Ten Types of Australian Film
next: social problem
Chapter 3: Crime
Australian “westerns” are relatively adapted to local conditions, as we have just seen, and not much like the American films of this type. It is perhaps surprising, however, that although the crime film is one of the first film genres ever to be written about (as the “gangster film”), such films are still being produced in Australia. One difference between American and Australian gangster films is that, whereas the American gangster has been seen as a tragic figure (at least by Warshow, the first analyst), the Australian organised crime figure is, I shall suggest, a more comic figure—although the comedy may be “black”. In such classic American gangster films as Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1930), the arc of the narrative typically ends with the death of the anti-hero, but in films like Dirty Deeds (David Caesar, 2002), The Hard Word (Scott Roberts, 2002), Gettin’ Square (Jonathan Teplitzky, 2003), and, above all, Two Hands (Gregor Jordan, 1999)—the success of which is perhaps one of the reasons the other three came to be made—the situations in which the main characters find themselves often have humorous aspects. On the other hand, there are dark films concerned with crime and criminals in Australian cinema, and it is one of these which will be a principal concern of this chapter.1
In this chapter I’ll use Steve Neale’s tripartite division of contemporary crime films into three principal sub-genres: the detective film (and investigative thriller), the gangster film, and the suspense thriller.2 The detective film obviously puts the emphasis on the detective, and his or her point of view; the gangster film is seen mostly from the point of view of the criminal; while the suspense thriller is constructed from the point of view of the victim. It will be seen that there is a restriction or limitation of the point of view in each case. The detective does not yet know either who did the crime or how it occurred. The criminal may not yet know what other criminals or the police are going to do. The victim in the suspense thriller does not know where the criminals are coming from, or exactly what they are going to do, or even perhaps who they are.3 Let us begin with the investigator.
In the classic American detective stories, the investigator is usually a professional and even more usually a private eye: Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) is a typical example. There are few examples of such films in Australia. One is The Empty Beach (Chris Thomson, 1985) in which Bryan Brown portrays Cliff Hardy, a “hard” man based on a character from one of crime fiction writer Peter Corris’s hard-boiled stories set in Bondi. A horse of a completely different colour is The Monkey’s Mask (Samantha Lang, 2000) in which the PI (Susie Porter) is not only a woman but also a lesbian, who is seduced by one of her suspects (Kelly McGillis). The film is based on a novel written in verse by Dorothy Porter, verse which we sometimes hear in Susie Porter’s voiceover—an effect rather different from the “tough talk” of the gumshoe’s voiceover in a film noir. However, The Monkey’s Mask does deliver an unpleasant crime solved, an evil villain unmasked, and a successful detective, though one even more disenchanted.
There are rather more Australian features in which the investigator is a police officer, and of course innumerable television series, mini-series and tele-movies. In many cases, what is being investigated is, in fact, the police themselves and/or another government organisation. Two mini-series which take this line are Scales of Justice (Michael Jenkins, 1983) and Blue Murder (Michael Jenkins, 1995)—notorious because they are based on real-life persons and were banned in the state in which the people operated. An example of such a tele-feature is The Clean Machine (Ken Cameron, 1988). One of the few examples of this sub-genre that made it to the big screen is The Custodian (John Dingwall, 1993), the title of which can be read as referring to Juvenal’s question: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who will guard the guards themselves?).4 Quinlan (Anthony LaPaglia) and Church (Hugo Weaving) feed information about police corruption to reporter Reynolds (Kelly Dingwall) who feeds it to investigator Ferguson (Barry Otto); but Reynolds makes a literally fatal mistake, resulting in the deaths of first Ferguson’s wife and then Church; Quinlan then leaves the force.
Even when it’s a crime (typically murder) that is being investigated, the police may still be under scrutiny to some extent—in Redball (Jon Hewitt, 1999), for example, and most notably in The Interview (Craig Monahan, 1998). Here the person being interviewed, Eddie Fleming (Hugo Weaving), turns the tables on the cop—John Steele (Tony Martin)—who is under pressure to deliver a confession and conviction. The ambiguity in this subtle film noir applies to both the cop and the alleged criminal. In other police investigation films, the real interest is often not in the investigation as such, but in the context, or in the characters who are the alleged criminals. In Stone (Sandy Harbutt, 1974), for example, as discussed in Chapter 4, much of the interest is in the bikie gang infiltrated by the undercover cop whose name is Stone (Ken Shorter). In End Play (Tim Burstall, 1975), it is the two brothers (played by John Waters and George Mallaby) whose characters are also under investigation by the film, although the premise is an inquiry into the death of a hitch-hiker. And in Weekend of Shadows (Tom Jeffrey, 1978) it is really the whole community that is the subject of the film’s investigative gaze. In this thriller a posse led by anxious Sergeant Caxton (Wyn Roberts) is searching for a murder suspect. It includes Rabbit (John Waters) who has been pressured to join the group by his wife Vi (Melissa Jaffer) in order for them to be seen to conform, as they are socially isolated. When the drunken disorganised group catches up with the Pole (Michael Gawenda), Rabbit kills him to save him from their tormenting him. The story is a study of the morality of all involved: the solution to the crime, although providing a strong conclusion, is not really the point.
The more unusual investigation-related Australian films, however, are those in which the principal investigator (in terms of the narrative) is not an official, but a non-professional. There are two films, made at about the same time and on the same subject, which feature a female central character of this kind. The Killing of Angel Street (Donald Crombie, 1981) and Heatwave (Phillip Noyce, 1982) are both based to some extent on the real life of Juanita Nielsen, who disappeared in 1975 while she was involved in protests about a large-scale property development in Sydney’s King’s Cross. In the earlier film, Elizabeth Alexander plays Jessica Simmonds, a character who recalls Juanita Nielsen for those who remember that history. Jessica’s father dies in a fire while protesting about developers who are trying to get their hands on the house in which she grew up, so she carries on the protest. This introduces her to a world of corruption involving government officials, the police, the developers and organised crime. In Noyce’s film, there is the same corruption in the same agencies and for the same end, but this time the voice for change has a little more respectability through the character of the architect Stephen West (Richard Moir), who at least has the opportunity to say why he is passionate about what he hopes to build. The investigator on this occasion is Kate Dean (Judy Davis), a journalist and activist whose goal is to expose the criminal elements of the development.
In Georgia (Ben Lewin, 1989), another Judy Davis film, the same actress plays both the investigator and the character being investigated. The primary character, Nina, discovers as an adult and by chance that she was adopted and that her real mother was photographer Georgia, who drowned in mysterious circumstances. Nina’s quest is to find out whether Georgia jumped or was pushed. In Shame (Steve Jodrell, 1988), lawyer and biker Asta Cadell (Deborra-Lee Furness) soon discovers, when forced by an accident to stay in a small country town, that crimes of violence are being committed on the young women, and she has to find out why the culture of this community tolerates this continuing. And in Envy (Julie Money, 1999), Linda Cropper plays a business woman and mother whose home is invaded and her son molested, and who tracks down the young woman responsible, Rachel (Anna Lise Phillips).
Let us turn now to gangster films, or films in which the point of view is mostly that of the criminal, in which crime is seen, as it were, from the inside. A number of films have been released around the turn of the present century which deal with some aspect of organised crime. Such films have of course been made before, notably at the beginning of the 1980s, during the period when the government’s tax relief regime known as “10BA” (from the paragraph in the relevant tax law) had a major impact on the kinds of film which were undertaken. It was a time when more “genre” films were made (commercial films made to a formula, with a specific audience in mind). Money Movers (Bruce Beresford, 1979), for example, is a heist movie; Blood Money (Chris Fitchett, 1980) centres on an ageing career criminal, Pete Shields (John Flaus) and his brother Brian (Bryan Brown—the actor is something of a career “criminal” himself); and Midnite Spares (Quentin Masters, 1982), is about crime in the automotive industry.
Since the success of Gregor Jordan’s Two Hands in 1999, and perhaps because of it, there has been a strikingly large number of films involving organised crime. Two Hands won not only the Film Critics Circle Best Film Award and the Urban Cinefile/Telstra Movies Readers award for Favourite Australian Film for 1999, but also five AFI awards for 1999: Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (Bryan Brown), Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing. And it was a nice little earner. It also launched the careers of Heath Ledger and Rose Byrne—although they are not the real stars: while technically a “supporting actor”, it is Bryan Brown who steals the show. His character Pando is a brutal killer, but also an Australian archetype and admirable family man. He wears fairly daggy casual clothes, wins at Scrabble with Acko (David Field), and has time to make origami figures with his son. The character of Pando seems to have hit a particular tone and created an expectation that gangster films in Australia should include black humour and recognisable national characteristics.
