They're a Weird Mob Review
Nino Culotta (Walter Chiari) is fresh off the boat in Sydney, arrived with the promise of a job as a sportswriter at his cousin's magazine. But his cousin has done a bunk, leaving debts behind, so no job for Nino. He has to take a job as a labourer to make ends meet, and that is the start of his introduction to all things Aussie...
They’re a Weird Mob is a minor, late work in Michael Powell’s filmography. A major hit in Australia, it has tended to slip into obscurity elsewhere: though not quite as little seen as Honeymoon say, or The Queen’s Guards, or the early quota quickies, it’s getting there. It’s definitely overlong at nearly two hours, but it is often funny.
The original book’s author shared his name, Nino Culotta, with that of his central character, so you might expect autobiography, but it is nothing of the sort. “Nino Culotta” was the pseudonym of John O’Grady, who was as Italian as his name would suggest. However, the book was a bestseller, and naturally attracted the attention of film companies, who clearly had little idea as to what to do with it. As it is, the film seems selfconscious of its out-of-the-ordinary location and subject matter, and begins with a crash course in all things Australian. (Yes, they are upside down. Yes, they speak a strange language called Strine.) Throughout the film, we learn about this new land along with Nino, the finer points of such things as pub etiquette. What could now be seen, perhaps rather po-facedly, as rampant stereotyping, went down a storm with a local audience, clearly unused to seeing themselves, or a comically exaggerated version of themselves, projected onto a cinema screen. It’s done in good spirit, so it doesn’t seem patronising, either to Nino or to his new mates.
By the mid-Sixties, Michael Powell was on his uppers, the scandal over Peeping Tom having had a very damaging effect on his career. He was working in television, most notably with three episodes of Espionage (recently released on DVD by Network). His partnership with Emeric Pressburger had ended, but They’re a Weird Mob was a temporary reunion, Pressburger writing the screenplay under the name Richard Imrie. Powell set up the production with the only Australians he knew, John McCallum and his actor wife Googie Withers.
To say the Sydney-based production had a major effect locally would be an understatement. Australia had made by most accounts the world’s first feature film, 1906’s hour-long The Story of the Kelly Gang, only fragments of which survive. Directors such as Ken Hall and Claude Chauvel had been active in the 30s, 40s and early 50s, and local lads Errol Flynn and Peter Finch had gone on to become major international stars. But local production had virtually died a death since Chauvel’s final film, Jedda (1955, Australia’s first colour feature). There had been Smiley and Smiley Gets a Gun, two late-Fifties children’s features shot in CinemaScope and a few other local productions. The country had been used for locations by Hollywood features such as On the Beach and The Sundowners, and the arrival in Australia of stars like Ava Gardner (to film the former) had been quite an event. But They’re a Weird Mob was a step up in scale: crowds gathered to watch the shooting on Sydney’s streets. Apart from Walter Chiari, the cast was mainly local, and the film gave first big-screen breaks to several character actors who would make an impact in the following decade. It also had an effect on television, as the filming brought together several of the production team and two of the regular cast (Ed Devereaux and Tony Bonner, who appears as a lifeguard) of Skippy.
They’re a Weird Mob was a major hit in Australia, less so overseas. As the documentary on the disc shows, questions were raised about the possibility of a local film industry, something which is usually dated from 1968 and British-born Australian director Tim Burstall’s black and white feature Two Thousand Weeks. Powell would return to the country for what would be his last feature-length film, Age of Consent.
Roadshow’s 2003 release of They’re a Weird Mob is a single, dual-layered PAL format disc encoded for Region 4 only. The film is available in the UK, but only as part of a nine-film box set, The Michael Powell Collection. I do not have a copy of that edition to compare with this, so cannot compare the transfer or soundtrack. The Roadshow is clearly the winner for extras, as the UK release has none.
The DVD is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Arthur Grant’s camerawork has that heightened look of mid-to-late 60s colour, with skin tones verging on orange in some scenes. There’s definite print damage, in the form of scratches and spots, particularly at the ends of reels, but all in all this is a good transfer.
The soundtrack is mono, as the film has always been heard. Dialogue is clear, and well balanced with music and effects. For those for whom the Aussie accents are too hard on the ear, there are subtitles provided, white in colour. The film begins with the Dolby Digital “Egypt” logo.
Ed Devereaux is our host for The Making of the Film: They’re a Weird Mob (54:07), a made-for-TV documentary from the time. It’s clearly intended to fill an hour-long slot, as there are two built-in breaks for commercials. Presented as you would expect in 4:3, inevitably this is in black and white, as Australian television didn’t broadcast in colour until 1975 (productions like Skippy were shot in colour with the export market in mind). That’s fair enough, even if extracts from They’re a Weird Mob itself, not to mention past Powell/Pressburger Technicolor films such as Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and the colour portion of A Matter of Life and Death look distinctly strange in monochrome. The documentary covers the production from its inception to the wrap party at the end of the shoot, including many shots of Powell at work – including directing a scene on Bondi Beach clad only in swimming trunks. As mentioned above, we also see Powell in discussions about how to set up a future Australian film industry.
The other extras on the disc are a short stills gallery, with explanatory captions, and the film’s trailer (2:51).