Skip to main content

All the little devils are proud of Hell.

Wake in Fright
(1971)

(SPOILERS) Ted Kotcheff’s sweltering outback drama is positioned at the very beginning of the Australian new wave. Like Walkabout, it finds a non-Antipodean filmmaker casting a perceptive eye over the country, its baked mores and behaviours. Yet while both films base themselves on the contrasts between disparate values, tonally they couldn’t be more different. Nicolas Roeg’s study sets his characters against greater forces of nature and the tentative meeting of disparate cultures. Kothceff’s film is narrower in focus but no less insightful. While Roeg’s picture is mostly elegiac in tone Wake in Fright is rough and ready, its content a reflection of the clash of educated and working classes.


To an extent, the picture structures itself as a “see how the other side lives” morality tale.; the protagonist takes a walk to the dark side, but is able to leave it all behind at the end. But there are many nuances within its obvious set-up. Usually we’d expect the innocent or inexperienced to be led astray by untoward forces. Instead, our nominal hero really isn’t such a nice guy. He’s a superior, belittling snob. Time and again he looks down on the over-friendly locals who only want to buy him a drink. Their lifestyle may be dangerously easy to slip into, but John Grant doesn’t invite our sympathy when he falls headlong into perpetual intemperance; he has it coming.


Based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, Wake in Fright finds big city teacher John Grant (Gary Bond who, as others have noted, bears a resemblance to Peter O’Toole; the more so as his character spends the majority of the film inebriated) desperate to escape his nothing job in the tiny township of Tiboonda for Christmas break and reunite with his girlfriend in Sydney. En route, he must stop overnight in the mining town of Bundanyabba (or “The Yabba” as the locals call it) but, rather than having a quite night in, he inveigles himself with the locals. He proceeds to get very, very drunk and loses all his money in a backroom game of two-up. So begins John’s descent into a personal hell of alcohol-fuelled debauchery, violence and despair as his weakness for the liquor and desire to fit in with his peer group spirals out of control.


Wake in Fright is very much a study of the fragile male psyche, and the weakness for falling into pack mentality. It’s evident from the first that Grant thinks he’s better than those around him, making the pit he digs himself, and the state he ends up in (far more debased than those he takes up with), both ironic and fitting. It’s a lesson-learning experience; although it is accompanied by none of the twisted comic relief Scorsese would bring to the later walk on the wild side of After Hours. Still, John is able to return gratefully to his boring existence (just as Griffin Dunne’s character is relieved to end up right back where he started in the 1984 film).


When John arrives in the Yabba he’s informed that it’s “a friendly place”, and the subsequent 90 minutes proves it’s exactly that and then some; it’s just that the friendliness happens to be very bad for him. Everyone treats John well so long as he will drink with them, and yet there’s an unrelenting oppressiveness to the film. It’s there in the dust and the heat and the tangible hung-over exhaustion, but John himself is not put in danger (from others). Rather it’s what he brings upon himself; his undoing is of his own design. Perhaps that’s why he’s told, “If you’re a good bloke, you’re alright”; he isn’t a good bloke. He speaks in superior tones that confuse local plod Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), noting how he is “a bonded slave of the education system” and fails to disguise his contempt for his stopover (“Yes, that’s something to look forward to” he replies when Jock suggests he visits the town for a holiday). Yet he’s weak-minded enough to continue drinking with the policeman throughout the night.


When Jock is asked what players of two-up do with their winnings, he replies “Well, nothing”; there’s nothing to do in the town but drink and gamble. It’s this “nice, simple-minded game” that defeats John. He’s seduced by his early luck, and the dream that with just one more win he can give up his teaching lark. His hubris and contempt for “the arrogance of stupid people insisting you be as stupid as they are” comes back to haunt him. When he rushes back to the game, to chase that big win, the reaction to his gambling spree is derisive laughter from the attendees; he has taken the bait, hook, line and sinker (and their response is no worse than the superiority he has shown everyone he meets). Awaking in fright the next morning (well, that’s the most thundering literal interpretation of the title, which was renamed the decidedly less evocative Outback in the US), he has lost everything.


Broke, John becomes a reluctant then proficient sponger; anyone he will drink with, which is everyone, becomes a supporting shoulder; Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), real blokes Dick (Mark Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle), and drunken unlicensed Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance). Invited to Tim’s house, John is filching cigarettes immediately and his by-line is to refuse hospitality before accepting it. The only way he can relate to the townsfolk is to blot out his senses, since his natural inclination is soft and unmanly; “What’s the matter with him? He’d rather talk to a woman than drink?” Dick asks Tim. Tim sagely replies that he’s a schoolteacher.


We might wonder why Tim doesn't do everything he can to extricate himself form this situation, but he is clearly beguiled by it as much as he knows it is harming him. It’s exciting, makes him feel alive, he can forget himself if he drinks enough. But it means betraying his better instincts. The kangaroo hunt is a highly distressing viewing experience (Kotcheff went out with actual hunters to get the footage) and finds John proving himself to his new mates by shooting the marsupials before engaging in a fight with one where he is taunted into slitting its throat.


This attempt to prove his masculinity to a group with no inner lives finds reflection in those he meets on the fringes. Tim’s daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay, Kotcheff’s one-time wife) has no interest in the drunken antics of her father and his friends; she finds her outlet through sex. But when she leads John off for a tumble in the bush he is unable to perform, another blow to his esteem. There’s a degree of self-loathing in Janette, clearly unhappy with her lot (“She’s a slag, the little mutt. She’ll try anything” she spits of the pregnant hound in the house), although this comes with self-awareness. As vouched by Doc, “We break the rules buy we know more about ourselves than most people”.