The character who represents organised crime in Chopper (Andrew Dominik, 2000) is not so much Mark “Chopper” Read himself as Vince Colosimo’s character, drug baron Neville Bartos. (Chopper’s crimes are rather disorganised.) Neville is also a recognisable Australian type, albeit from a suburb different from Pando’s. He is also dressed casually in a track suit, but his Mediterranean origins are evident in his abundant use of gold accessories. Black humour is also present in many scenes, including the one in which Chopper settles the score with Neville. He shoots him deliberately; and then jokes about him having “burst his appendix” and whinging about “one little hole”, and then helps to get him into a car and off to hospital. This is humorous, in an unsettling kind of way. Even more unsettling is Chopper’s vicious attack on Keithy George (David Field), after which Read offers him a cigarette and calls him a “whinger”, among other things. And then there’s the brutal attack on his girlfriend Tanya (Kate Beahan), during which he also knocks her unconscious with a head butt. With Tanya lying on the bathroom floor, apparently unconscious, Chopper addresses her along the lines of: “What have you done now? Look at what you’ve done now. Your mother’s upset ...”. This is a biopic about a standover man and murderer, so it’s not surprising it’s violent; the surprising aspect is the “humour”—although this perhaps proceeds as much from the subject’s craziness as from any intention on the part of the film-makers to mix genres.
Racing and betting are deep in the Australian character: the first film exposed in Australia had a horse race as subject, and the oldest piece of film preserved is of a Melbourne Cup. So it’s no wonder that there are several feature films about the racing game, some of which involve crimes. In Silent Partner (Alkinos Tsilimidos, 2001), two drunks, David Field (again) and Syd Brisbane get to race their own greyhound, the chance of a lifetime, as it seems to them, while in fact they are being set up for a big sting. Horseplay (Stavros Kazantzidis, 2003) is a crime caper comedy set around the Melbourne Cup. And the Melbourne Cup is once more the setting for the climactic crime in The Hard Word (Scott Roberts, 2002). In Roberts’s film, crime is very organised indeed, with the Twentyman brothers (Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton and Damien Richardson) able to carry out highly successful robberies while actually (apparently) in jail, with the assistance of corrupt policemen, their lawyer, and the prison governor.
Even more organised, however, is the criminal network in Dirty Deeds (David Caesar, 2002), in the sense that it extends from the USA to Australia. It’s another situation which depends on the Australian enthusiasm for gambling, only this time it’s poker machines that are the means to the end, rather than horses or dogs. Bryan Brown (as Barry Ryan) is once again the Australian crime boss, but this time he has competition from Americans Tony (John Goodman) and Sal (Felix Williamson) who bring the latest model of pokie when they arrive down under: the electronic kind, sans handle. This is 1969: pizza has not yet arrived in Australia either, and this is one of the sources of the comedy in this film, another being the humiliation of the tough-guy American mafiosi. Once again there is police corruption: Sam Neill is a bent cop, Ray. But although there’s a certain amount of action and adventure, and some serious violence involving the use of guns, the tone is generally lighter than that of Two Hands, and certainly has none of the darkness of Chopper. The most striking thing about Caesar’s film is the ebullience of its style, in several senses. The music is loud and raunchy, the design of the interiors is bright and gaudy, the wardrobe is true to the period, and the editing is brisk and punchy. The whole is too entertaining to be taken too seriously.
All of the crime in films we have been considering so far has been undertaken intentionally, but there are other kinds of situation in which crime is committed by accident, as it were, as it arises out of the situation. This is crime conducted not by people who set out to be criminals, but by those who find themselves in circumstances in which they have little choice. I’m thinking of people who become outlaws as a result of their socio-economic circumstances, like the bushrangers discussed in the second chapter. One could perhaps think of the stories of men such as the Kelly gang as being typical of the Australian gangster film—as compared to the Chicago mobsters of the US original. There are other more obvious differences: the American settings are urban and the criminals are heavily armed and use vehicles. But there is this more subtle difference: the American gangs are set up for the express purpose of exerting power and engaging in profitable crime, while the Australian gangs come into existence as a reaction and for mutual support—for defence, as it were, rather than to commit offences. The crimes committed are a means to the end of survival, and in some cases may have a beneficial outcome for other people who have suffered under an authoritarian system—as we see in Ned Kelly.
