The Siege of Pinchgut Blu-ray Review
Sydney. Matt Kirk (Aldo Ray) is an escaped prisoner intent on clearing his name. Together with fellow prisoners Bert (Victor Maddern), Luke (Carlo Justini) and Matt's brother Johnny (Neil McCallum), he stages an escape on board a boat. When the boat runs aground on Pinchgut Island (more properly known as Fort Denison, with its Martello Tower) in the harbour, they take the keeper, Pat Fulton (Gerry Duggan), his wife (Barbara Mullen) and daughter Ann (Heather Sears) hostage. When a reprieve is refused, Matt and his colleagues threaten to use the naval gun on the island to blow up a ship in the harbour which is loaded with gelignite.
The Siege of Pinchgut - released in the USA as Four Desperate Men - was the fifth and last film Ealing Studios shot on location in Australia. Their first, The Overlanders, like this film, directed by Harry Watt, had been a hit a decade earlier, but the lack of success of Eureka Stockade (also directed by Watt) and Bitter Springs (directed by Ralph Smart) has caused Ealing to scale back their plans for Australian film production. The Shiralee (directed by Leslie Norman) and this film still had their exteriors filmed in Australia, although interiors were filmed back in London. The Siege of Pinchgut was also the last film of any kind made by that incarnation of the company. The original story was by Inman Hunter and Lee Robinson, from which Watt and Jon Cleary wrote the screenplay.
Given the family-friendly parameters it was clearly working within - U certificate then, PG now - The Siege of Pinchgut is a tight, tough, well-made thriller, crisply shot in black and white by Gordon Dines. The Sydney locations – not just the harbour and Circular Quay, but city centre streets and the north shore, just as summer is getting underway (November 1958) - add a lot to the film’s atmosphere. Having said this, Aussie accents are played well down, with just a few twangs here and there, presumably lest too much broad Strine upset international audiences.
Quentin Tarantino is a fan of this film and he named one of the major characters in Inglourious Basterds in tribute to the leading actor here. Imported American star Aldo Ray scores with his physical presence, though doesn’t really convey enough of the complexities of the character. The film never really explores whether he is innocent of his crimes or not. Heather Sears gets second billing with an underwritten part. This film marked the film debut of Dublin-born Australian Gerry Duggan at the age of forty-eight. A stage actor up to then, he went on to a distinguished later-life screen career as a character actor until his death in 1992. He was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer for this performance, losing to Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay.
The Siege of Pinchgut is an end-of-era film, not just for Ealing Studios, which ceased trading before this film was released. It played the Berlin Film Festival and opened in London on 21 August 1959 at the Studio One on Oxford Street, with its Australian release on 3 March 1960 at the Embassy Theatre in Sydney. The film was not a commercial success. Looked at now, the best parts of it reflect Harry Watt’s documentary background, and generically it’s a long way from what you’d normally associate with Ealing. Watt, only then in his mid-fifties, directed just one more feature film – the Danish-made The Boy Who Loved Horses – and some work on television. He died in 1987, aged eighty.
Network’s Blu-ray of The Siege of Pinchgut is encoded for Region B only. It begins with trailers for Campbell’s Kingdom and Bitter Springs, but these can be skipped by advancing a chapter.
By the time the film was made, the cinema industry in the western world had moved into the widescreen era. The film was shot in 35mm black and white and the transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1. There’s nothing untoward about it: sharp and clear with good contrast and natural-looking grain. Inevitably HD does show up some use of back projection, intended to make actors in London look like they’re in Sydney.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0 and it’s clear and well balanced. There are optional subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.
Compared to Network’s earlier releases of Ealing Australia productions, there are more extras than before. They begin with the trailer (3:00) and an image gallery – with some of the front-of-house stills in colour, given that the film is black and white – which runs 2:05.
Also on the disc are three interviews, all carried out by James McCabe but in different years. The first is with Michael Birkett (9:32), who was the assistant director and later became the second Baron Birkett, a hereditary peer. The interview took place in 2012: Birkett died in 2015. He is clear that everyone on set knew that this would be the last Ealing production, but he has fond memories of it. Aldo Ray’s leaving present to everyone on the production, even Sir Michael Balcon, was one premium bond each, worth one pound. Birkett talks about other work with Harry Watt, including a never-made version of Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, which was actually filmed in 1997. The interview could have been more tightly edited, as Birkett tends to ramble: he mentions that Pinchgut would be the last Ealing film at least four times.
Composer Kenneth V. Jones (interviewed in 2014, 5:14) is next. He is still with us, ninety-six as I write this. He doesn’t have a great deal to say about Pinchgut, wondering if the film was meant as a spoof, given Ealing’s reputation for comedy rather than tough crime thrillers like this. Finally, assistant editor Barry Peters is interviewed in 2019 (3:03). His memories are more of his work with the main editor, Gordon Stone, than specifically about this film. Peters reckons that Stone would have made a good director, if he hadn’t died in 1964, aged just thirty-nine.
As with the other Network Ealing Australian Blu-rays, also included in the package is a printed reproduction of the film’s pressbook, small enough for just about everyone to require a magnifying glass to read it.
The Siege of Pinchgut is available to own now on DVD and Blu-ray.
The Siege of Pinchgut (1959)
Dir: Harry Watt | Cast: Aldo Ray, Heather Sears, Neil McCallum, Victor Maddern | Writers: Alexander Baron (script contribution), Harry Watt (adapted by), Harry Watt (screenplay), Inman Hunter (from an original story by), Jon Cleary (screenplay), Lee Robinson (from an original story by)