The Big Steal Review

Footscray, a suburb of Melbourne. There are two things high-schooler Danny Clark (Ben Mendelsohn) really wants – a Jaguar car and the attentions of the beautiful Joanna Johnson (Claudia Karvan). However, much to his embarrassment, his parents give him a car for his birthday – their old Nissan Cedric. However, when Danny is able to ask Joanna out, he tells her he owns a Jag. There's no backing down, so Danny and his friends pay a visit to a used car dealership run by the distinctly dodgy Gordon Farkas (Steve Bisley) and he trades in the Cedric for a Jag. But the date is a disaster, and the car turns out to be a dud and the contract he signed with Farkas turns out not to be worth the paper it's written on. With the help of his mates, Danny sets out to put things right...

The Big Steal is the third feature from the Melbourne-based team of Nadia Tass and David Parker. (She directs, he writes – with additional scripting from Max Dann here – and photographs, both produce, and they are married.) It followed Malcolm and its less successful follow-up Rikky and Pete (which I haven't seen). It's a much more slickly made film than Malcolm, which was visually quite rough and ready, due as much to the tiny budget as the fact that the filmmakers were first-timers. Like the earlier film, The Big Steal is a warm comedy, its humour lodged in character quirks.

Your liking for this film will depend on your liking for its central character. His behaviour is certainly recognisable in countless teenage males: a wish to impress which makes him make up things he can't live up to, when all Joanna wants is for him to be himself. It's obvious that Tass and Parker view this behaviour with some ironic distance: just look at what Danny's mother has on her Scrabble board early on. But this is a film where if Danny was just more honest earlier on, then there wouldn't be a story. For me, the first half of the film is the better half, with the remainder rather too much dominated by plot mechanics and a tendency to sideline Joanna.

This film gave Ben Mendelsohn and Claudia Karvan their first lead roles. They were twenty-one and eighteen respectively, though both had been acting since the early 1980s. Both are very appealing, and are backed up by a solid supporting cast. Marshall Napier gets a striking moment when he lets out a primal scream when he realises that his beloved Cedric has been traded in. In the commentary, Parker says that this was inspired by a similar scream in The Man from Snowy River (on which he worked as stills photographer). There's another such scream – in different circumstances – in Tass and Parker's latest film, Matching Jack.

But the film is stolen by Steve Bisley, in a very funny performance which won him an AFI Award for Best Supporting Actor. It also won for the screenplay and Phil Judd's music score. Mendelsohn, Karvan and Maggie King (an actress seen mainly on TV, here playing Danny's mother) were all nominated, as were Paddy Reardon for his production design and John Wilkinson and Steve Gawen for sound. The film was also nominated for Best Film, but lost to Flirting.


The Big Steal is released by Umbrella on a dual-layered DVD encoded for all regions. The PG rating is the somewhat lenient Australian one. In the UK it had a somewhat harsh 15 certificate and would probably have a 12 now - for some racially discriminatory terms uttered by Farkas, a scene with Farkas in a club featuring topless female mud-wrestlers and a topless waitress, and maybe some possibly imitable dangerous driving – so parents be advised.

The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1 (opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1) and anamorphically enhanced. As a transfer, it does show its age, and clearly wasn't HD-sourced. It's rather too soft and under-detailed, and blacks look a little milky. There is some minor print damage in a few places. It's certainly adequate, but could be done better.

The Big Steal was released in cinemas with an analogue (matrixed) Dolby Stereo soundtrack, being a few years too early for the widespread use of digital soundtracks. The soundtrack on the DVD is in Dolby Surround (Dolby Digital 2.0 played via Dolby ProLogic). There is some surround use, such as the music score and some directional effects as the train which goes by during Mr Clark's primal scream. My main issue is that the track was mixed very low, so I had to turn the volume up quite some way. There are also no subtitles available for the hard-of-hearing, a frequent shortcoming of Umbrella back-catalogue discs.

The commentary is the work of Tass and Parker. It tends towards the scene-specific, but there's enough about the making of the film (and pointing out the various Melbourne locations) to make it worthwhile. The filmmakers also take part in a featurette (21:34) in which they look back – over a thirteen-year-distance – on a film they are clearly very fond of, and is remembered fondly by many audiences.

The next item is made up of interviews with Ben Mendelsohn, Claudia Karvan and Steve Bisley (misspelled “Bisely” on the menu), from 1990 and again from 2003. (Mendelsohn and Karvan were interviewed together in 1990, separately in 2003.) These run as follows: Mendelsohn 2003 (15:23), Karvan and Mendelsohn in 1990 (13:35), Karvan 2003 (15:27), Bisley 1990 (15:32), Bisley 2003 (18:30). Needless to say, the age difference for Mendelsohn and Karvan is startling, Bisley less so. These are pretty substantial interviews, talking about the experience of making The Big Steal and more general comments about the Australian film industry. There are Play All, Play 1990 and Play 2003 options.

Next are interview tapes (7:28) featuring Angelo D'Angelo, Claudia Karvan and Damon Herriman. The extras are completed with the theatrical trailer (1:38) and trailers for other Umbrella releases: Malcolm, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, Puberty Blues and The Club.

7 out of 10
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7 out of 10
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out of 10

Last updated: 31/05/2018 00:41:57

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