(screened on nitrate print at the bfi Southbank, 31/8)
René Clément made his name with the cinematographer Henri Alekan, who would go on to carve out an arguably greater reputation for Cocteau’s La belle et la bête and Wings of Desire, with an Oscar nomination for Roman Holiday along the way. I haven’t seen their acclaimed 1945 documentary La bataille du rail, about Resistance saboteurs, but a stark faux-doc style is the hallmark of this surprisingly obscure subsequent feature, a commercial flop at the time which has amassed the paltry sum of 44 votes on IMDb to date. No measure of a movie, I know, but it surely deserves better than that on face value alone, as a grimly involved and engrossing tale of maritime intrigue in the closing days of the war. The action is largely confined to an escaping U-boat, which pulls away from Oslo to seek harbour in one of those South American Nazi sanctuaries where Josef Mengele pitched up. (At least, that's the plan.) It’s almost Hitchcock’s Lifeboat in negative — this vessel's full of Nazis and collaborators of various nationalities (the title means “The Damned”, making it the third film of that name I've seen this year) whose safety or certainty of escape is obscurely compromised by the arrival on board of French doctor Guilbert (Henri Vidal), who knows more German than anyone quite realises. He’s beckoned in to attend to the injured, near-comatose wife of an Italian industrialist, played by Florence Marly in a performance with more than a touch of Foreign Affair Dietrich: her blatant cavorting with Kurt Kronefeld’s SS general suggests a long-hatched escape plan which makes for awkward moments aplenty, given that everyone, to include her outraged husband (Fosco Giachetti), is bunked in such heaving and smeggy proximity.
Alekan’s skill is not, alas, at full maturity in every frame of this often crudely lit, excessively shadowy production, but there’s an excellent, viscerally wobbly, Paths-of-Glory-trench-cam reverse tracking shot as Guilbert is lured down the full length of the sub to attend to Marly's flaky diva, little realising that the boat will pull away before he has the chance to disembark; he's thereby held captive for his continued medical expertise before the assembled fugitives grasp that his presence is potentially treacherous, if not disastrous. The other visual highlight is an on-shore episode involving negotiations with a turncoat agent (Marcel Dalio, top-billed for a virtual cameo) who plans to sell them all downriver now that Hitler’s death in the bunker has hit the airwaves: a wily young German adjutant (Michel Auclair) tries to strike a deal to make his getaway, hiding in a warehouse full of coffee-bean sacks which Alekan treats to a welcome touch of overhead expressionism. Otherwise, functional claustrophobia is the order of the day, with as many talking heads crammed into the average frame as possible, while morale frays and the less fervent buddies of the Führer start panicking about when to desert this figuratively sinking ship, and how.
It must be said that Clément’s on-again, off-again approach to the point of view he’s giving Guilbert, who gets voiceover through some parts, and is first shown committing his whole testimony to a journal, but is nowhere to be seen through key sequences like the Dalio stuff, makes the dramatic basis of the movie a lot more rickety than it might have been: popular though Vidal would become in the 1950s, he’s a colourless lead here, and the character gets lost in his endless skulking in and out of hatches below deck. The real star — the film’s Col Hans Landa, if we must — is Jo Dest, whose Gestapo officer Forster is handily outranked by the decorated SS general he essentially strips to mince. Elderly and obviously homosexual — Kronefeld at first places him only after a glance at Auclair’s pretty-boy sidekick — he’s all the more snakelike for what a deferential role he appears to be playing: Dest makes of him a deadly veteran functionary, who can insinuate his way to the top of command and talk the crew into firing up torpedoes. The framing business with Vidal scribbling ardently by candlelight and the final, declamatory coining of the title are thudding and lame, but no more so than you might get from a jobbing-it Orson Welles, say, taking a crack at a promising Graham Greene script everyone else had passed on. It's some way better than its overrated Losey and Visconti namesakes, and certainly never as squiffy as Welles’s more-or-less contemporary The Stranger (1946), but if we needed further proof that Clément is merely roughing out a commercial style here, the altogether smoother, more clement (I went there!), yet somehow headier voyage of Plein soleil (1960) is right there to provide it. B–