Indigenous people in films may sometimes find themselves involved in crime, partly as a result of their socio-economic situation. So we have Blackfellas (James Ricketson, 1993), based on Archie Weller’s book The Day of the Dog,5 which is in turn based on his own experiences in and out of prison, and sees Pretty Boy Floyd (David Ngoombujarra) gunned down by police in order to let Doug (John Moore) and Polly (Jaylene Riley) get away to a better life. And in Backroads (Phillip Noyce, 1977), white drifter Jack (Bill Hunter) and young Aboriginal Gary (Gary Foley) careen around outback NSW in what I recall as a Pontiac Parisienne. Well-known activist Gary Foley only agreed to appear in the film if he could improvise his dialogue, allowing him to present the Aboriginal predicament in his own words.6 By one account, the ending was changed to suit his preference that his character die in a shootout rather than a traffic jam.7 (David Stratton writes that “the original ending couldn’t be shot for lack of money”.)8
It is not only Aboriginal people who are shown as finding themselves in situations which lead to the committing of crimes. There are also: the white trash Spragues in The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1997); the neo-Nazis of Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper (1992) with their racially motivated crimes of violence; and the westies of Idiot Box (David Caesar, 1996), who turn to crime almost as much out of boredom as anything else.
Finally, there are films, not really in the crime genre, but in which a crime, more or less accidentally committed, is at the centre of the film. In Death in Brunswick (John Ruane, 1991), Carl (Sam Neill) is unintentionally involved in the death of kitchenhand Mustafa (Nico Lathouris). But the main reason for having Mustafa dead is the comic but long-winded central section of the film in which Carl and his best mate Dave (John Clarke) deal with the body. Dave happens to be a grave-digger, providing an excuse for a lot of night-time body and graveyard business. Samantha Lang’s film The Well (1997), based on Elizabeth Jolley’s novel, is essentially a study of the relationship between the two women, Hester (Pamela Rabe), and Katherine (Miranda Otto). There is, however, a death, caused by Katherine’s careless driving, and again, there is the question of the disposal of the body—which is where the eponymous well comes in. And again, in Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett, 1996), there is a body to be got rid of, after Vicki-Ann Hurley (Rebecca Frith) deals with the DJ who spurns her love and desire for marriage. The pageant of her bleeding heart, she trails through the barren, ugly town of Sunray in her wedding dress, heading for the wheat silo, perhaps to jump to her death, followed by her gawky sister Dimity (Miranda Otto). The DJ, Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov), also follows, and all three climb to the top, where ... Dimity pushes Ken off. (Unfortunately, there was a problem with the safety equipment, and the stuntman who did the fall was killed in real life.)
Thus far we have looked at films in which the main interest is in the person investigating the crime, and those in which the point of view is that of the criminal. We come now to a third possibility: where the focus is the victim of crime. The most important genre dealing with this is the suspense thriller, and by far the most significant director in world terms is Alfred Hitchcock. There are a few Australian films which are of this specific type, but I want to think of the victim-of-crime film, as usual, as an inclusive category.
As I’ve mentioned Hitchcock, we might begin with some films which are indebted to him, or with films which writers have compared to his—usually to the detriment of the local product. One such example is Snapshot (Simon Wincer, 1979), in which Sigrid Thornton, in her first major role, is the innocent who finds herself in a scary situation: Jim Schembri mentions the use of Wincer’s suspense-building techniques in an unfavourable comparison with Hitchcock.9 Another such film is Final Cut (Ross Dimsey, 1980), with Hitchcock touches, even including a shower scene and and a camera under a glass table.10 On the other hand, Richard Franklin’s Roadgames (1981) is a successful film which has benefited from the director’s imitation of the master. Back on the negative side of the ledger again is Crosstalk (Mark Egerton, 1982), which is based directly and extensively on Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) without acknowledging its considerable debt.11 Georgia, discussed above, also has such influences, though they are not as specific.
Some directors tend to specialise in particular genres. Brian Trenchard-Smith, for example, often makes action-adventure films like The Man from Hong Kong (1975), Deathcheaters (1976), Turkey Shoot (1982), Dead-End Drive In (1986), Day of the Panther (1988), and Fists of Blood (1988) (although he has also made melodramas like Jenny Kissed Me (1986), children’s films like BMX Bandits (1983) and Frog Dreaming (1986), and a “comedy”: The Love Epidemic (1975)). Few Australian directors have made more than one thriller, with the notable exception of Richard Franklin. His Roadgames, shot mostly on the Nullabor with imported stars Stacey Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis, has already been mentioned. And although he too has turned his hand to whatever has come his way, including melodrama—Hotel Sorrento (1995), Brilliant Lies (1996)—and even pornography—Fantasm (‘Richard Bruce’ [Richard Franklin], 1976)—he is most noted for Roadgames, Patrick (1978), and Visitors (2003)—not to mention a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film: Psycho II (Richard Franklin, 1983)—although that was not made in Australia.
