Saturday, November 2, 2013

Catching up with an Australian classic: Ted Kotcheff's and Evan Jones' WAKE IN FRIGHT

You've probably heard of this Aussie film from 1971, just as I had. In fact I was certain I'd seen it when it made its U.S. debut. But no -- WAKE IN FRIGHT is a film one does not easily (maybe ever) forget. This is all the more surprising, given that the tale unfolds so simply, naturally, as the "hero" of the movie, John Grant, a young school teacher serving his initial time working in a one-horse-town in Austra-lia's "outback," finishes his last day prior to Christmas vacation and leaves for an overnight stay in Bundanyabba (known to its inhabitants as "The Yabba"), before heading to civilization and a girlfriend in Sydney.

What happens to Grant in The Yabba is shocking all right, but the beauty of the movie -- aside from its brilliant color scheme, cinematography and its gorgeous lead actor, Gary Bond (below, left) -- is how our hero for the most part brings all of this down on himself. The film, written by the very talented Evan Jones (These Are the Damned), from a novel by Kenneth Cook, and directed by Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), posits a pretty hateful outback: full of misogynistic, macho (or ocker, as they call it down under) males who appear to live for little else than lager, lust and the occasi-onal Kangaroo massacre.

However, if John Grant is to be taken as some kind of example of polite and cultured society, then civilized Australia of that day was untested, snobbish, even a little smarmy. The screenplay's dialog is particularly good: always real and believable, while dotted with occasional smart talk. In this film, the viewer listens as carefully as s/he watches. And the rewards are great. Kotcheff keeps showiness to a minimum, but allows himself some leeway, doing a fine and crazy job of it as Grant goes on a drunken, gambling bender (below). He lets the location -- whether it's a sweat-filled back-room or the tinder-dry outback, overflowing with sunshine and orange earth tones -- create the world we see.

Mr. Bond, his pretty-boy face coupled to a superb body, all of which is on view in one particular scene, is a fine choice as the man who is simultaneously corrupted and humanized. He is surrounded by some of the best talent Australia had on hand back then, along with some more from Britain, such as Donald Pleasence (below), seen here in one of his best screen roles as the disgraced doctor who befriends our hero and opens him up to himself.

Also on hand is Aussie star Jack Thompson, below, seen just a year or two prior to his breakout, along with old-timer Chips Rafferty, playing the Yabba's constable. Best of all the supporting players perhaps is Sylvia Kaye, as the only woman we get close to -- a sad, angry lady stuck forever in what can only be sheer hell for a feeling female.

What makes Wake in Fright -- running 114 minutes in a restoration released theatrically by Drafthouse Films -- truly shocking is how inured these characters seem to all that happens -- as though this is simply par for their course. Trust me: It won't be for yours.

After disappearing from the movie scene nearly since its release, the film has been beautifully restored in high definition, which you can now view in all its glory via Netflix streaming.

No comments: