Policing Melbourne’s TV mean streets: Homicide at 50

Homicide_au-showIt’s been a day for nostalgia. Foremost I’ve been thinking about the passing of Australia’s great reforming Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, who died this morning at the age of 98.

But I’ve also been giving a lot of consideration lately to another Australian icon, probably the most influential Australian television show ever made, the crime drama, Homicide.

At 7.30pm on Tuesday 20 1964, Channel 7 showed the first episode of Homicide and what Australians would see on their TV screens would never be the same. Homicide’s influence was truly revolutionary. It was introduced at a time when an estimated 97 per cent of drama content came from the US and Great Britain. It was the first locally produced show to hit number one. It spawned several similar programs, including Matlock Police and Division 4 and established many of the key conventions of Australian true crime television: the team of dedicated police solving a crime per episode and a commitment to realism.

Homicide ran until 1975. The individual Homicide episodes have aged remarkably well in my opinion as self contained hour-long pieces of hard hitting TV crime drama. They are also a fascinating glimpse into the class, gender and social relations of Melbourne society in the sixties and seventies. If you want proof, check out this clip for episode 475, which aired in 1975, towards the end of Homicide’s run. It deals with the murder of a gay man and still feels confronting, even today.

Homicide is a fascinatingly contradictory cultural product. It both forms part of the yearnings for a new Australian cultural identity that began to stir in the early sixties, and is a reaction against aspects of it. The show is rife with uncertainly about changing gender relations and the growing assertiveness of youth culture, which the mainstream media in Australia and across much of the Western world associated with rising crime and rampant juvenile delinquency.

In this respect, a less commented on but no less potent part of Homicide’s popularity derived the way it allowed viewers to get an up close and personal glimpse of shocking and lurid crimes and the people who committed them, without leaving the comfort of their lounge rooms.

I’m going to be talking and writing a bit about Homicide, as well as Matlock Police and Division 4, as part of a fellowship that myself my friend Dean Brandum (the man behind the wonderful Technicolour Yawn website), will be doing next year at the Australian Film Institute Research Collection (AFIRC) based at RMIT University.

The two of us will be looking at how the Victorian police and Crawford Productions shaped popular perceptions of police work and crime through their co-operation on Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police.

Related to this work, I’ve been engaged in several Homicide-related activities over the last few days. Last night I took part in a terrific panel discussion organised by AFIRC, which was attended by many of the cast and crew who worked on the original show (I also got to meet Terry Donovan, the star of one of my favourite Australian crime movies, Money Movers).

A piece I wrote on show’s ongoing legacy appeared today on Crikey’s Daily Review site. You can read it in full here. I also did a short interview on the show and its significance for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight program, the audio of which is available to listen to here.

I’m really looking forward to working with Dean and the ARIRC staff on this research. And as for actually being paid to watch old episodes of Crawford’s TV crime shows, that is something I can handle with both hands.

Kinda Hot: the making of Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack

kindahotTowards the end of Kinda Hot: The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore, Peter Bogdanovich tells the book’s author Ben Slater: “Some of the best things are things that just happen once and then don’t happen again. They just don’t. Now mater how much you want them to.”

It’s a fitting observation for a film I have always regarded as a one of a kind, Bogdanovich’s 1979 adaption of the book by the same name by Paul Theroux, about a small time Italian American hustler (played by Ben Gazzara in the film) living in Singapore in the early seventies whose ambition is to open up his own high-class brothel.

As the film begins, Flowers is very much a bottom feeder, eking out a precarious existence on the fringes of Singaporean society. He’s so skint he has to haggle with his Chinese bosses for the taxi fare to pick up William Leigh (Denholm Elliott in the film), a mild mannered English accountant sent from head office in Hong Kong to audit the books. The one currency Flowers has no shortage of is contacts. Taking Leigh and a visiting American businessman on a tour of the island’s nightlife, Flowers is on first name terms with every hooker and tout he meets.

Flowers eventually establishes his brothel in a magnificent British colonial villa. Things are going well until one of the local Tong gangs, resentful he’s cutting in on their action, trash the place, beat Flowers up and tattoo obscenities in Cantonese all over his arms.

He is thrown a lifeline in the film’s third section by a mysterious spook, Eddie Schuman (Bogdanovich), who wants him to run a US army sanctioned operation on the island catering to American soldiers on R&R from Vietnam. Schuman sets Flowers up in a huge compound complete with pinball machines, alcohol, girls and a loudspeaker system piping continuous Country and Western. While Flowers appears to be in his element, he quickly grows disillusioned. Although Flowers wants out, Schuman has other ideas and offers Flowers $25,000 to gather incriminating evidence on a closeted gay anti-war US politician (George Lazenby) who is visiting Singapore.

