The Michael Powell classic that remains out in the cold
March 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
Previously thought of as an abomination, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is now, if not rehabilitated, then long been given its due as a masterpiece. Currently, Powell and Emeric Pressburger are even overturning Francois Truffaut’s ruling on British film with their The Red Shoes. It has been deemed worthy of screening at 50+ cinemas in France during the first two months of 2011 alone. But there is one film that remains which though a great example of Powell’s art, is refused entrance into the pantheon by critics and Powell Pressburger fanatics alike. No UK VHS release exists let alone a stand-alone DVD. It even boasts Emeric Pressburger as screenwriter, marking the culmination of their masterful feature film collaboration. The film in question is the routinely maligned They’re A Weird Mob made in Australia in 1966. The struggle to set aside preconceptions is well worth it, the film being richly deserving of a fresh look.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the partnership of Powell and Pressburger produced exquisitely beautiful films. Never in a merely ornamental way, these often deviated wildly from the path favoured in Britain of realism. The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Tales of Hoffmann were not in the least about ordinary people. Against such a background, even the title They’re A Weird Mob is so jarring as to dislodge perception. Worse, the rest of this film of the Italian migrant Nino Culotta’s (Walter Chiari) beginning in Australia concerns itself with the down-to-earth fellowship offered between men who get their hands dirty. And yet it is a hilarious, inventive and beautifully played film — one for Powell and Pressburger enthusiasts to be proud of.
They’re A Weird Mob is said to be one of Powell and Pressburger’s worst. The film is commonly spoken of as containing none of Powell’s characteristic visual invention and artistic experiment. These aspects can only be evident, of course, if viewers allow themselves to accept what their eyes are showing them. Second only to Ian Christie in importance as a writer espousing the Powell-Pressburger cause, Andrew Moore concedes the “expressionistic” wavering visuals as Nino succumbs to the heat on the building site. But even Moore chooses then to negate it by decrying the sequence as crude and “roughly cut”. There is apparently no account taken for the fact that the roughness is coherent, certainly, in terms of subject.
Nino’s intended workplace, at the La Seconda Madre publication of his absconded uncle, provides another set readily exploited for full expressionistic effect by an imagination which was up for it. Exhausted, he sleeps out of necessity in the shambles of discarded magazines in what was to be his office. Culotta collapses in a heap, his sports editor name plate perched by his nose. As he washes using magazines as shorts and towel and sits in a throne made of piles of them overseeing his wrecked prospects, we laugh and feel for him simultaneously. Chiari’s performance is wonderful and even given credit in some quarters. “The acting is mostly indifferent” sums up the critical consensus though.
The cream of Australian stage and screen – names and faces that have cropped up everywhere there since – filled the parts of They’re A Weird Mob. Every actor here is so talented that they easily bring off all that is asked of them. The final scenes, for instance, are beautifully played. Emeric Pressburger’s script helps greatly, as in the thrust and parry of the verbal duel between Nino and his potential father-in-law. Equally great is the subsequent scene of the builders meeting Nino’s supposedly posh girlfriend. The nudges from one to the next along the complete length of the sofa to come up with a suitable reply, until the last who adds “yeah”, are hilarious.
“Thoughts and feelings, surprises, suspense, accident” was Emeric Pressburger’s assessment to Michael Powell of what a story is made up of. They’re A Weird Mob is another film where Pressburger’s screenwriting was invaluable. Powell turned to “Richard Imre”, as was Pressburger’s nom de plume at the time, when Powell and writer John O’Grady’s best attempts had failed. Their final combined effort brought forth revealing tangents that would have been shorn from lesser films. As Nino and his Australian co-worker look in a shed for working clothes for the dapper Italian, the latter reveals his impressions of Italy when there in the war. Incidental details sparkle with the added depth they offer: the faithfully reproduced Italian song at the wedding Nino is best man at, and the long, long camera pan down the table filled, from end to end with the food of the old country. Even better is a scene which is one of the furthest from the gorgeous spectacle of the superior people of Powell and Pressburger’s previous films, that of the wife of his boss at the home they share with Culotta, cutting her toenails on the sofa in front of him.
They’re A Weird Mob is, in fact, packed with ideas, including some of which are reminiscent of past glories. A note from the girl Nino aims to win recalls those prominent letters of I Know Where I’m Going! and Black Narcissus. The rain falling then, drenching it as he reads, is the force of nature once again taking a hand as with the mystical winds of Gone To Earth and Black Narcissus, and the final moments of torrential rain in the latter. The enclosed interiors of Small Back Room and The Spy In Black, in turn, are recalled by the shots within the changing cabin at the beach. Far more so than in its echoes of the past though, They’re A Weird Mob stands on its own singular style and inventiveness in which the stunning visuals and marvellous sets of the past Powell-Pressburger partnership have no place.
A search of the They’re A Weird Mob, using not search terms but the attributes imagination and creativity, brings forth many results. Witness the rapid cutting of the cement mixer sequence; the shadow of Chiari’s hand as he gestures to get the attention of Kay Kelly (Claire Dunne) at the beach, resting for a moment on her friend’s bottom; the likeness of a fish evocatively etched into the rock by an earlier visitor to the plot of land he’s bought to make his home; the subsequent sudden daydream of himself, his girl and their future sons; the beer crates thrown over fences, from back yard to back yard down the hill to the party; and the final shot of the Harbour Bridge being turned its right way up for northern hemisphere viewers. The warmth and wit barely let up.
A couple of decades after the release of They’re A Weird Mob; the Guardian newspaper referred to the ghastliness of the material. “Ghastly”! Recently, an amateur reviewer wrote, “Simply put; I’d not allowed them to fail”. In fact, Powell’s audience hadn’t, and still won’t, allow him to change. Esteemed critics and writers who are confirmed Powell and Pressburger acolytes have spoken of They’re A Weird Mob’s lack of sophistication. The film has been called rough and ready as if this necessitates a lack of quality. According to Powell, Rank wanted, at the time of release, to cut down on the work scenes and beer scenes; Powell suggested that it “soured their delicate stomachs”. Even present-day fans, enraptured by ballet, opera, and tales of poets, lairds, generals, nuns, impresarios, magistrates, commodores, scientists and squires balk at the contrast presented by They’re A Weird Mob.
Michael Powell noted that writer John O’Grady’s character, Nino Culotta, translates as John Big-Bum. John Big-Bum seems so utterly removed from the worlds of Lermantov et al as to be practically an admission of failure in advance to uphold the standards of John’s predecessors in Powell and Pressburger films. Then They’re A Weird Mob, once begun, quickly launches into the near-constant conversational cursing which enabled Powell to get it through the censors unscathed. Fans of the intense, magus-like patriarchs, and marvellously rarified atmosphere they inhabit within Powell and Pressburger’s oeuvre, soon experience the stripping away of the last vestiges of their sympathy. But They’re A Weird Mob shouldn’t be the embarrassment it is to Powell and Pressburger fans, or for that matter to modern Australians, who will see fair, enlightened Australians in the supporting cast’s willingness to believe in an outsider’s potential.
They’re A Weird Mob actually lacks nothing at all in its so-called “lack of sophistication”. What place would sophistication have in this movie? Here, is the crux of the misconception of the film as a bad one. With viewers conditioned to respond to magnificent set design and exquisite visuals, and characters who correspond to a whole other plane to those here, there is no chance that this film could make the grade. But They’re A Weird Mob is a classic nevertheless, and wonderful in its own way; The film’s coming in out of the cold is long overdue after taking twice as long — and counting — as Peeping Tom to be allowed to do so.