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Oz Noir Feature Image Judy Davis in Phillip Noyce's, 'Heatwave'
  • Oz Noir


    Posted on: 01/08/2009
    Melbourne author Shane Maloney is the writer of Australia's most successful crime novel series - the Murray Whelan novels: Stiff, The Brush-Off, Nice Try, The Big Ask, Something Fishy and Sucked In. In 2004 Stiff and The Brush-Off were made into TV films, written by John Clarke and staring David Wenham as Murray Whelan.

    Right from its beginnings, Australian film has found inspiration in the issues of crime and retribution; the dark impulses that lead to murder and the consequences that spring from it, those who step outside the boundaries of the law and those who enforce it, and corruption, both social and personal. Our very first narrative feature, after all, was the 1906 production The Story of the Kelly Gang.

    Robbery Under Arms appeared the following year and bushranging themes continued to attract both filmmakers and audiences throughout the silent era, despite an attempt to ban depictions of outlaws on the grounds that it encouraged crime. Not that the forces of moral authority had much to worry about. Drawing on both Australian history and American cowboy flicks, such films reinforced the message that crime doesn't pay. Any doubt in that regard was soon dispelled by the gothic-horror depiction of cannibalism in For the Term of His Natural Life.

    Comedy, high adventure and soldiering dominated our screens in the thirties and forties, a time when audiences sought escape from the harsh realities of depression and war. And when the bushranger films made a tentative return in the 1950s, they found that the terrain had changed irrevocably. The old simplicities no longer held. Film noir had arrived.

    The bastard child of European visual expressionism and American pulp fiction, film noir was both a style and an atomosphere. With its chiaroscuro lighting, urban settings and air of existential ambivalence, it licenced Hollywood stars like Humphrey Bogart to shine in that dark place where celluloid criminals ply their brutal trade. Such visions could not have been further removed from an Australia of sun-drenched plains and clear-cut moral dichotomies.

    By the sixties, a noirish mood had begun to infiltrate almost every other genre short of musical comedy. Horror, science fiction and even westerns were not immune to the allure of its complexities. In France, Jean-Pierre Melville's take on the genre fed crime into the New Wave.

    In Australia, noir elements were making themselves felt in television cop shows like Homicide where they were played out in the form of almost-parodic visual cliches. Only with the arrival of the seventies did a genuine noir sensibility reach our big screens. Ironically, it took the form not of some gritty urban drama but the lurid outback desperation of Wake in Fright. (Admittedly, we were first required to witness the death rattle of the bushranger genus in the form of Mick Jagger's portrayal of Ned Kelly, about which the less said the better).

    With its empty landscape, crowded swill-houses and abrupt spurts of violence, Wake in Fright seems an unlikely candidate for noir. But these very elements serve only to reinforce the oppressive physical environment and suffocating demands for social conformity that bear down upon its protagonist and emphasise the moral vacuity in which he is trapped, hopeless and alienated. There's even a femme fatale, of sorts.

    As the constraints of the genre loosened, the low-budget Pure Shit snuck under the radar, looking for an angry fix. Its junkie desperados are anything but cool and the furious pace of their 24-hour hunt for a hit leaves little scope for complexity. What we do get, however, is a sniff of the engagement with social issues that was to inform both Goodbye Paradise and Heatwave.

    In Goodbye Paradise, film noir takes its revenge on Queensland. An avalache of cliches falls upon the Gold Coast in gleeful mayhem as if Hitchcock had decided to shoot The Birds at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. Ray Barrett's ex-cop is a graduate of the Chandler school of gumshoes, his voice-over narration ventriloquising Bob Ellis in a plot that scoops everthing in sight into its bulging net - crooked politicans, bent cops, sex, drugs, New Age religious scams, Vietnam vets, dodgy property developers and even an attempted military coup.

    Pulling a tighter focus, Heatwave tackles the real-life disappearence and presumed murder of a journalist whose activism threatens a mob-backed Sydney development project. In tone, temper and theme, Phillip Noyce harnesses the codes of classic urban noir to the political realities and moral dilemmas of the period.

    By the end of the century, the metropolis was more than just a setting for sinister shennanigans. It had morphed into a dystopian vision of human corruption: a vast and creepy maze that rendered individual human agency all-but futile. Dark City blends a science fiction plot with a 1940s aesthetic that offers more than a passing nod to the noir tradition, morphing PI conventions into Kafkaesque dread.

    Apart from the director's nationality, however, there is little perceptibly Australian about Dark City. This can't be said for The Square, which roots itself firmly in the familiar world of the suburbs and hangs its plot on adultery, betrayal and greed. Not only are the setting and motives recognisable, so too is the black humour that colours the depiction of criminals in so many Australian films, and which Bryan Brown has turned into a kind of archetype.

    This unsettling combination of casual homicide, lethal fury and flippant self-awareness is played to perfection in The Magician. And while the mockumentary format puts the humour up front, there remains something pervasively and disconcertingly plausible about Scott Ryan's portrayal of the hitman Ray. In Oz noir, dags can be killers too. On the flip side, Boxing Day tries for a brooding edginess by combining the illusion of a continous take with an explosive secret teetering on the brink of revelation.

    The lines between film noir and other categories have become so blurred and its historic influence so pervasive that any attempt to track its impact on Australian filmmaking is bound to be idiosyncratic at best. The eclectic and somewhat random sample represented by this program is a mere scratch in a hail of bullets. But for a nation of flawed heroes and their femme fatales, they point to a darkness not far below the sun-bleached surface and a thirst that beer alone cannot assuage.

    Shane Maloney August 2009

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