Luchino Visconti’s legendary career followed a definite arc, which I will happily parallel to the Kinsey scale. Sexual discreetness was never much to Visconti’s tastes, and his career began with the hot-bloodedly hetero James M. Cain knock-off Obsessione. Eventually, his own personal sexual fantasies ended up peeking through his films, and his bi-sexual peak is arguably 1960’s Rocco and His Brothers (starring, among other specimens of male beauty, the impossibly pretty Alain Delon, who was also rumored to be a Visconti pursuit off-screen as well as on). From that point on, Visconti’s directorial vision became increasingly purplish. His sweeping Nazi-era soap opera The Damned is to the WWII genre what a chiffon-clad drag queen brandishing satin scarves is to an audience of racecar drivers. And I’m not just saying that because the film’s main antihero, Martin (a fantastically prissy Helmut Berger), is first seen performing at his steel titan father’s private birthday concert in Marlene Dietrich Blue Angel getup. (Granted, Bob Fosse’s film adaptation of Cabaret is a big old drag queen spectacle too, but taking Fosse’s decision to cast Visconti’s intense Helmut Griem indicates that The Damned had to be a moderate influence on the 1972 musical.) By the end of the extended opening sequence, the film has already indulged in pan-sexuality, corporate backstabbing, anti-reactionary suppression, pedophilia, and murder plots. Visconti still has a few taboos to get out of the way (the film was initially rated X), but easily the film’s biggest flaw is that it almost never gains the same level of plate-spinning camp. Much later in the film, when some of the characters show up with the Nazi army at the “Night of the Long Knives” massacre of SA soldiers, Visconti indulges in a jaw-dropping bit of revisionist wish fulfillment, turning the Wiessee into a suggested gay bar and orgy hotel. It may represent Visconti’s clearest vision throughout the film, as his overuse of superfluous zoom-lens trickery suggests that he was barely in control of his own worst impulses elsewhere. A few years later, Visconti made Death in Venice and thankfully settled himself down at the high side of Kinsey’s scale.
A dirty, flecked print begets a damningly good-looking transfer. Colors are wonderfully full-hued, matching the overripe drama of the film itself. But there's a fair amount of dirt and dust that comes close to being distracting. The monaural audio isn't quite as expressive, and Maurice Jarre's suggestive score often comes off as tentative and thin, although the glaringly overdubbed dialogue is crystalline.
It's not a juicy commentary track or anything, but the vintage ten-minute Visconti documentary, showing the man in the middle of directing The Damned, is included here. A John Abbott production, it tends toward the hyperbolic rather than the elucidatory, and it runs the risk of overselling Visconti even to fans. Also included is the original theatrical trailer in all its poorly edited glory.
At the time, The Damned was considered Visconti’s "crowning achievement." Sure, if that crown is meant to befit Italian cinema’s foremost drama queen.