Friday, January 28, 2011

Clothes on Film: The Damned

It came to pass, one rainy Sunday in 1969, that my parents took me to see an X-rated film, Luchino Visconti's The Damned. I don't know how we wound up going to that particular film, because at the time the females in the family were still going to church and we'd been taking the Legion of Decency pledge. That's the promise Catholics used to make, out loud and during mass, to avoid naughty movies. We sure fell off the wagon by seeing The Damned.

The film has been variously described as an engrossing work of art, a kinky soap opera, a dazzling, bold movie, and an "extravaganza of incest and corruption." Lord knows, the film earned its 1969 X-rating – I don't think I've seen another film in last 41 years hence (damn, I'm old) that contains all off the following: nudity (male and female), cross-dressing, pedophilia (incestuous and anti-Semitic), homosexual orgies, murder (individual and mass), drug-addiction, suicide (child and adult), mother-raping and father-stabbing, (Arlo Guthrie reference, for you young 'uns), artistically blood-laced bodies of naked men, and lots and lots of preternaturally blond and handsome Nazis doing very nasty things.
Charlotte Rampling as Elizabeth Thallman
But never mind the Nazis and the perversions, what I remember most from my first viewing of The Damned was the appearance, not more than 10 minutes into the film, of the divine Charlotte Rampling in full, authentic, 30s hair and makeup, and my mother grabbing my hand in excitement and saying "A finger wave!  I used to do finger waves when I was a hairdresser!"  What followed was two hours of whispered comments about hair, clothes and decor.  In fact, so taken was I by the wardrobe that many years later when I got my hands on a DVD of the film and watched it, I found I had forgotten about the mother-raping.  However I had not forgotten that the very bad Mommy made her first appearance in the film wearing a bias-cut black satin gown with a diamonte-trimmed cage back.

Ingrid Thulin as Sophie von Essenbeck, the very well-dressed very bad mommy
Let me put this in context so you can understand why my mother and I were so impressed by The Damned's costuming.  The wardrobes in American period films made in the 50s and 60s were never authentic; actresses playing flappers appeared in bullet bras and lacquered bubble dos (see Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me) and depression-era women appeared in full-skirted shirt-dresses and pale pink lipstick (see Dorothy Malone in The Tarnished Angels, one of the most ridiculous films ever made)Authenticity was ignored even in WWII period movies, although all the Moms and Dads had lived through the War and all the kids could turn on the TV and watch Casablanca.  (See Ingrid Thulin and, heaven help us, Yvette Mimieux, in The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Ingrid Thulin went on to play the very bad Mommy in The Damned, where the hats alone made up for previous sins against fashion.)   As a Clothesaholic and a fan of 30s and 40s movies from kindergarten, I saw those crimes of anachronistic fashion and hated them.

Bad mommy in a fabulous hat.
Then came The Damned, which is flawed in many ways.  For example, Warner Brothers wanted an English language film.  The original script, written by Visconti and two others, was probably in Italian.  Charlotte Rampling said that each member of the multinational cast delivered the dialogue in his or her own language, and the whole film was later dubbed into English.  The final results sounds like a translation by Babelfish: "I have already pre-announced a similar occurrence to Frederick."  WHAT

But boy howdy, that damned movie is great to look at:

And you think your family dinners are tense?
 According to a critic

Visconti's insistence on authenticity of decor and costume has given rise to anecdotes of how he sent for white German sausages from Munich to be hung in the butcher's window in place of the pink Austrian variety, or how he insisted on replacing the carpeted floor of the dining-room set with the more authentic oak blocks which took five days to lay. Some of the clothes in the film are said to be originals of the period, others are seam for seam reproductions.

Visconti gets credit for the look of the film, the much honored Piero Tosi was the actual costume designer.

The director's attention to detail wasn't so great in other areas.  The movie opens on the birthday of Baron von Essenbeck, the patriarch of an industrial dynasty, but the celebrations are thrown into chaos and conflict by news of the Reichstag fire.  Only the film gives the wrong date for the fire, and even in the days before Google, that was probably an easy fact to check.  Militaria nerds report that although the film takes place 1934, some of the characters are wearing SS uniforms that weren't used until 1938.  That's probably because the only question that was asked about the uniforms was "does his ass look good in that?"  By the way, there's a reason those black uniforms are so sharp; the real ones were made by Hugo Boss.

Helmut Berger as very bad son Martin von Essenbeck.  He was also Visconti's lover, which probably explains the way his cheekbones were lit.

Helmut Griem as the very bad guy Aschenbach.
Very good looking black-clad bad guys in movies send a mixed message, one of those  being the directions to the nearest B&D fetish bar.  Been dere, done dat, and moving right along: The Damned is credited with creating "Nazi chic," inspiring movies like The Night Porter, staring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, both previously in The Damned, and Salon Kitty, staring Ingrid Thulin and Helmut Berger, both previously in The Damned.  I don't think that many people have actually seen The Night Porter, but practically everyone has seen this NSFW image 1970s Naziplotation movies followed the arthouse Nazi Chic movies, and all that fascist fashion fetish is still alive and kicking in things like Lady Gaga's Alejandro video. 

But forget all that morally ambiguous stuff: LOOK AT THAT FINGER WAVE.

No comments: