities of their environment, and in which their basest motivations are all too easily excited. The American tourist, Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) for example, who eventually becomes something of the leader to save the children, starts out engaged in nothing more edifying than tailing Joan (Shirley Ann Field). There is no pretense he has any higher motivation than to enjoy a tasty bit of crumpet, and he gets rewarded with a bash on the head from Joan’s brother, King (Oliver Reed) and his Teddy Boy pals. On the other hand, while King is a sadistic, nearly psychotic brute throughout, he eventually develops something close to a friendship with one of the children.

All of which makes These Are the Damned a riven exploration of topical subject matter. It is what Losey does with this material that gives the film distinction. The slow, slinky camera moves, the jagged, unpredictable cuts, the ambiguously expressive settings, the sensuous textures, the unsentimental view of human behavior, the political awareness—all the hallmarks of his mature style are here. Even Losey’s notorious emotional distance has the effect of heightening the tragedy, not diminishing it. The key figure in this double treatment is King. At no point is he anything less than a frightening, obviously sick, violent bundle, and yet his end is inexplicably moving, as if he is less of a danger than the impersonal technocrats destroying the lives of the children.

Ultimately, These Are the Damned is still hyperbolic filmmaking, more exploitative than insightful. Nonetheless, a real sense of purpose, a determination to exceed the limitations of the material, and imaginative thinking about how to treat it in striking, even beautiful ways, course under the shrill surfaces.