Doc: I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament and an alcoholic.

It’s Doc who shines the harshest light on John’s behaviour, and Pleasance’s performance, to those who most identify him hamming it up as Dr Loomis in the Halloween series, is astonishing (and very spry, given the dexterity displayed). A devoted, hearty alcoholic, he thrives on and revels in the gauzed existence booze offers. Doc too is an educated man, but he is accepted by those around him through taking the path of least resistance. He rejects John’s aloofness (“Discontent is the luxury of the well to do”) and displays a tendency to the aphorism that suggests the holy fool/seer. Doc lives life (barely) consciously, and doesn’t need to pretend. He admonishes John for lying about losing his money at gambling, and advises he is better off with him than “sponging off men like Tim Hynes”.


While their interactions and altercations have been regarded by some as marking out Doc as predatory, I’d argue Doc represents a force of tough enlightenment and revelation to John; Doc allows John to meet himself and so move on with new understanding. Yes, he’s grubby alcoholic, but everything Doc does, consciously or otherwise, seems designed to bring John to a point where he realises the life that beckons if he follows a similar path (and without the same cracked insight that fortifies Doc). 


Crucial to the persona of crazy sage, Doc is not interested in money and charges no fees. He understands his role within the group (he is accepted socially as “an educated man and character”) and has free lodging and food and (most importantly) drink for his services. We also see Doc is not without a value system of sorts even when intoxicated; he involves himself in the massacre but opts not to take part in the kangaroo cutting exercise, as if fully aware of the malign effect it will have on the perpetrator. He also attempts to intervene when Dick and Joe are fighting; the violence Doc perpetrates is on the bar wall.


Doc: Sex is just like eating. It’s a thing you do because you have to.

Doc pushes John’s buttons from the get-go, pricking the sore spot of wounded machismo. He tells John everyone has had an episode with Janette, including himself. We’ve seen John’s fantasies of his perfect, swim suited girlfriend (significantly, a beer bottle nuzzles her breasts) and Doc accuses him of being a puritan who thinks Janette is a slut (he also suggests that if she were a man she would be in jail for rape; again, this appears designed to rouse John, and to mark him as feminised and inadequate).


This brewing tension leads to a post-kangaroo, probable-sexual encounter between Doc and John. Doc gives him all he needs to push him to the brink. He first cajoles John by imitating the traumatising throat cutting (that John went through with anyway to impress the lads). Then mid-drunken wrestling on the floor, they exchange a meaningful look and the picture cuts to black. John awakes the next morning semi-clothed with Doc lying nearby. The implication is clear, but it’s never implied that Doc forced himself on John; the latter’s disgust and rage is all about the further desecration of his masculine ego. He can’t prove himself with the proper men, he can’t prove himself with the ladies, and now he’s made himself Doc’s bitch. It’s this that drives his desire to shoot Doc (he hallucinates Doc, the unlikely alpha male, seducing his girlfriend), and leads to his attempt to shoot himself.  


Awakened and bandaged (a white halo round his head; his battered and bloodied pale suit has also somehow been freshly laundered), John’s flirtation with excess is over (Doc too is spruced up for his brief return to the big city that spurned him).


We’ve seen the incestuous, destructive influences of the small town mentality elsewhere; the same year’s Straw Dogs has another educated man pitted against the ignorant locals (although there he encounters active contempt and then aggression). The most disturbing part of Wake in Fright is not the hard-drinking dead-end world of the Yabba; it’s how easy it is to become a part of it and relinquish one’s self (John, a stumbling wreck through the town’s streets, carrying a rifle, has stooped to a state beyond anyone else we see).


Train passengerHey mate, like a beer?

As soon as John is on the train “home” he appears to have learned something, accepting the offer of a beer from rowdy passengers when before he refused it and sat alone (as did the solitary Aboriginal traveller, minus the offer of the beer). Back in Tiboonda John is grateful for the security and solace of his own dead-end job, and happy to greet barman/hotelier Charlie (Crocodile Dundee’s John Meillon) when before he could barely contain his desire to be shot of the place. His earlier attempt to leave The Yabba, only to have his hitch deposit him back in the town, recalls the spinny head games of The Prisoner episode Many Happy Returns, in which an escaped Number Six, believing himself to be free, finds himself deposited unceremoniously back in the Village.


For a long time Wake in Fright’s reputation lay as a great lost film, as it had been out of circulation until about five years ago. It can currently be viewed on YouTube, and fortunately it’s one where rediscovery has only reconfirmed its reputation. It was Kotcheff’s third picture, and as someone more experienced with his later, decidedly unrewarding fare (some will defend First Blood but there’s also Uncommon Valor, Switching Channels and Weekend at Bernie’s to contend with; the ‘80s were the undoing of many a director) it's something of a revelation (Kotcheff is blessed with a superb, by-turns sinister and jaunty, score from John Scott and suffocatingly parched cinematography from Brian West). Even his later ‘70s efforts are less than stellar, making it even more welcome that this picture has been found anew.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Yeah, keep walking, you lanky prick!

Mute (2018)
(SPOILERS) Duncan Jones was never entirely convincing when talking up his reasons for Mute’s futuristic setting, and now it’s easy to see why. What’s more difficult to discern is his passion for the project in the first place. If the picture’s first hour is torpid in pace and singularly fails to muster interest, the second is more engaging, but that’s more down to the unappetising activities of Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s supporting surgeons than the quest undertaken by Alex Skarsgård’s lead. Which isn’t such a compliment, really.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.