Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger epitomized British filmmaking for decades. Seeing the logo of their production company, The Archers – an arrow hitting the center of a target – at the beginning of a film meant you were about to view something special, well-written, and out of the ordinary. They made classic after classic; I Know Where I’m Going (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and several others are mainstays on lists of classic films.
Even after the team split up in the late 1950s, Powell turned out one more film, now acknowledged as a masterpiece: Peeping Tom. However, upon its 1960 release, the film killed his career. Peeping Tom wasn’t merely disliked by the critics, it was reviled. "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer" is merely one of many such reviews that Powell quotes in Million-Dollar Movie, the second volume of his memoirs, posthumously published two years after his death in 1990.
The film’s distributor cowered and pulled Peeping Tom out of theaters. "[Anglo-Amalgamated Films] yanked the film out of the Plaza, they cancelled the British distribution, and they sold the negative as soon as they could to an obscure black-marketeer of films who tried to forget it, and forgotten it was, along with its director, for twenty years," Powell writes in Million-Dollar Movie.
As Powell explains in that book, no one wanted to work with him after Peeping Tom. He did manage to scrape together backing for one more British film, The Queen’s Guards, in 1961, but he describes the project as woeful: "The Queen’s Guards is the most inept piece of filmmaking that I have ever produced or directed. I didn’t write the story (weak), nor the screenplay (abysmal), but I take all the flack."
The year following, on a visit to Australia, a friend tossed him a paperback copy of Nino Culotta’s They’re a Weird Mob, a huge bestseller in Australia, and told Powell it was exactly the sort of project he should be taking on. "He had been lying on the sofa reading it all morning and roaring with laughter," Powell writes in Million-Dollar Movie. "I picked the book up. It was entitled They’re a Weird Mob. It was not a title calculated to ensnare the common reader, and the author was billed as Nino Culotta, which was obviously a nom de plume, Nino being short for Giannino, and Culotta meaning ‘big ass.’ I looked at the book warily."
But he began reading and, to his surprise, loved it. "It was a natural! It had to be filmed, and as soon as possible."
From the viewpoint of today, it’s a bit difficult to figure out what he found so appealing about the book, a fluke hit on publication in 1958. To be frank, the book isn’t very good. Powell’s instincts were right about one thing, though: It was written pseudonymously. It was actually penned by John O’Grady, an Australian of Irish descent and the brother of Frank O’Grady, who’d written several historical novels. The book came about as part of a bet, Jacinta Tynan, Frank O’Grady’s granddaughter, writes in the introduction to a recent reprint of They’re a Weird Mob. She quotes John O’Grady’s son, also named John: "Every Sunday the family would gather at my grandparents’ home at Bronte. One Sunday my Uncle Frank had a new book out and foolishly asked Da what he thought of it. My father used to refer to Frank’s books as ‘library novels,’ because they were researched in the library. Da said: ‘Not much, and if I couldn’t write a better book than that I’d give up.’ So Frank bet him £10 that he couldn’t write any sort of book and get it published."
O’Grady hadn’t written a novel before, though he had written plays, but he took the bet. According to Tynan, he used as his inspiration his experiences building a house and his interactions with the builders, who spoke "Australianese" – the highly slangy English spoken by the working class. And he wondered how new immigrants to the country could possibly understand the lingo if he, a native Australian, couldn’t.
Tynan says that O’Grady wrote the book in six weeks and gave the manuscript to his son before going to Samoa for a job as a government pharmacist. His son, a TV executive, loved the manuscript and, though his father hadn’t asked him to do anything with it, he began showing it to publishers under the pseudonym Nino Culotta, the main character. Why he obscured the true author isn’t exactly clear but, by using the name of the character as the author, it seems that he was trying to give the manuscript the air of a memoir, not a novel. The second publisher he showed it to loved the book, wanted to buy it – and wanted to meet the author. The writer’s son decided to let the publisher in on the author’s true identity and, in a decision unlikely to happen today in the wake of discredited memoirists like James Frey, the publisher let the nom de plume stick. Tynan quotes the son: Editor Sam Ure Smith "decided to leave it as it was. He thought the book would be more successful if people thought it was written by a ‘New Australian,’ so we kept it between us." After the book became a hit, a reporter uncovered O’Grady as the true author. But while he and his publisher braced for a backlash, it never came – if anything, sales improved, according to Tynan.
The novel is the story of writer Nino Culotta, an Italian sent to Australia by a newspaper editor to do pieces on what life is like in the country, then a frequent destination for Italian immigrants. The country’s customs and, especially, its language initially baffle him. While Culotta is fluent in English, it’s a formal textbook version of the language, unlike the way Australians talk in casual conversation. He gets a job as a bricklayer in order to see how common folk live and speak, intending to write articles about his co-workers’ lives, and he gradually becomes accepted as one of the gang. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, after two years have passed, he decides it’s time to settle down and get married. Culotta meets Kay at a café as she clumsily tries to eat spaghetti with a spoon. She’s initially resistant to his charms, but eventually the two fall in love. Culotta meets Kay’s parents in order to ask for her hand in marriage – which at first seems unlikely, as Kay’s dad, a developer, hates bricklayers and "Ities." But even he is quickly won over. Culotta and Kay marry and build a home together.
The book ends with Culotta’s thoughts on what it means to be an Australian and how immigrants fit in to the country. "I’ve heard parents in shops talking to kids in their homeland language, and the kids translating into English, and making the purchases. This is disgraceful. Those parents should be bloody ashamed of themselves. They came to this country because their own is impossible and by their own laziness make this one impossible for themselves also." If the book were actually written by Italian immigrant, that passage could be taken at face value as hard-earned knowledge. But knowing it was written by an Australian leaves a bad taste behind – especially since the nation’s aboriginal population, badly treated by Australians from a European background, isn’t even mentioned in the book.
On the novel’s final page, O’Grady piles on the God-loves-Australia platitudes: "There are hundreds of ways we could spend this sunny Sunday afternoon. Or we could just stay at home and do nothing, and perhaps that would be best of all. To rest on the seventh day. To thank God for letting us be here. To thank him for letting me be an Australian. Sometimes I think that if I am ever fortunate enough to reach Heaven, I will know I am there when I hear him say, ‘Howyergoin’mate orright?’"
It took Powell quite a long time to turn They’re a Weird Mob into a film. While trying to get financing together – he was pretty much persona non grata in the film industry – he lucked into work for German TV, filming a ballet and a short opera. Then, he shot several episodes of an American TV series, "Espionage," filmed on the cheap in Europe.
Eventually, Powell secured the money for They’re a Weird Mob from British producers (including Rank, with which Powell had worked in the past) and an Australian company. To script the film, Powell turned to his former partner, Emeric Pressburger, who wrote the screenplay under the pen name Richard Imrie. (In his memoir, Powell doesn’t explain why Pressburger used a pseudonym.)
Pressburger’s script sticks to the book, though he makes it a bit less episodic and introduces the love interest much earlier. In the script, Culotta arrives in Australia not to do profiles of the country’s people but to be the sports editor for an Italian-language magazine being run by his cousin. When he arrives, however, the paper’s offices are in the process of being shut down and his cousin is nowhere to be found. In these opening scenes, he meets Kay who, in the script, is the daughter of the building’s owner. She considers him a con man like his cousin, but is slowly won over by his honesty and persistence.
Despite having a more linear structure than the book, the script uses many of the novel’s scenes almost verbatim – as when Culotta befriends an Australian in a bar and is baffled by the man’s slangy language. Other set pieces from the book, including a scene in which Nino goes hunting with his friends, are referred to but not actually seen in the movie.
The film ends at party with Culotta’s bricklayer friends, as they meet Kay for the first time. The friends are dressed in their Sunday best and make stilted small talk, trying to impress Kay, whom they see as coming from a higher social caste. Finally, in order to break the long silences, Culotta yells out, "Bring out the bloody beer," which Kay echoes, and the party turns into what is supposed to be a typical, raucous, working-class party. As the scene plays out and the camera pulls up into the sky, the film’s opening theme song returns, summing up the picture’s view of the country and its people: "It’s a big, big country/With a big, big heart/Life is free and easy/You’ll feel it from the start/And once you understand this/It holds you safe and tight/It’s a big, big country/Young and warm and bright/Love that big, big country."
Both the book and film – but especially the book – seem to be designed first and foremost to make Australians feel better about themselves. I’m not sure exactly what was going on in Australia in the 1950s and ’60s to make Australians have such an inferiority complex, but the message of They’re a Weird Mob is: Don’t believe the bad things you hear about us; we’re big hearted and lovable.
I’ve been a huge fan of Powell and Pressburger since 1986, when I saw an episode of "The South Bank Show" that profiled Powell, tied to the publication of his first volume of memoirs, A Life in Movies. I loved the program and it inspired me to see everything by Powell that I could get my hands on. I’ve seen around 15 of his features, and I’ve found something to love or admire in all of them. They’re a Weird Mob has been one of Powell’s most elusive films in the U.S. – it’s never had a theatrical run here (though prints have been shown at festivals), and it’s never been released on any video format here. But the Internet being the Internet, a friend was able to download a copy for me, and I later found that the film is available in very watchable form on YouTube.
Sadly, I have to admit this is the first Powell film I’ve seen that I’ve not at least liked on some level. Pressburger’s script is surprisingly flatfooted. Scenes long overstay their welcome – there’s a supposedly comic scene of Culotta digging a trench on his first day of work that seems to go on for an hour, though I timed it on second viewing at just shy of eight minutes. Still, eight minutes of a guy struggling to dig a trench? Dialogue scenes go on for far too long and are shot, lit, and edited in a very flat, TV-like manner. Comedy, never really Powell’s forte, seems especially creaky and old-fashioned here; some shots were shot under-cranked to be shown in sped-up form, and the technique produces more groans than smiles. The one improvement over the book is the introduction of Kay earlier in the story.
Casting didn’t help much. The lead, Walter Chiari, was a popular star in Italy and was featured in movies as varied as Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965) and, later, The Valachi Papers (1972), but he’s quite charmless here; his voice is highly pitched and his expression rather vacant. And he has next to no chemistry with co-star, Claire Dunne, who plays Kay.
In short, if you’d have shown me this film with the credits cut off and asked if I thought it possible that They’re a Weird Mob was made by the same team behind The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I’d have deemed it impossible. Nevertheless, the film was a huge hit when it opened in Australia in 1966. Powell states in Million-Dollar Movie that it was the highest-grossing picture in that country up to that time, aside from a couple of Disney’s animated films.
Powell would direct only one more feature film, also in Australia, 1969’s Age of Consent, starring James Mason as an artist and a very-much-younger Helen Mirren as his muse and eventual love interest. It’s a decided step up from They’re a Weird Mob, and is certainly worth a look if you’re a Powell fan, but it’s marred by more bad comedy decisions and the fact that Mason was then pushing 60 and he looks like a dirty old man when romancing Mirren, then 22 and playing, I believe, a 19-year-old. Still, Age of Consent has its charms, both Mason and Mirren put in top-notch performances, and the film is nicely shot.
Powell’s output is one of the most remarkable – and remarkably varied – in film history. His filmography includes documentary-like drama (The Edge of the World), dreamy romantic fantasy (A Matter of Life and Death), period pieces (The Elusive Pimpernel), government-disturbing anti-propaganda (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), and truly disturbing horror (Peeping Tom). He was a master at storytelling, characterization, and the use of music and visuals, sans dialogue, to connect with the viewer. But his final two feature films feel like a disappointing coda to strong body of work rather than any kind of summing up of his recurring themes or the stylistic approaches that mark his classic films.