It sounds like the plot of an Alistair MacLean thriller: a German U-boat, loaded with Nazis escaping Europe in the waning days of World War II, stops so that a handsome French doctor can be forced on board to tend to an ailing passenger. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with treachery on every side, can the doctor prevail?
In fact, Rene Clement’s claustrophobic 1947 thriller “Les Maudits” (“The Damned”) does have its share of tense moments. But Clement is going for something a little bigger than melodramatic thrills — something more ambiguous, more metaphorical, and more French. “The Damned” came out this week in a sparkling new Blu-ray edition for the first time from Cohen Media Group.
Most striking is that, unlike other submarine dramas that were shot on sets, “Damned” really makes you feel like you are in cramped quarters underwater. Clement used a reconstructed U-boat for the interiors, shot on top of one in the ocean for the exteriors, and much of the film is shot almost documentary-style.
Second, the handsome doctor (Henri Vidal) is more observer than hero, watching as this motley crew (including a Nazi officer, a German Naval officer, an Italian fascist and a French propagandist) snipe at each other in close quarters. They’re rats on the sinking ship of fascism, turning on each other to stay alive in the pressure-cooker environment of a fleeing U-boat. Made just two years after the end of the war, “The Damned” is a final, moral indictment of pure evil — they can’t even lose honorably.
The extras on the Blu-ray including a feature-length commentary from two Ohio State University scholars, plus an hour-long documentary about the making of the film. Clement, who would go on to make “Purple Noon” and other better-known classics, was seem by French New Wave filmmakers like Francois Truffaut as the sort of conventional French filmmaker they were rebelling against.