220px-SaintJackSaint Jack has fascinated me ever since I saw it several years ago. It is one of the few films I am aware of to examine the phenomenon known as the ‘Asia hand’, the name given to a particular sub species of Western male who’ve spent a long time in Asia, surviving however they can, usually by means which described as semi-legal.

Living in Asia for six years in the nineties, I met a lot Asia hands. They were very much creatures of a specific historical period, the latter half of the twentieth century, before globalisation and technological change transformed Asia, made expatriate communities less rooted and more mobile, less isolated, less secretive and, let’s be honest, less mysterious.

Saint Jack is also a glimpse into a Singapore that no longer exists. The poverty, the faded expatriate drinking clubs and seamy nightlife and poorly lit streets are totally unrecognisable from the tightly controlled air-conditioned island state of today. Of course, as Slater makes clear in Kinda Hot, Singapore was massively changing even as Theroux arrived there in the late sixties to teach English at the University of Singapore and it was changing even as Bogdanovich and his crew shot the film.

But I knew very little about the making of Saint Jack until I read Slater’s book. The origins of the movie are no less interesting than the film itself. “The idea for the film Saint Jack begins, as many other things do, with Orson Welles,” writes Slater. In the early seventies, Bogdanovich, a huge fan of the ageing Hollywood maverick, was hanging around with Welles, and dating actress Cybill Shepherd. Welles and Bogdanovich had been tossing around ideas for potential movies on which the two men could collaborate, and Welles had suggested they film Theroux’s Saint Jack, but the rights were already taken.

Around the same time, Playboy magazine had done one of their ‘Sex in Cinema’ spreads, a semi-regular feature in which the magazine took images of all the actresses who had appeared in movies movies nude over the last twelve months and strung them into article. This particular Sex in Cinema article included grainy scenes of Shepherd in Bogdanovich’s 1971 movie, The Last Picture Show. Shepherd, who had been reluctant to do the scenes in the first place, felt her privacy was invaded and initiated court proceedings.

Coincidentally, Playboy Enterprises had the rights to Saint Jack. Welles suggested Shepherd settle her law suit against Playboy Enterprises with the rights to the movie. Shepherd agreed and discussions started which eventuated in Bogdanovich and Playboy collaborating to make the film.

While Singapore had stood in as the anonymous Asia backdrop for a raft of western movies in the fifties and sixties, unfortunately for Bogdanovich, by the time he wanted to make Saint Jack, its movie industry had collapsed and the authorities were intensely suspicious of foreign film makers. A key motivation for the latter sentiment was the controversy in the wake of a visit to Singapore by a German film crew in 1973 to shoot scenes for one of the Shocking Asia documentaries. The Shocking Asia films focused sexual practices, religious rites involving animals, magic, etc, across Asia and were popular in the grindhouse cinema circuit of Europe at the time. According to Slater, the Singapore episode featured a night-time walk through the red light area of Chinatown and graphic footage of a sex change operation at one of the hospitals where a pioneering professor had performed Asia’s first sex change in 1971.

Sensing, correctly, the Singaporean authorities would never allow him to film Saint Jack, Bogdanovich submitted a fake synopsis for romantic caper movie called Jack of Hearts (what the director called a cross between Love is a Many Splendored Thing and Pal Joey) to officials and shot the real film guerrilla style. Slater chronicles in detail the lengths the Saint Jack production team went to avoid detection, a feat helped by the fact that the hugely popular Hawaii Five O series was in town shooting two episodes at around the same time and occupied most of the media and government’s attention.

936full-saint-jack-posterI have only focused on some aspects of Slater’s book, but it examines every aspect of the film, including the interactions between the cast members, the tensions in the crew during the incredibly difficult shoot, and the numerous occasions in which it appeared the Singaporean authorities were onto Bogdanovich’s real intentions. Slater tracked down and interviewed many of the local crew members, picked from the remains of Singapore’s film industry, and most of the local cast. He also deals with the film’s reception, particularly in Singapore, the government of which was incensed by the deception and banned movie until as late as 2006. Talking to Singaporeans, the movie is clearly the subject of considerable debate, even now, for its politics and depiction of island state.

Much of the dramatic feel of Saint Jack comes from the sense of world-weary sangfroid Gazzara injects into the character of Jack Flowers, a similar performance to his role of Cosmo Vittelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. But while Cosmo was in denial about life, Flowers’ exudes a palpable sense of opportunities lost and paths not taken. In the tradition of the best noir characters, Flowers knows his decisions will lead to trouble but is powerless to do anything else. An ex-Korean war veteran and failed writer, we are not told why he came to Singapore. All we know is if he’s going to be the eternal ang mo (foreigner), he’ll do it on his terms, no one else’s.

But it is the local cast, played by assorted members of the expat community and the denizens of the island’s tourism and ‘entertainment industry’, that give the film its gritty authenticity. By all accounts, most of these extras had no idea about the story they were actually shooting, a movie about their world, and watching it now it feels like they are just playing themselves.

