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They're a Weird Mob
A region 2 DVD review from The Powell & Pressburger Collection by Camus
 
"The hilarious best-seller now becomes... the funniest film ever made about Australians!"
Tagline for the movie
"For the first time I think that the film industry might have a chance here."
Chips Rafferty, actor

 

Chips may have had a point although it wasn't until the mid to late seventies (a full decade after Powell's movie) that Australia made a firm footprint on world cinema. If my surprise at a black and white classic had been, up to now, the biggest jolt of this box set, along comes They're A Weird Mob to shake me up even further. Let me step out of the review for a second.

If you want to show people how good a particular beloved TV series is, you usually (like myself) make the mistake of showing them the series' best episodes. Buffy, West Wing, Firefly and Cheers (for example) all thrived on the cumulativeness (and there is such a word) of character, of plot – and those aspects rewarded more and more week after week (or if you're like me, box-set after box-set). Movies can't do that but groups of movies can hoodwink you into thinking that certain film makers make certain films. Of course, this is the horror of expectation and having a belief system, dagnab it. Slarek once remarked that when he sat waiting for the curtains to open (in the cinema, his butler does it for him at home), he felt grateful if there was any image there at all. It was a way of denying all expectation and seeing what the film maker had to show.

Nowadays, that's practically impossible of course because the reason you're in that cinema seat is probably a teasing of expectation (teasing my arse, you are pounded by marketing these days). The 'subtle sell' passed it's expiration date quite a few years ago. I was going to use the UK phrase 'sell by date' but figured 'expiration date' would bring in more hits. I'm such a whore. My point is that P&P make masterpieces (I know, I've seen them!) and I'd not allowed them a 'career', a body of work that like everyone's, has ups and downs and in the case of P&P, aspects of sideways and pan dimensional inside outs.

Simply put, I'd not allowed them to fail.

They're A Weird Mob is a fish out of water story (based on the 1957 best selling novel by John O'Grady) of an Italian immigrant who's hoodwinked into coming to Sydney and is taken in by his co-workers and finds romance. Again, I sat there with my jaw lolling unattractively as Nino Culotta stumbles from one misadventure to another. But – as an Australian friend reminded me – They're A Weird Mob (or TAWM) was the first time Australians had seen themselves represented on screen and it was enough of a revelation to make the movie a success. No one had presented the immigrant-to-Australia's case before and in TAWM, Nino Culotta (a pseudonym for novelist O'Grady himself) serves as the everyman through which Australia is presented.

Powell is as playful here as he's ever been but he's dealing with stereotypes and perceived national traits and we all know now that political correctness has bleached that area of comedy out of existence. But this was the sixties and taking a warm-hearted look at a curious nation which sees women as 'Sheilas', uses the phrase 'fair dinkum' and drinks a lot etc. etc, was a real eye opener at the time. Forty years on, it's dated rather badly because it's become less funny due to fashion and social change. Now Australia may still be like the 'dahn unda' featured in TAWM but I find that a difficult sell. Maybe those are my prejudices coming through. Maybe I just hope that Australia isn't like TAWM anymore. Powell opens his tale with a look at all the stereotypes, literally presenting down under upside down on screen (hey ho).

If the movie works as a delightfully simple romance, it's because of Walter Chiari's performance. As the immigrant at the centre of the story, he is completely guileless, so effortlessly honest and charming that even when the locals are taking the piss, Chiari manages to squeeze through the cracks of their rough edges and he fits right in. He arrives in Australia believing he is taking up the post of sports editor on a local newspaper run by his cousin. Alas, his cousin has fled leaving debts and an attractive debtor whom Chiari vows to pay back. It's that simple really. Chiari beds down at the former offices of the newspaper constructing a bizarre, old-newspaper based lifestyle. He uses newspapers as a towel which is just mad and makes me wince just remembering it. He divides any money he makes (manual labour is his only recourse) into three, a third of which will be paid back until he has managed to repay the debt. The length of time Powell takes to show Nino starting his physical labour would not even qualify as a 'rough cut' these days.

Generally, the pace at which Powell tells Nino's entire story is, by today's standards, slow. But that's part of the film's charm, its 'old world' feel. It's almost possible, while watching it, to still believe in that world of 'eyeties' and drunken nationalists. I find it curious that to take a good look at the Australians, an Italian is chosen as a cipher. Nino is taken in by his boss, played with an easy going charm, by Ed Devereaux. His face was awfully familiar, being the star of the sixties' most famous Australian TV export, Skippy The Bush Kangaroo. The movie is liberally sprinkled with all manner of soon to be famous Australian faces. Popping up as himself for a cameo is Graham Kennedy, the Australian "King of TV" thanks to a long running show which showcased his comic talents. I was introduced to Kennedy as the middle aged cuckold in Don's Party, another movie that takes a look at Australians, but in a much more cynical fashion than TAWM. Kennedy died earlier this year but his presence in Powell's movie must have been a coup, signifying to any Australian watching that this movie has credentials. He actually uses the phrase "They're a weird mob," demonstrating the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne.

Nino gets the girl and is folded neatly into what was an alien world at the start of his adventure. It's a weird film but it has its charms and they're mostly Chiari's.

sound and vision

It's 1966 and we've moved on a bit but although we have a 1.76:1 widescreen presentation, but not anamorphic, presumably in keeping with the rest of the box set. But the colour is nicely saturated and the contrast spot on resulting in deep blacks and a contrast ratio which is pleasing to the eye. The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is mostly free from hiss and is a solid mono transfer. The sub-titles are basic but there's nothing wrong with that.

extra features

Extras? No extras. It's a miracle it's on DVD in the first place.

They're a Weird Mob
The Powell and Pressburger Collection

Australia/UK 1966 .
110 mins
director
Michael Powell
starring
Walter Chiari
Clare Dunne
Chips Rafferty
Alida Chelli
Ed Devereaux

DVD details
region 2 .
video
1.76:1
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hard of hearing
extras
none
distributor
Granada
review posted
3 October 2005

The Powell & Pressburger Collection
Introduction
A Matter of Life and Death
The Red Shoes
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
I Know Where I'm Going
A Canterbury Tale
They're a Weird Mob
49th Parallel
Battle of the River Plate
Ill Met By Moonlight

related reviews
Peeping Tom [DVD review]
Peeping Tom [Blu-ray review]
The Small Back Room

See all of Camus's reviews