In Patrick, the eponymous central character has telekinetic powers, even though he is in a sort of coma for almost the entire length of the film, having bumped off his mother with the expedient of an electric heater in the bath. Visitors is another supernatural thriller. The central character, Georgia Perry (Radha Mitchell), is engaged in a race to circumnavigate the world—alone except for her cat, like Ripley at the end of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). However, she has not only her cat to talk to but also her lovers, pirates who try to board the yacht, her mother and father (Susannah York and Ray Barrett)—and the “visitors”. It is worth noting that all three of these significant films, Patrick, Roadgames and Visitors, were written by Everett de Roche—to take the opportunity to make the point that writers may also have specialisms. De Roche also wrote the thrillers and/or dramas: Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston, 1979), Snapshot (Simon Wincer, 1979), Harlequin (Simon Wincer, 1980), Razorback (Russell Mulcahy, 1984), and Fortress (Arch Nicholson, 1986).
Kiss or Kill (Bill Bennett, 1997) concisely indicates the uncertainty of the thriller in its title. The words, from Dylan Thomas, also refer to the ambiguity of the relationships in the film, particularly the one between Al (Matt Day) and Nikki (Frances O’Connor), as well as to the two activities often depicted on cinema screens—in the same way as does the title of Pauline Kael’s book of film criticism Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.12 It’s uncertain until the end who has caused the deaths in the film: it could be either Al or Nikki—the very first killing is never fully explained. Nikki is a sleepwalker—among other things—and she could be committing the murders without even knowing it herself.
The title of The Bank (Robert Connolly, 2001) announces the villain: it is the bank itself. Both the main plot and the (principal) subplot involve people who have scores to settle with the bank: a fictional one called CentaBank in this case, and while one uses violence, the other uses guile, if not genius. It’s an unusual thriller that shows the victims of crime as comprehensively defeating the perpetrator. Dead Calm (Phil Noyce, 1989) is more conventional in that regard (like its title). Here the good guys, Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill, only beat the bad guy, Billy Zane, with much difficulty and in the last moments—as they should in a good thriller. This is not a negative criticism. Noyce has a very limited mise-en-scene: a yacht on the open sea—and it’s difficult not only to make this visually interesting but also to find places for the villain to hide. There is no doubt that he succeeds, at least in terms of this type of film.
There are many dark films in OzCin which are not centrally or not at all concerned with crime, but which may still be mentioned here. The term “film noir” (dark film) refers primarily to hard-boiled detective American films around 1940-1955. It’s partly to do with the kind of subject matter—crime and investigation—but more to do with a stylistic darkness in the mise-en-scene, lighting and cinematography. So later films can be said to be noir in style, even though they belong mainly to another genre: science fiction, say.
In Australia, noir seemed to be more prominent than usual during the latter half of the 1990s, which may perhaps have had something to do with the sense of the approaching or impending millennium, and the thought that something important was ending and something perhaps even more significant was going to happen or begin. A number of the films we’ve looked at closely at in this chapter are from this dark period, and all are concerned with crime.
One of the characteristics of the original American noir films which is also present in some Australian films is a particular take on the relationships between men and women. While Raffaele Caputo emphasises those aspects of noir films which have men at the centre (“a man on the run with a bullet chasing him and another waiting at the other end”),13 the writers in Women in Film Noir, especially Christine Gledhill, are more interested in the way women are represented.14 Typically, they suggest, there is a key woman of whom a negative view is taken. She often leads the principal male character to ruin and to death.
In some of the Australian films under investigation in this chapter, the male characters are quite capable of ruining themselves without the instigation of women, but they themselves often have a clearly negative view of women, whom they objectify, and treat violently. There are two unpleasant scenes in Chopper in this context. In one, Read is with his prostitute girlfriend whom, obviously, he treats as a object for his pleasure, as he does the drug he takes in the same scene. And in the bathroom scene described earlier, Chopper savagely beats her. This occurs in offscreen space, but this does nothing to reduce the horror of the scene, as the viewer’s imagination works to supply the missing action. In The Boys, the actual crime at the centre of the narrative is seen in the half-dark and at a distance, and in flashback. What is in the present and in the forefront, however, is the misogynist language and attitudes expressed by the male characters (some of which is even more vicious in Gordon Graham’s original stage play).
