The Damned is an odd crossbreed of outlaw biker film, love story, and atomic-age science fiction, and this unlikely amalgam allows the film to give equal time to several of the Western Bloc’s competing attitudes about the Cold War era.
In the idyllic seaside town of Weymouth, King (Oliver Reed) and his gang of delinquents, The Teddy Boys, spend their days terrorizing tourists. After becoming one of the gang’s victims, the affluent Simon (MacDonald Carey) becomes taken with King’s sister, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), and attempts to woo her away from them. Meanwhile, on the edge of town, Bernard (Alexander Knox) is conducting a mysterious, top-secret experiment on a military base, which is adjacent to the love nest and artist studio he makes available to his lover, Freya (Viveca Lindfors).
Evan Jones’s screenplay is carefully crafted to enable most of these characters to interact, which, amidst motorcycle chases and hazmat suits, frames a subtextual discussion of what the future holds for the globe’s increasingly hostile sociopolitical divide. King’s unapologetic nihilism stems from the lack of opportunity endemic to the segment of British society that never recovered from the postwar recession. Conversely, Simon’s love-conquers-all optimism is empowered by America’s postwar prosperity (and the fact that it’s not cynically portrayed as outright naïveté is a credit to director Joseph Losey, who was exiled to Europe after being blacklisted by Hollywood). Bernard’s experiment – conducted on a base perilously close to the edge of a cliff – is rooted in a scientific fatalism that assumes the inevitability of nuclear holocaust, and this is countered by Freya’s faith in humanity’s ability to shape an unexpected destiny for itself, much as she shapes her unorthodox sculptures.
It’s impressive that The Damned accommodates all this conversation without compromising its thriller core; its indulgence of some of the era’s most enjoyable exploitation and sci-fi tropes ranks just shy of giddy, even as it ends on a very grim note. In this way, it’s the full package: a thought-provoking popcorn movie.