Nadia Tass double bill: The Big Steal (1990) and Mr Reliable (1996)

Steal poster

Director: Nadia Tass

Stars: Ben Mendelsohn, Claudia Karvan, Steve Bisley, Marshall Napier, Maggie King, Damon Herriman, Angelo D’Angelo

First viewing, via DVD

As someone who doesn’t own a car, I’m fairly oblivious when it comes to cars and car culture. Even so, anyone who’s ever watched a handful of teen movies will recognise the prominent role of cars and the social cachets and personal freedoms they bestow in rites-of-passage films, from Rebel Without a Cause to American Graffiti to Grease to Dazed and Confused and beyond. Even the first act of Transformers hinges largely around protagonist Sam Witwicky’s (Shia LaBeouf) bond with his new car, before switching priorities to pyrotechnics and robots thwacking each other about.

Big steal title card

The Big Steal has roots in this fertile storytelling soil. Teenager and lifelong Jaguar fan Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) inherits his parents’ old-fashioned family car on his birthday. Danny longs to date classmate Joanna (Claudia Karvan), and when he finally musters the courage to ask her out he lies and tells her he has a Jaguar. To avoid embarrassment, he trades in his birthday car—much to the disappointment of his eccentric parents (Marshall Napier and Maggie King)—as down payment for a Jaguar. However, he makes the mistake of buying from shonky dealer Gordon Farkas (Steve Bisley), who swindles him with a sub-par engine. Consequently, Danny must steal back his rightful engine, retain Joanna’s affections, and heal relations with his parents.

Nadia Tass’s film is a teen comedy romance with a dollop of thriller and plenty of charm. In my review of The Year my Voice Broke (read here), another Australian rites-of-passage film featuring a young Ben Mendelsohn, I alluded to the tradition of Australian teen flicks including that film, Puberty Blues, The Crossing, and more recently Jasper Jones. The Big Steal is a bit closer to something like Starstruck (read here), not only by virtue of its contemporary setting, but its cross-pollination with another genre and its trappings (the musical in Starstruck’s case, the heist film in The Big Steal’s) which gives it a bit more propulsion than those other, somewhat more languid efforts. Like Armstrong’s film, The Big Steal is zippy and frisky and mainstream, with only the thinnest veneer of adolescent angst. It also shares some DNA with the American teen films of the same era, notably John Hughes’ work: Mendelsohn’s Danny is sculpted from the same nerdy kid mould as Anthony Michael Hall and his ilk, while the movie romantically pairs teens from opposing wealthy and working-class homes ala Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful.

While its setting was contemporaneous to its time of production, as with most modern-set teen films the passage of time has rendered The Big Steal a time capsule. Viewers of similar vintage can thus enjoy the film as a nostalgia trip to early 1990s Melbourne, a time both more innocent and simultaneously more risqué (it’s also something of a generational checkpoint, with Danny a second-generation Australian son of ‘Ten Pound Pom’ parents who immigrated to Australia under the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme). Nostalgia can also be squeezed from the presence of the young Mendelsohn and Karvan, actors that Australian audiences have literally watched grow up onscreen over three decades. Where other Mendelsohn films covered on Down Under Flix have exploited the tension between his innate likability and gift for playing unsympathetic or conflicted characters (see the aforementioned The Year My Voice Broke and particularly Metal Skin), here he gets to play thoroughly likable and sympathetic, while Karvan’s youthful star wattage is on full display. Also terrific are Steve Bisley—an actor widely identified with vehicular hijinks in Australian films thanks to his roles in Mad Max and The Chain Reaction—as the ultimate shonky greaseball, a performance that earned him a Best Supporting Actor AFI Award, and Marshall Napier and Maggie King as Danny’s eccentric parents.

Side note to all Melbournians: The Big Steal is screening at Melbourne International Film Festival as part of a program celebrating Australian women directors. Check it out and check for details here.

Reliable poster 1

Director: Nadia Tass

Stars: Colin Friels, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jonathan Hardy, Susie Porter

First viewing, via DVD

The Big Steal was directed and co-produced by Tass and written by her husband David Parker, who also co-produced and served as Director of Photography. This filmmaking duo enjoyed earlier success on 1986’s award-winning Malcolm, and would re-team with Malcolm’s star Colin Friels a decade later on Mr Reliable, with Tass again directing and Parker serving as cinematographer. Set in 1968 and billed as “The incredible true story of Australia’s first and only hostage crisis” (a rather sweeping generalisation: Ned Kelly anyone?), the film centres on Wally Mellish (Colin Friels), recently released from prison and returned to his hometown Glenfield, 40 kilometres southwest of Sydney. Wally shacks up with old acquaintance Beryl (Jacqueline McKenzie) and her infant child, but can’t quite curb his criminal ways and steals hood ornaments to decorate their new home. When police visit Wally’s house and wrongly deduce that Beryl and her son are hostages, this triggers a media circus and mass police presence around Wally’s property, trapping the initially baffled and subsequently frustrated couple indoors.

reliable title

The poster seen above accompanied the film’s DVD release, and conveys a very different tone to the original, somewhat more Welcome to Woop Woop-esque posters below.

Reliable poster 2    reliable-poster-3.jpg

These two very different tones are reflected in the film itself. As per its narrative hook, the film begins as a comedy of errors, milking humour from the police’s confusion and from Wally and Beryl’s bewilderment. It’s a fine balancing act keeping these threads believable, and in less deft hands Mr Reliable could have tipped over into broad farce and created audience incredulity. But Tass and company pull off the balancing act, fashioning a dry, drolly comic look at the absurd ala Road to Nhill and Love Serenade, two other films of similar vintage.

Subsequently, as the stakes escalate, the film generates dramatic heft. A co-producer and co-scripter on the project was Terry Hayes, a writer with a knack for elucidating the dramatic potential in Australian history (he wrote on revered miniseries such as The Dismissal, Bodyline, and Vietnam in the 1980s) as well as its mythic dimension (seen in those series as well as his two best-known co-writing credits, The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome). Mr Reliable finds some mythic resonance in its true life story, tapping into the pro-battler, anti-police, anti-authority sentiments that pervade much of Australian popular culture, as seen in its celebration of counter-culture figures such as the aforementioned Ned Kelly. There’s also a touch of Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon to the film, given its period setting and depiction of a siege situation along with the police/media/public frenzy accompanying it. The outlandish events finds sturdy, sympathetic anchors in lead actors Friels—a veritable Mr Reliable of Australian cinema (see here)—and the likewise consistently good McKenzie (see here).

While The Big Steal and Mr Reliable would make a nice double feature, it’s worth noting that Mr Reliable was released six months before another, more popular Australian film about a battler who takes arms (albeit not literally) against harassment to protect his home, The Castle. As far as double bills go, these films would make a fitting pair.

Next time: Another visit to Aussiewood with Bruce Beresford’s Mister Johnson (1990).

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

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