As for the ambiguous femmes fatale combined with crime mystery so typical of the classical noir, there are few examples in Australian feature films. But there is one film discussed here which does exhibit these tropes: Kiss or Kill. The brilliance of Bill Bennett’s film is that it has these generic features, in both the stylistic and narrative spheres; but in addition to that, it supplies a fully naturalistic back story for Nikki and to a lesser extent Al. Even more than that, though, it has a gritty verite or documentary style in the profoundly unpleasant subplot dealing with the celebrity criminal Zipper Doyle (Barry Langrishe). And it has clever humour too, in the scene between the two detectives Hummer (Chris Haywood) and Crean (Andrew S. Gilbert).
As a perhaps unusual way of concluding this look at crime films in Australia, I’ll draw attention to the career of one actor. I’ve already suggested that particular directors can contribute more than others to specific types of film, as can certain writers. It’s also the case that particular actors can not only contribute much to especial genres, but can also go some way, by virtue of their body of work, to defining something of the national character.
Let me get at this topic by referring to a memorable speech to the audience at the 1999 AFI Awards, in which Bryan Brown read out a list of actors’ names. The context, as it happens, is that Brown was responding to getting the award for the best supporting actor for Two Hands. His speech referred to the Republic Referendum of a week before, on Saturday 6 November 1999, and to the opening of the Fox Studios the following day, making a connection between the two. He then proceeded to read out a list of Australian actors who have contributed to what he calls the “Australian identity”. I’d like to include the whole speech, partly because you’re unlikely to find it available anywhere else, and also because Brown draws attention not only to the genre of the film but also to its Australianness.
I said to Gregor, when we were making this movie, if this summer, down at Bondi, all the young blokes are walking round in stubbies, thongs and rayon T-shirts, he’s got a lot to answer for. But at least they would be recognisably Australian, which, after last weekend, could only be a plus, given that on Saturday evening, the country voted for an English monarch to long reign over us, and on Sunday, saw a celebration of American film culture. A bloke, I suppose, could being forgiven for starting to wonder exactly who owns this country.
A few people’s names were read out on Sunday night for their contribution to American cinema. I did want to read out, and remind myself, tonight—if I had the opportunity—of some Australian actors who have not only contributed to Australian cinema, but to the Australian identity: Jack Thompson ... [applause] ... you’d better not try clapping em all ... Helen Morse, Wendy Hughes, Hugo Weaving, Colin Friels, Claudia Karvan, Paul Hogan, David Gulpilil, Sam Neill, Toni Collette, Bill Hunter, John Meillon, Ben Mendelsohn, Miranda Otto, Noah Taylor, Ruth Cracknell, Robin Nevin, Tommy Lewis, Graeme Blundell, Rachel Griffiths, and the great Chips Rafferty. And I apologise for any of those that were overlooked.
I’d like to thank the AFI, and I’d like to thank the producers and the cast and crew of Two Hands. I’d like to congratulate Gregor on his very original eye, that attended to a classic film genre, and produced a very entertaining Australian flick. And I’d like to thank Gregor for askin’ me to play Pando, cos I fuckin’ loved it.
The point of including a speech by Bryan Brown about Australian identity is of course that Brown himself has made a major contribution, and especially in crime films. And I’m going to suggest that there has been a significant progression in the kinds of characters that Brown has played, which, because of his prominence as an actor since 1977, has perhaps contributed to some change in the way in which Australians generally are perceived. I’ll refer to a select few of Brown’s crime films to show this.
