Film 2019: They’re a Weird Mob

As the year and the run are fading out, this is the first half of the last double-header from my Powell/Pressburger box-set, and there couldn’t be a much greater contrast between this and next Sunday’s offering. For those who have been enjoying this weekend feature, acquisition of further DVDs has been going on all year, so there will be a Film 2020 for  couple of months.

They’re A Weird Mob is an Australian film, directed by Michael Powell, for which the screenplay was written by Emeric Pressburger, using the pseudonym Richard Imrie. The film came almost a decade after the formal split of the Archers, during which time Powell’s career in Britain had undergone a terminal decline  in the response to his controversial 1960 film, Peeping Tom. To contine his career, Powell had to leave the country, which saw him working Down Under.

The film is based fairly closely on the novel of the same name written by John O’Grady under the pseudonym Nino Culotta, the leading character. Both film and novel are classics in Australia, and the film is credited with revitalising the Australian Film Industry, paving the way for the Australian ‘New Wave’. Rights had been optioned by Gregory Peck as far back as 1959 but no workable screenplay could be produced.

This is the only film in this box-set that I had not previously watched, and I’m sorry to say that my instincts on this were right. If it weren’t for the fact that this is an Australian book/film/production/classic, I’d call it a nasty, cliched, condescending and cheap piece of crapthat makes me feel like apologising to Superman IV for thinking it the worst film in this entire run.

Italian actor Walter Chiari stars as the ‘eponymous’ Nino Culotta, an Italian sports writer who arrives in Sydney to work on La Segunda Madre, an Italian language magazine owned by his cousin Leonardo, only to discover that the magazine has folded and Leonardo has fled the country, owing nearly £1,000 to Kay Kelly (Clare Dunne), businesswoman daughter of bricklayer-turned-builder Harry Kelly. In order to pay Kay back, Nino becomes a bricklayer himself, leading eventually to their engagement.

That is, pretty well, all of the plot, though the film is fleshed out by Nino’s fish-out-of-water bafflement at Australian ways and, most heavily laden on, their slang. That was very much the point of O’Grady’s novel, but to say that it’s laid on with a trowel in the first half of the film is to understate it. It’s relentless, and to the audience outside Australia (which didn’t give a damn for the film) it’s as incomprehensible as it’s meant to be for Nino.

I found it more or less easy to follow, but then this wasn’t my first introduction to ‘Strine’. On the other hand, I’d already found myself prejudiced against the film, from its introduction, a tiresome piece of overripe cheese, that first pushed the Down Under idea literally, with footage shot upside down, and then started singing songs about Australia being a man’s country. And if you think that means the songs were putting over the notion that it was not a woman’s country, them my bloody oath, that’s dinkum, blue.

The longer the film goes on, the more it runs out of steam. It is very much a male movie, in which Kay is the only substantial female role, and she has to play against any feminine aspects for most of the picture. Judith Arthy (in her screen debutahead of a decade’s career in British TV) plays Dixie, Kay’s flirtatious friend, and Chiari’s wife Alida Chelli just scraped into the film as the glamorous Giuliana after it was decided she wouldn’t overshadow Claire Dunne (and to make sure of that she’s kept in a minor role and only given Italin to speak). As the female’s start to come more into the picture, the energy starts to drain out, and the film runs dry for the last three-quarters of an hour.

This bit is devoted mainly to the unconvincing romance between Nino and Kay. She starts off angry with him, over how she’s been conned, in a way that had me predicting they would end up in love, and indeed they do, but all that is is fulfillment of the cliche. The film cannot establish any grounds on which you start to believe that Kay has changed her mind or begun to care about Nino. He’s willing, polite, dedicated and determined to pay her back what is after all not his debt, but he doesn’t even start looking at her romantically until after she’s supposed to have started to take a fancy to him, and it never remotely feels real.

Even their own kiss is shot through the back of Chiari’s head, which draws attention to itself as indicating that the actor and actress don’t actually kiss. How can you believe in at after that?

So They’re a Weird Mob – the title is meant to refer to Australians in general – goes back into the box-set, never to be watched again. Frankly, I will watch Superman IV in preference to this. Next Sunday’s Film is a corrective I much need now.

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