AUSTRALIAN NOIR RETROSPECTIVE – Interview with Richard Sowada, ACMI’s Head of Programming


When you think of film noir, you typically think of those black and white crime melodramas of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, the more traditional American kind of noir type in which good men were often corrupted by the wiles of a manipulative woman. Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon, are all classic examples of the genre. More recently we have had films like Polanski’s Chinatown, Body Heat and even John Dahl’s superb The Last Seduction, which have all followed the formula.

But for the upcoming ACMI retrospective of Australian Noir we have to rethink our definition slightly, as ACMI’s Richard Sowada, curator of the program, explains further. “From the initial concept we were looking at very script oriented films and very director driven films,” he elaborates. “As the program grew through a number of different formulations the common one that stuck was noir, and certainly that kind of crime and criminal element. I think the criteria we were looking for was very ensemble driven films; we were looking for films that had a real edge and a sense of adventure in the way they were put together.”

There are nine films in the program including Nash Edgerton’s superb thriller The Square (below), which firmly fits into the noir category. Also in the program are Carl Shultz’s Goodbye Paradise, an underrated 1982 thriller about corruption, murder and vice set in the Queensland of Sir Joh Bjelke-Peterson; and Alex Proyas’ ambitious futuristic thriller Dark City, which mixes sci-fi with noir elements.

Also screening in the retrospective is Steven Kastrissios’ gritty revenge drama The Horseman, which has grown in underground status through its screenings at MUFF and its reputation around the place The lead character is driven by revenge and commits very brutal acts. “However, his quest is true,” remarks Sowada, “and that is one of the more technical noir traditions. It’s those kinds of things, those strange off kilter interplays that set the scene for the program.”

Wake In Fright offers a very grim view of Australian males, masculinity and the outback. But, on the surface, it doesn’t seem to be a noir film. Sowada defends the selection. “We chose that one not so much because of the noir characterisations, but because of the noir use of setting as a character. One of the interesting things about Wake In Fright is that it just confounds you at very turn. It’s set in the outback, but it’s so claustrophobic that you feel like there’s never any air. I think that that’s one of the noir traits, that the environment that the characters inhabit is actually a player in itself, and forces them to do certain things that they wouldn’t necessarily do.”

Kriv Stenders’ claustrophobic drama Boxing Day is another film where the characters are completely bound by their environment. Stenders acknowledges that his film is dealing with a “different kind of darkness” that fits within the noir tradition. Most of the action takes place inside a house and the film was an exercise in “controlled improvisation” as the characters and their motivations were developed over a two-week intensive period of rehearsal. Stenders is quite pleased that the film has been selected for the Australian noir retrospective. “It’s absolutely wonderful,” he says. “I love it that films can have a life beyond the period in which they’re made. It’s a great privilege and an honour ultimately for the film to be remembered.”

Pure Shit offers a gritty look at Melbourne’s drug culture of the ‘70’s, and again it doesn’t appear to be a noir film on the surface. “There was one thing that struck me about Pure Shit when I first saw it,” Sowada elaborates, “and that is that it largely takes place at night. It largely takes place in true locations, and was shot where it happens, and there is that seedy above the law aspect. There is a whole other world that is both above the law and beyond the law. That’s another thing about noir – it is above the law. That is a very strong theme of Pure Shit – it circumnavigates the law. That kind of outlaw notion attracted us to it in the program.”

The femme fatale is also a very important element of noir films. Phil Noyce’s thriller Heatwave is the only one in this retrospective that contains the typical femme fatale, played here by Judy Davis. “She is so great! It has to be one of her really outstanding performances. Again it’s not a femme fatale role, but she does push the other leading character in directions he had not anticipated he would go.”

“Going back to the gestation of the program, three films in particular – Pure Shit, Boxing Day, and The Horseman – were three that stuck with us through every iteration of the program. There were four different themes we were thinking of. It was almost a notion of constructing the whole program around those three films, because we just loved them so much. There were probably another four or five films we were looking at for the program and we could have gone a bit more expansive with it. But we wanted to make it really muscular and strong, and harness that ‘grab you by the collar’ ethos of the noir genre.”

Australian Noir retrospective at ACMI screens at ACMI from Thursday September 17 – Sunday September 27th . Check the ACMI website and newspapers for screening details.


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