There is no other film like Saint Jack. There never can be and Kinda Hot explains why. It’s a must read. Slater, who is based in Singapore, also has a terrific website which is full of detail about Hollywood film making on the island state, past and present.

Crime Factory Publications launches new novella, Freight


A quick heads up that Crime Factory Publications, Melbourne’s only dedicated crime fiction publisher, will launch its latest ‘Single Shot’ novella, Freight, by Ed Kurtz, at Loop Bar, 23 Meyers Place, Melbourne, Monday October 13, from 8pm

Freight a hardboiled heist story set in early seventies Texas.

To Enoch and Doc, two down and out men working as railway brakemen in an impoverished Texas town, it seemed like a simple enough heist: steal the copper wire off a train in the middle of the night.

But the carriage contains more than metal. Soon lives are at stake and an unfathomable evil has to be dealt with. And there is no one in Blackwood, Texas for the job but a no-account ex-con.

Think Jim Thompson meets Sam Pekinpah and you’re getting warm.

We will also be celebrating the launch of issue 16 of our award winning magazine, Crime Factory. Plus it’s your chance to stock up on all our other publications, including our last novella, Saint Homicide, and hard copies of our super sexy adults only special issue, Pink Factory.

In addition, you’ll get the advance word about our exciting upcoming projects, including our first novel and our first locally authored novella, both scheduled for publication in early 2015.

There’ll be readings, music and drinks at bar prices.

If you can’t make it, Freight now available for pre-order at a special reduced piece. Head over to the Crime Factory Publications site for details.

Book Review: Jacks and Jokers by Matthew Condon

tpm3ftt5-1395618559Meticulously researched, broad in its historical scope, Jacks and Jokers (QUP, 2014), the second books in Matthew Condon’s examination of police corruption in Queensland from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, is among a wave of recent books that have redefined the craft of Australian true crime writing (John Safran’s Murder in Mississippiand Anna Krien’s Night Games, are two others).

Indeed, the label ‘true crime’ almost doesn’t seem a fitting way to describe what Condon has done in Jacks and Jokers or the first instalment, Three Crooked Kings (2013). The books almost form an alternative history of a period of Queensland’s development that has been much talked about and often parodied, but little known or understood, both in and outside of the Sunshine State.

As was the case with Three Crooked Kings, the narrative spine of Jacks and Jokers is the career of Terry Lewis. Lewis joined the Queensland police force at twenty and rose to be commissioner before the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the late 80s or, as it was formally known, The Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct, which led to his trial and conviction on various charges, including accepting vast amounts in bribes to protect vice and illegal gambling.

Condon begins Jacks and Jokers in 1976 with the aftermath of the rape of sex worker Mary Anne Brifman, daughter of brothel madam Shirley Brifman, whose illegal activities were detailed in Condon’s earlier book. Shirley Brifman was found dead of a drug overdose in March 1972 and the incident ruled a ‘suicide’, despite suspicious circumstances around her death and the fact she had turned whistle blower on the corrupt cops who had provided protection in exchange for money. Mary Anne only discovered after the fact that her rapist was a Queensland police officer who was never prosecuted for the crime.

You can read the rest of this review here on the Overland site.

Pulp Friday: Nurse in Vietnam

Nurse in Vietnam
















While Sydney-based Horwitz Publications was Australia’s largest pulp publisher, it was not the only one. Cleveland Publishing Company, publisher of today’s Pulp Friday offering, Nurse in Vietnam, was another sizeable operation.

I’ve been able to find out virtually nothing about who was behind Calvert.

All we know about Shauna Marlowe, author of Nurse in Vietnam, is she (if it is actually a woman and not a man writing under a woman’s name) is credited with writing 41 books, nearly all of them for Calvert, from the late fifties to the early seventies.

On one level, Nurse in Vietnam, is just another nurse/doctor romance story (a hugely popular sub-genre of pulp in the fifties and sixties). The nurse in question and a handsome doctor have been captured by Viet Cong rebels. The doctor’s main pre-occupation is not escape but whether she’ll agree to his marriage proposal.

But the publication date, 1965, is significant. A small number of Australian military advisors had been stationed in Vietnam since 1962. We did not start to commit significant ground forces until 1965.

What was the first mainstream Australian novel to tackle the war in Vietnam? Perhaps William Nagle’s The Odd Angry Shot, published in 1975. Nurse in Vietnam shows pulp publishers were onto Vietnam as a setting for fiction straight away.

Pulp publishing was a tough, fast paced industry, far more commercially minded than mainstream publishing at the time. Publishers turned around books quickly to take advantage of the latest tabloid headline or media sensation – sometime in as little as a month.

Pulp authors had to write fast, often using whatever was around as material, which means the books mine rich seams of cultural authenticity and are often dealing with themes mainstream literature would not touch until the early seventies.