Category Archives: Australian noir

The Square: small town noir Australian style

Tales of money, betrayal, lust and murder set in the underbelly of rural small town life are a major thematic strand of film noir. Australia’s contribution to this, released locally to mixed reviews in 2008, is The Square.

The location selected by first time director and writer Nash Edgerton is the central coast of New South Wales, where the laid back life-style and stunning countryside exist side by side with pockets of deep poverty and a highly casualised workforce.

The opening scene of The Square takes place at dawn. Two people are having sex in the back seat of a car to the accompanying drone of cars crossing a nearby overpass. They finish, pausing long enough for us to notice their wedding rings, before going their separate ways.

The man, Ray, pulls into a clearing in the middle of thick bushland and enters the portable office from which he is supervising the construction of a resort for honeymooners. The young woman, Carla, drives to her job in a hairdressing parlour.

Before long, Ray is getting a hard time down from Gil, the developer (long time Australian actor, Bill Hunter) for failing to keep costs down. There’s no need for anything fancy, Gil tells him, all they are building is a place were “couples can root in Jacuzzis”.

But it’s hard keeping costs down when you’re systematically embezzling the project, a fact we discover when Ray asks a concreter for a $40,000 kickback in exchange for giving him the contract to pour the resort’s foundation.

After work, Carla goes home to her husband, Greg, a tow truck driver with a nasty attitude, an old mother and a sports bag full of drug money he keeps in compartment in the roof of their laundry. It only takes one furtive glance of her husband handling the money for Carla to decide this is a deal changer. She suggests to Ray that they steal it and blow town together.

Ray hesitates, unsure how they can steal it without alerting her husband. “You’d have to burn the place down if you really want this money to disappear,” Ray says, adding that he’s joking. “I’m not,” she shoots back with a palpable sense of desperation.

When Ray equivocates further, Carla brings out one of the oldest plays in the book.

“This isn’t about money. I want you to do something. Something,” she says before storming off.

Ray eventually agrees to go along with Carla’s plan, meeting up with local arsonist Billy (co-writer, Joel Edgerton) in a Chinese restaurant. Billy makes small talk about the bull sharks that swim up from the sea into the town’s river, before agreeing to burn down the house for half his fee up front.

The crime is set to take place while the entire town (including Carla and her husband) is attending the local Christmas Carols by Candlelight. Carla has already removed the bag of money. But sipping chardonnay with his wife among the gum trees and fairy lights, Ray has second thoughts. He tries to abort the arson but fails when his mobile runs out of power.

Next thing Ray knows the local fire brigade, who have also been attending the festivities, are speeding off to attend to the blaze. What he doesn’t find out until next morning is that Greg’s mum was sleeping in the house as it burnt to the ground.

“Ray, we have killed someone, we’re murderers,” says Carla in genuine shock. Also alarmed is the arsonist, Billy, who only agreed to burn down a house, not murder someone. To make matters worse, Billy tells Ray in no uncertain terms he wants the rest of his money or else.

Carla’s husband has figured out the drug money was not in the house when it was burnt down and has his own suspicions about who took it. Meanwhile, Ray gets a Christmas card from an unknown source claiming to know what he and Carla did and asking for $10,000 or they’ll go to the police.

Ray believes the card is the work of a shifty local mechanic. The mechanic discovers Ray attempting to break into his house. The two men fight and Ray accidentally kills him and buries the body in the square of land that is soon to be the resort’s foundation.

Ray realises he has killed the wrong man when he gets another card. As if this isn’t bad enough, torrential rain is preventing the concrete from being poured, every hour increasing the possibility the mechanic’s body will be found.

For the most part, Edgerton handles the mounting complexity of cross and double cross well, building the tension gradually throughout the film. He only loses his grip in the finale, a bloody confrontation between Ray, Carla, her boyfriend and Billy the arsonist in the lounge room of Carla’s house. This scene has an almost Cohen brothers black comedy feel that is completely at odds with the stripped back neo-noir feel of the rest of the film.

While the script has its clunky moments, Edgerton also manages to get good performances from a cast of mostly relative unknowns.

David Roberts gives a good performance as a tightly wound everyman, whose greed and philandering have led him into events beyond his comprehension. He may be cunning, but he’s no match for the town’s redneck criminal underclass he suddenly finds himself up against.

Ray stumbles clueless throughout much of the film. The only thing saving him is the intervention of others, including his boss Gil, who in the process of discovering Ray is stealing from him, uncovers the real culprit behind the blackmailing Christmas cards.

Claire van der Boom is excellent as Carla. Although her character has many of the hallmarks of the classic small town femme fatale, she manages to inject much more into the role. While she is prepared to use her considerable sexual appeal to get what she wants, she manages to keep us guessing throughout the film about whether she’s just playing Ray or genuinely in love with him. Whatever the case, it’s impossible not to sympathise with her efforts to get more out of life than a dead end job and cooking dinner for her husband’s sleazy poker playing mates.

The Square is not a brilliant film. But despite its faults the movie is a worthy addition to the small club of Australian cinematic offerings that can claim some sort of noir status.

This piece originally appeared in Back Alley Noir’s Film Noir of the Week in July 2010.

Money Movers: unearthing a rare Australian noir

There’s a lot of justified hype about the period of Australian film from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties known as “Ozploitation”, when the creation of film funding bodies and the introduction of government tax breaks to encourage investment in the industry saw an explosion of local production.

But there was one genre of movie the Ozploitation period did not do well or often – crime.

One of the few exceptions is Bruce Beresford’s heist movie, Money Movers. Adapted from the novel of the same name by an ex-security officer, like a lot of films from the Ozploitation period, Money Movers completely flopped when it was released in 1979.

Unlike like a lot of the Ozploitation movies that have since gone on to enjoy critical and cult acclaim, Money Movers remains little known or appreciated, despite a dvd version being released in 2004. This is a pity because Money Movers is proof Australia could knock out a noir as gritty and multi-layered as the best of them.

Its hardboiled feel is established in the opening scenes, muster time in the counting house of Darcy’s Security Services. The armoured car drivers exchange jokes and take a last drag on their cigarettes before going on the weekly bank run. Two of them, Brian Jackson (iconic Australian actor Bryan Brown) and his brother, Eric (Terence Donovan), head of security at Darcy’s, pause to observe money being unloaded from a truck with particular interest.

This is juxtaposed with shots of management, or the “armchair drivers” as those on the shop floor derisively refer to them, and images of the (then) modern paraphernalia of security in operation: mesh grills being electronically lowered, lights flashing, doors being buzzed open.

On the road, one of the trucks parks for the drivers to a take a lunch break. On their return, they are jumped by men wearing clown masks and brandishing sawn off shotguns. The only man to resist is Dick Martin (Ed Devereaux). He gives a good account of himself before being clubbed. His resistance marks him out someone who won’t be intimidated even when he’s dealing with a bandit who has just gunned down an innocent bystander in broad daylight.

The robbers are next seen pulling into an old garage. No sooner have they cracked open their first celebratory beers than they are finished off by a henchman working for the mastermind behind the operation, Henderson (another veteran Australian actor, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell), who has no intention of sharing the take.

Meanwhile across town, a secretary hands the CEO of Darcy’s a note (made up of cut and pasted newspaper letters, no less), informing them the counting house will soon be robbed. The note forces management to fast track new security measures – if they can get them past the opposition of the local trade union.

They are not the only ones worried. The Jackson brothers along with the emphysemic head of the local union are planning to rob the counting house and are not happy with the prospect of competition.

Eric Jackson has been working on the job for five years, taking his time, making sure everything is right, much to the chagrin of his hot-headed brother. “By the time you’re ready, well be rushing into the counting house in wheel chairs,” Brian tells his cautious older brother. Now their hand has been forced and they have to move quickly.

As they talk, the three men leaf through the personnel files of new recruits to the company for some clue about who might be trying to muscle in on their job. Their main suspect is Leo Bassett (Tony Bonnor), a young urbane man patently out of place patrolling industrial back lots in the middle of the night.

To bank roll their plan, Eric Jackson knocks over a cosmetics factory patrolled by Darcy’s, in the process killing one of his own security guards. Next he prowls Bassett’s pad for evidence linking him to the note, unaware it is also under surveillance by Henderson’s goons. They capture Jackson, find the replica of the Darcys’ armoured car he and his brother are working on, and realise what they are up to.

With the help of some bolt cutters, Henderson persuades the Jackson brothers to cut him in as a partner. Henderson’s terms are simple: he seconds some of his men to help out with the job and takes 60 per cent of anything stolen in exchange for helping get the brothers out of the country when it is over. It’s not a great deal, especially given that we’ve already seen how Henderson deals with partners.

Using a union meeting as cover, the brothers attempt the robbery. It almost comes off until Dick Martin fresh from the beating he endured during his earlier attempt to protect the company’s money, notices something amiss. Needless to say, like most heist films it all ends very badly.

The feel of the Money Movers is straight down the line noir. The city of Sydney is anonymous as a location. The story takes place in truck lots, factory floors, container yards and neon lit streets, there’s not an opera house or expanse of blue water in sight. On the few occasions the movie takes us into larger, more brightly lit locations, the characters seem tense and uneasy.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Money Movers is the way Beresford executes the classic noir theme of the paper-thin line between good and bad. Corruption is so pervasive, so matter a fact, it’s hardly commented on. Management complain about the girls in the counting room slipping notes into their underwear. Before he’ll lift a finger, Ross the policeman investigating the note threatening to rob the counting house casually shakes down Darcy’s human relations manager for a bribe. “Might be a bit costly”, Ross says about chasing down leads. “Not real orthodox stuff.” Even Dick Martin is tainted, framed by his former colleagues and pushed out of the police force after 24 years because he wouldn’t take bigger bribes.

The blurring of morality extends to modern business methods. Darcy’s management are more worried about the impact of the latest armoured car robbery on their insurance premiums than the safety of their employees. The CEO ponders aloud whether they should try and get some younger guards, “ex-Vietnam boys”, only to be informed they’re considered too trigger happy. Besides getting a better class of guard would break unofficial company policy only to employ applicants who fail the test: they are the only ones who won’t get bored with the job.

Flush with money made from selling drugs, liquor and sex to visiting American GIs during the Vietnam War, the seventies were a time of massive corruption across much of the eastern seaboard of Australia. The nexus between criminals, commerce, sections of the labour movement and police was tight. Illegal businesses flourished often under the direct patronage of corrupt police.

Against these forces, amateurs like Eric and Brian Jackson don’t stand a chance, no matter how quick on their feet or good with their fists they are. Beresford doesn’t waste much time explaining why these men want to rob their employer. For the older brother, an ex-racing car driver now trapped in an unhappy marriage, it’s about recapturing some sense of being on the edge. His younger brother just wants the good life. All we know about the aging union hack is an old black and white photograph of an Asian woman and his promise to come back to her.

The film combines classic elements of noir with some uniquely Australian characteristics. The class divide is starkly drawn, reinforced through out the film by images of wealth and money. The Australian economy was on the verge of recession in the late seventies, unions represented over half the working population (now it is about 20 per cent), and the view that management and workers were not on the same side wasn’t as anachronistic as it sounds now. The desire of the Jackson brothers to rip management off, to get what they have, is just a given. Even the crime boss Henderson is a victim of the economic times, masterminding armed robberies for funds to refurbish his textile factory that went belly up when government lifted import restrictions.

Given the milieu it depicts, the Money Movers has a male feel and aggression and violence are always close to the surface. The men are in charge, the women relegated to harassed secretaries, angry wives, and bits on the side. Leo Bassett, the man the Jackson brothers suspect of being behind the note, is not only an outsider, he’s branded a ‘poofter’ by Brian Jackson because it states in his personnel file that he likes music and poetry – the kiss of death in seventies Australian working class male culture.

Those who do try to do their job and refuse to compromise, like ex-cop Dick Martin, get little in return. At the film’s end, as Martin is being wheeled out of the counting house on an ambulance gurney after nearly being killed foiling the Jackson brother’s robbery, the corrupt cop Ross tells him: “Get over this and they’ll stick a medal on you and put you back on award wages”.

A little piece of metal and a minimum wage job – the best deal a hero is likely to get in Money Movers.

This piece originally appeared in Back Alley Noir’s Film Noir of the Week in June 2010.