They’re a Weird Mob (1966)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below. PS I’m on holiday at the moment, so that’s why you won’t see any new releases on review this week!

The English director Michael Powell and the Hungarian emigré Emeric Pressburger are remembered for many fine films over their long career, and justly so (I particularly like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 1943, though all film lovers should have their favourite), but this last collaboration is probably not one of them. Looking back almost 50 years later, it’s very much an historical curio from a time long gone, of a quite different Australia — for indeed, this is an Australian film and it is set in Sydney.

By all accounts it was a very popular film the year it came out, and no wonder, for on the one hand it was based on a best-selling novel, and moreover there were only 15 features made in the country during that entire decade. In essays about Australian cinema appearing in The Oxford History of World Cinema (ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith) and The Cinema Book (ed. Pam Cook), the film is singled out as a notable production preceding the flourishing of Australian cinema talent the following decade. It also attracts academic discussions as a key Australian film of its era (such as this one in the Australian online film journal Senses of Cinema).

That said, for a casual viewer who is an outsider to Australian culture, it’s still a very likeable comedy of, well, being an outsider. As a tale focused around an Italian immigrant to Australia (Nino, played by Italian comedic actor Walter Chiari), the perspective of the outsider is one embedded in the film. Just as he is, so are we introduced to this strange country (with some, thankfully brief, obligatory flipping of the image to indicate ‘Down Under’) and its strange language and customs. This indeed provides most of the humour in the first half, as Nino stumbles through a series of encounters with Australians (a taxi driver, a man in a pub, a group of builders) and their colourful use of Antipodean slang. He eventually takes a job as one of the builders, and gains their trust and respect.

It’s all fairly basic stuff, illustrating what is at heart a chauvinist culture — “it’s a man’s world, sweetheart” the film’s final song cheerfully informs us as all the characters, male and female, crack open beers — though there is a (rather perfunctory) sub-plot of Nino finding love with business-like Kay Kelly (played by Clare Dunn), certainly no stooge of the men around her. The gender relations may not be particularly surprising for a film of this era, but it is at least quite sweet-natured about immigrants. Sure, there’s a lot of mildly derogatory slang (by all means correct my spelling, but “aye-tie” seems to be the most frequent one for Italians, though there are some uses of “dago” too), but there’s little actual discrimination against Nino, and the only really bitterly racist character is ridiculed as a drunkard who’s already shunned by his compatriots. There’s also a nice conversation near the end with Kay’s gruff and suspicious dad (Chips Rafferty, apparently an icon of blokey Australian-ness), where they are brought together in understanding by a picture of the Pope, of all people.

As a good-natured and well-meaning view of how one imagines the majority Australian culture of the 1960s liked to see themselves, it’s a pleasant enough ride. It doesn’t condescend to the labourers who are, after all, central characters in the story, and — at least with respect to immigrants from Europe — it shows an affably (if at times gruffly) welcoming people.

Director Michael Powell; Writer Emeric Pressburger [as “Richard Imrie”] (based on the novel by John O’Grady [as “Nino Culotta”]); Cinematographer Arthur Grant; Starring Walter Chiari, Clare Dunne; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 23 May 2013.