Dirty Deeds


The Dish, but with Crims?
David Caesar is an auteur.  His films (Bodyworks (1988) Greenkeeping (1992), Idiot Box (1996) and Mullet (2001))  are marked by an integrity of purpose, a clear vision, and a true ear for the Australian idiom.  What went wrong with Dirty Deeds?

Well, first, he has admitted that the idea came from a photograph of Lennie MacPherson (well-known Aussie crim of the 60s to 80s) and a couple of the Chicago Mafia who visited Australia and went pig-shooting in the 60s.  This is not really David Caesar territory:  he writes about what he knows. In this case the script was developed over the course of 5 years.  That indicates a degree of unsureness which I think runs through the whole film.

The film opens with an arty shot of an elaborate pizza delivery to soldiers on patrol in Vietnam.  But it doesn’t look like Vietnam.  It looks like the Queensland.  The pizza delivery is a funny idea, but it is also incredible – and that sets a false tone for the rest of the film.

Next follows some very stylish titles – the effect is of poker machines spinning till the words drop in place.  An gambling joint is raided, and coins fling stylishly up in the air by digital magic.  Caesar uses every technique in the book to keep the film moving along at a cracking pace.  He uses a split screen to show various Sydney sites, and that works well to establish the era as well as the town. There’s a scene involving blood going down a drain that reminded me of Brian de Palma – or at least Brian de Palma with a cigarette butt.  But overall there are just too many fancy visual effects.

I disagree with many of the critics about the casting.  Bryan Brown has done this all before, and better.  Sam Neill is interesting, but very low-key.  I loved his voice.  John Goodman should not be there – he overbalances the film, and he acts as if he is here on vacation rather than making a film. Andrew S Gilbert is really wasted as Bryan Brown’s offsider, Norm. The actor who played Bryan Brown’s main criminal rival (Freddie?  Gary Waddell?) was not at all convincing.  Toni Colette was clearly having fun as the Machiavellian Sharon (and she gets to look great too).  She and Sam Worthington were the most interesting of the lot, I thought.  I wasn’t impressed by Kestie Morassi as Margaret, Barry Ryan’s mistress.  And I thought Felix Williamson was appalling as Sal.  His American accent involved inserting an ‘r’ into words when no American would.

The soundtrack (by Tim Rogers of the band You Am I ) is overstuffed with Oz-rock nostalgia.  Some songs only get to play for a few seconds.  It feels amateurish.  And the script is also jam-packed with Aussie idiom and icons.   For example, a fascinating character called Beryl, who is responsible for counting the poker machine takings, says
“Wouldn’t be dead for quids,” but she says it at an inappropriate time. Then she produces Lamingtons!  Unfortunately, that is the last we get to see of Beryl.

I’m troubled by what I suspect are a few anachronisms too (though I may be wrong).  But did we really say “No worries”  and “Bloody wanker”(as Sharon does) in 69?  Did we say “No shit”?  Would anyone have said “What were you thinking?'” as Barry says when Norm dies.  I’m not sure.

Caesar certainly puts on a hair rasing car chase (complete with Holden utes), but the fabulous stunts are almost thrown away by poor direction which muddies the narrative.  What happened with the big semi-trailer?   It was lost on me, and I was following it avidly.  

Caesar seems to be paying homage to Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) in the scene in which John Goodman makes pizza dough.  It reminded me of Paul Sorvino cutting garlic with a razor blade in jail.  I think this attempt to make Goodman human is weak.  It is too obvious a plot device to set up the ending.  It doesn’t ring true, and Goodman doesn’t do anything sell it.  Later, it seems as if Caesar is trying to out-Coppola Coppola with all the cross-cutting with the pig shoot & Barry's trip to Sydney to do a few murders.   Compare that with The Godfather (1972)’s baptism/ murder cross-cutting, or Apocalypse Now (1979)’s death of Kurtz/ buffalo slaughter scenes?  In any case, the editing of these scenes was far too choppy to reach such dizzy heights of art.  Better not to refer to them at all.

As the denouement started, I wrote in my notes “Quite good ending in that it wasn't spelled out”.  Minutes later I was writing “Tagged on ending. Ruined it by spelling out Jimmy's $2million.”  What a shame!

A couple of trivia notes.  My husband’s school friend, Dennis Bennett, lived in the block (on the top floor) where Barry Ryan’s mistress lives.  And is the ritzy restaurant The Coachmen?

Finally, is Caesar seriously suggesting that the Mafia started the Vietnam War?  I’ll not dignify that one with a comment.  But I’m disappointed.  For such an uncompromising filmmaker, it seems to me Caesar has compromised.  And that’s ironic given that the film is all about how Australia managed to resist the strong-arm tactics of American - once upon a time in the 60s.

© Michèle M Asprey 2002

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