Monday, February 11, 2013

Wake In Fright

Ted Kotcheff’s Australian psychodrama was almost a lost film. He tells the story of no prints, the lost negative, and a last minute discovery in a due to be destroyed storage unit; after two years’ searching and a frame-by-frame restoration it not only looks splendid but also reveals itself to be a film well worth saving.

It tells of school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) stopping overnight in a remote but rowdy outback town on his way home to Sydney for the holidays. He’s initially contemptuous of the locals and their bluff, beery ways, and rather piqued at finding himself the intelligent outsider. One has some sympathy with his reaction – even if the men of the town are presented as uniformly honest, friendly and hospitable, it’s still the sort of place you can rape a man’s mother, but commit a worse crime by refusing a drink with him. And this is the cause of Grant’s problems – a beer-fueled night and he’s out of cash and stranded, and things are only going to get worse.

His Virgil through this hellish three dark nights of the soul is alcoholic doctor Donald Pleasance, on fine form with quasi-philosophical ramblings and trademark eye-rolling. There’s a dead-faced temptress to leaven all the hyper-masculine rowdiness, but the inevitable drunken homo-eroticism is the last straw for Grant. The through-line of his insecure masculinity is kept low-key, and it’s actually better for the film that he’s a rather unlikable prig.

Along with the oppressive physicality of the outback and its people – all dirt, sweat, and beer – the film has a striking quasi-ethnographic feel, particularly in the crowded backroom coin toss game which Grant initially dismisses as childish, before being caught up in the excitement; a strange “lest we forget” interlude in a midnight bar; and a horrible nighttime ’roo hunt. There’s not much actual fright in it, though plenty that’s frightful, and it looks very ’70s and Australian nowadays, but remains not only a spot-on portrait of a spiraling Under The Volcano-type lost weekend that handles its serious themes with restraint, and casts an admirably nonjudgmental eye on a remote and semi-barbarous way of life. Kotcheff also tells the story of an Australian screening where one audience member stood up, pointed at the screen, and protested “That’s not us”, to which another voice piped up “Sit down, mate, that is us”.

d Ted Kotchoff p George Willoughby sc Evan Jones ph Brian West ed Anthony Buckley pd Dennis Gentle m John Scott cast Gary Bond, Donald Pleasance, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson, Peter Whittle, Al Thomas, John Meillon, John Armstrong, Slim DeGrey
(1971, Oz/US, 114m)
posted by tom newth at

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