Our very own crime wave

Rose Capp

David Wenham, Sam Worthington, Gettin' Square

David Wenham, Sam Worthington, Gettin' Square

Many of the most memorably absurd moments in recent Australian films have occurred in the crime comedy genre. In Gregor Jordan’s Two Hands (1999), a clueless, Stubbie-clad hit man loads rusty bullets into his ‘piece’ turning the murder weapon into a popgun and the murder attempt into a farce. Johnny Spiteri (David Wenham) has government fraud investigators in knots, and the audience in stitches, with his inadvertent obfuscations in Gettin’ Square (Jonathan Teplitzky, 2003). When Dale (Guy Pearce) robs the cashed-up Melbourne Cup bookies in The Hard Word (Scott Roberts, 2003), he addresses the crowd in the manner of a droll, Ned Kelly-inspired MC: “Can I have your attention: stick ‘em up. No need to be afraid, we’ve done this many times before.”

In the last 5 years, crime comedies have featured consistently on Australian screens, with varying degrees of critical and commercial success. Two Hands, The Hard Word and Dirty Deeds (David Caesar, 2002) achieved respectable box office returns, while last year Gettin’ Square won critical acclaim, a swag of awards and moderate commercial success. Other less prominent examples of the genre include Muggers (Dean Murphy, 2000), The Nugget (Bill Bennett, 2002), Horseplay (Stavros Kazantzidis, 2003) and Bad Eggs (Tony Martin, 2003). While these films tackle the crime comedy format in different ways, they are all genre films with explicit links to the American crime comedy tradition and the caper sub-genre in particular.

The genre film has had a problematic history in Australia ever since the mid-70s revival of the local film industry. The first decade was dominated by period dramas explicitly influenced by a European art house narrative tradition and aesthetic. Government funding through the Australian Film Commission actively supported the production of films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979) and Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981), giving rise to the pejorative tag ‘AFC genre’. These films were the product of a funding strategy that discouraged films modeled on mainstream Hollywood genres.

There were sound financial reasons for not competing with Hollywood in the production of big budget genre pictures, but the motivation for funding so-called ‘quality’ films had more to do with an entrenched cultural, rather than mercantile, rationale. Graham Turner has argued that following the revival of the industry film became the dominant mode of cultural representation (Graham Turner, “The Genres are American: Australian Narrative, Australian film, and the Problem of Genre”, Film Literature Quarterly, Volume XXI, no. 2, April 1993). Feature films were required to articulate pressing issues of nationhood and national identity, hence the preponderance of narratives dealing with aspects of Australian cultural, social and political history. This necessarily limited the generic diversity of the feature film industry.

While the hegemony of the ‘AFC genre’ gradually gave way to an industry that could accommodate Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986) alongside High Tide (Gillian Armstrong, 1987), the genre film has generally continued to be regarded as fundamentally ‘un-Australian’. However, the current spate of Australian crime comedies arguably reflects an increased willingness on the part of filmmakers to tackle genre-based projects. Given that the 4 main examples cited earlier received substantial government funding and yielded reasonable box office returns, there also seems to be a corresponding willingness on the part of Australian film funding bodies and local audiences to support such films.

But the success of the local crime comedy does not necessarily attest to the industry’s overwhelming embrace of the genre film, but rather the appeal of a specific genre. Unlike the Western or horror film, the codes and conventions of the crime comedy—particularly the caper film—seem peculiarly suited to the collective temperament of Australian audiences.

A sub-genre of the American gangster film, the caper film typically features a group of professional crooks planning an elaborate robbery. Due to the personal foibles of individual characters and/or disagreements within the group, the plan often goes wrong. Think The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) or Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992). In both the dramatic and comic versions of the genre, the caper film is underpinned by a fundamentally anti-authoritarian and egalitarian imperative. Whether the target is a bank or a racetrack, much of the pleasure in these films derives from the social transgression represented by attacks on institutions. Equally, the emphasis on criminal camaraderie and group loyalty is paramount. Given the ingrained anti-authoritarian streak in the Australian national character, our history of venerating rogues and outlaws and our equally celebrated ethic of ‘mateship’, it is not hard to see why the caper film might have singular appeal.

In The Hard Word and Gettin’ Square, early scenes in jail establish the crucial criminal partnerships. In the former, it is the fraternal triumvirate of the Twentyman brothers, and in the latter, the unlikely alliance between Barry Worth (Sam Worthington) and Johnny Spiteri. In both films, the criminals are generally depicted as amusingly flawed characters who are more lovable louts than hardened mobsters. And while an audacious crime is central to the plot of both films, it is the nexus of corrupt law enforcement figures that constitutes the most pernicious manifestation of ‘organised crime.’

Much of the humour in both films arises not only from the planned assault on the bookies and banks, but also on the crooked cops and bent lawyers who are the real villains of the piece. It is also significant that, in contrast to the American tradition, crime in recent Australian caper films pays very well. Things do not go precisely to plan, but the criminals in The Hard Word and Gettin’ Square get more than square.

While these 2 films draw on the American caper tradition, it could also be argued that their appeal, and the appeal of other films like Two Hands and Dirty Deeds, derives largely from their distinctively Australian rendering of the crime comedy genre. All 4 films are memorable for their idiosyncratic incarnations of laconic, casually dressed, foul-mouthed crims who are capable of juggling home duties with hard crime. In Two Hands, for example, Pando (Bryan Brown) patiently instructs his son in origami techniques while simultaneously organising a hit.

Group dynamics in these films are characterised by a wonderfully expressive local vernacular. Dialogue is liberally peppered with rhyming slang and good old-fashioned Australian colloquialisms. Given the aggressively masculine milieu of the genre, the scripts have a humorous, unequivocally blokey tenor. In Dirty Deeds and Gettin’ Square, the presence of American and British characters respectively also highlights the peculiarities of the local lingo by comically foregrounding cultural differences in language and behaviour.

The presence of outsiders also represents an explicit acknowledgement of the way Australian crime comedy has actively engaged with the generic traditions of both British and American cinemas. Rather than being immutable, the genre film is a dynamic form that can be endlessly modified and reinvented in different national and cultural contexts. Three decades ago, the Australian film industry deliberately defined itself in opposition to a Hollywood, genre-inspired model of filmmaking. In addition to other genre projects, the moderate to strong success of recent crime films suggests that Australian filmmakers and audiences are gettin’ square with the genre film.

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 20

© Rose Capp; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2004