In Money Movers (1979), Brown is Brian Jackson, literally one of the gang. In Albie Thoms’ only feature, Palm Beach (1979), Brown plays Paul Kite, a bungling robber who kills a policeman. He is another “Brian” and a career criminal again in Blood Money (1980), as we have seen. He then moves to a marginal position between criminal and authority in The Empty Beach (1985), to play Cliff Hardy, private detective. In Dead Heart (Nick Parsons, 1996), Brown has become cop Ray Lorkin, again a marginal character, but at least invested with official authority. Then in Two Hands (1999), he’s Pando, the crime boss with a heart of nine carat gold, who, as we have seen, plays with his son despite being a callous killer. Then, in a detour through one of Brown’s own earlier occupations, in Risk (Alan White, 2000) he is John Kreisky, a middle-aged larrikin rorter of the (insurance) system who passes on his criminal wisdom to young apprentice Ben Madigan (Tom Long). And finally, he’s a crime boss again in Dirty Deeds. Now he is Barry Ryan, crime boss whose heart is now, let’s say, eighteen carat gold: this time he not only indulges his son, as before, but also forgives and lets off his nephew Darcy (Sam Worthington), the secondary hero, and even lets him take with him Margaret (Kestie Morassi)—who used to be Barry’s own girlfriend on the side. As if that wasn’t enough soft-hearteness, they all go off together—including the big bad mafioso from Stateside, Tony.
My point is that the characters Bryan Brown has played have evolved through the conventional characters of “genre” films, robbers, cop-killers, gangsters, private eyes, and corrupt policemen to more complex characters who are recognisably still drawn from generic origins, but who are now more rounded, more naturalistic and more Australian. My suggestion is that Australian crime films have, generally speaking, tended to do the same. Another, more minor example, of the work of an actor as being representative of a tendency is to be found in the corpus of David Wenham. When he first appears in this genre, it is one of the darkest films ever made in Australia, The Boys. In The Bank, his character is still 100% serious, but he plays a middle-class character who is acting out of mixed intentions: although comitting serious crime, he is clearly intended to have the interest and sympathy of the audience. Finally, in Gettin’ Square, his character is so outrageously and humorously criminal-class Australian, and his acting so good, that he won the award for Best Actor at the AFI Awards 2003.
Of the forty-three films mentioned in the survey in this chapter (excepting a few that have strayed in from another genre, like Love Serenade, Death in Brunswick, and The Well), most of them take their crime seriously for the most part. All through the 1970s and 1980s, one or other of the sub-genres of crime are exhibited singularly by each individual film. When there is a lightening of tone, as in Kiss or Kill, say, it is temporary, and the seriousness is then resumed. Australian crime tends towards and reaches its grim nadir in the second half of the last decade of the 20th century, notably with The Boys and The Interview in 1997 and 1998. (Idiot Box  is the exception that proves the rule.) Then, with Two Hands, in 1999, there is an optimistic change, and we see there, and in the films which follow it, Dirty Deeds, The Hard Word, and Gettin’ Square, a generic broadening of tone, an embracing of a greater thematic range, and a new kind of humanism. Characters demonstrate more of the “Australian identity” that Bryan Brown referred to in his 1999 speech, there is more humour, and a greater depth of characterisation. Maybe scriptwriting in Australian films has improved (not before time), but I think there is a more fundamental change: a sense of the development of an idiosyncratically Australian criminal character.
1 Chopper, 2000, dir. Andrew Dominik, available on DVD; Andrew Dominik 2000, Chopper: The Screenplay; the other key film being Dirty Deeds, 2002, dir. wr. David Caesar, available on DVD; David Caesar 2002, Dirty Deeds, Currency Press, Sydney.
2 Steve Neale ed., Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, BFI, London: 71-82.
3 Bordwell calls this “restricted narration”: see eg. David Bordwell 1985, Narration in the Fiction Film, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison: 58, 64-70.
4 Juvenal, Satires, 6, l. 347.
5 Archie Weller 1981, The Day of the Dog, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
6 David Stratton 1980, The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival, Angus & Robertson, Sydney: 204.
7 Pike & Cooper 1998: 313.
8 Stratton 1980: 205.
9 Jim Schembri 1995, in Scott Murray ed., Australian Film 1978-1994, OUP, Melbourne: 47.
10 Jim Schembri 1995: 59.
11 Scott Murray, in Scott Murray ed. 1995, Australian Film 1978-1994, OUP, Melbourne: 95.
12 Pauline Kael 1987 , Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Arena/Arrow, London.
13 Raffaele Caputo 1990, “Film noir: ‘You sure you don’t see what you hear?’”, Continuum, 5, 2: 276-301.
14 Christine Gledhill 1980, “Klute 1: a contemporary film noir and feminist criticism”, in E. Ann Kaplan ed., Women in Film Noir, BFI, London: 6-21.
Garry Gillard | New: 11 February, 2009 | Now: 11 March, 2017