Blood Money

(Chris Fitchett, Australia, 1980)


For an Australian short feature (72 minutes) with mainstream ambitions, Blood Money is guilty of an impertinence by the prevailing standards of the local industry: how dare one make a film that is, at one level, a loving patchwork of quotations from Hollywood crime films! Parody, it seems, is the only acceptable form for such introspection (as in Buckeye and Pinto and Terror Lostralis [1979 & 1980 respectively]). Nobody ‘seriously’ takes genre formulae as models for cinematic quality and excellence here in Oz.

Australian cinema, to be sure, is feverishly in the grip of such a backward mentality. The makers of any well-intentioned film must, at least partly, convince themselves that their product is sincere and original, untainted by the medium’s history, untouched by its codes and conventions. Thus, an entire set of cultural oppositions come into play, shaping critical evaluation and determining for filmmakers what goes and what doesn’t.

If a film is not honest, if it does not efface its language and its form to respect a noble human or social theme, it is merely indulgent – arty, vulgar, trivial, formalist, a wank, whatever. Barry Jones (born 1932), former Labor Party politician, once epitomised this ideology rather vividly when he demanded of Australian cinema:

I want films to amuse, move and stimulate. I want to know more about the world and myself after leaving the cinema … I just want films that are exciting, dramatic, funny, thoughtful, sad, or a combination of all these qualities.

Against this enormous cultural totem pole, the note of protest or qualification registered by a film such as Blood Money is barely audible. But its voice speaks something like this: forget the World and the Self for a while. Forget Australia, too, while you’re at it.

Blood Money is a fine, sturdy, economic piece of crime fiction. Its shameless array of clichés (that’s meant descriptively, not derisively) are held up to be recognised and admired – for the memories they conjure, and for the skill and speedy grace with which they are arranged. Unusually for an Australian film coming at the end of ‘70s, it draws knowingly on a wide range of situations, characters and themes beloved of the crime genre both in cinema and pulp literature.

The plot centres on an ageing criminal, Pete Shields (renowned film critic John Flaus), who re-enters the underworld only to find that its values and manners have changed radically. The young hoods who assist him in the abortive robbery that opens the film are violent, bumbling, undisciplined amateurs. Modern crime is corporate, mercenary, full of conniving entrepreneurs and trigger-happy punks; Shields’ way is straight, tough, true.

When Pete revisits Melbourne – to “relive his youth”, as his brother Brian (Bryan Brown) puts it – he finds that everyone has changed sides, and that there are no longer any noble crooks like himself. The organisation run by kingpin Curtis (Peter Stratford) has conscripted individual operators and police alike. And even modern acts of crime have a meaningless lack of adventure: Curtis robs goods from his own warehouses to claim on the insurance.

Thematically, this terrain is familiar enough. Its significant, impressive aspect, however, is the precise, crisp way in which themes are crystallised and meanings conveyed. For instance: at the beginning, Pete gets in the car that is headed for the robbery site. The much younger driver has the radio on full blast, blaring rock music. Peter curtly orders it to be turned off. In just a matter of seconds, the nature and values of the new criminal milieu, and Pete’s attitude toward it, are deftly established.

Another example: a scene that shows the respectable façade of Curtis’ home-life begins with a shot of his daughter, Lisa (Caroline Cassidy), playing tennis. When one of the boss’ henchmen rings – an unwanted intrusion of the sordid truth – a deep-focus shot sets up simultaneously the call and the tennis match, thus contrasting the innocence and fragility of the girl with the secrecy and corruption of a criminal operation.

This scene is also cleverly functional, narrative-wise: it subtly announces the major part that Lisa will play in the plot. For, facing the prospect of death from cancer, Shields kidnaps her and elaborately stage-manages his own death. (For an American B movie variation on this classic generic premise, compare Eric Red’s Cohen and Tate [1989].)

The dramatic substance of Blood Money is not confined solely to its evident crime-genre elements – which, in themselves, look back to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) and ahead to Walter Hill’s Johnny Handsome (1989). As in so many of the greatest Hollywood movies, the situation here is based on an implicit, hovering scenario, an unspoken subtext, that arises from the exchanges between the main characters.

The principal resonance emerges from the tense and ambiguous familial relation between Pete, Brian, Brian’s wife Jeannie (Chrissie James) and their daughter Kathy (Sophie Murphy). What haunts the film, surfacing only in hints and allusions, is the possibility that Kathy is in fact Pete’s child from his past affair with Jeannie – likely a cinephilic allusion (under Flaus’ tutelage?) to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). This brings into play a complex swirl of emotions, particularly between the brothers – love and hate, loyalty and resentment.

This relationship achieves a salutary complexity. We are unable to attribute a fixed sense or explanation to the brothers’ actions, which seem equally motivated by intense love (Pete left Jeannie perhaps out of loyalty to Brian), and a constantly seething aggression (Pete gets Brian sacked; Brian demands to know whether he is Kathy’s biological father, and punches Pete).

The figuring-out of the narrative is poised between an enigmatic past and an equally mysterious future event that we see Pete plotting and preparing. In the overall emotional context, his final suicide is especially ambiguous. On the one hand, his act cements Brian’s established nuclear family unit, removing himself as the point of trouble, the lurking, repressed element from the past threatening the family’s stability.

On the other hand, his act (his theatrical performance art!) may well be bitterly ironic: the gift of dirty criminal money, and the fact that he arranges for Brian to see him die, suggest a cruel symbolic gesture against the sanctified facade of the family that has excluded him – and hence also against the social values these things represent.

Pete never tells anyone that he is dying; the final assertion of his proud individualism will be to stage-manage his own death scene, once everything he has been involved in is settled to his own satisfaction. In a reflexive turn worthy of Fritz Lang, Pete is thus the author of a fiction whose victim he will finally become; the end of the story will be the end of his life.

Here, too, the underlying motivations are complex. Pete’s putative suicide is, on the one hand, intended as a parting gesture of glory, a homage to himself. On the other hand, it is for the benefit of others: to write himself out of the domestic melodrama besetting Brian and Jeannie. Their marriage is symbolically restored – and there’s money for Kathy’s upbringing in the bargain.

Only at the very end can this irony be fully appreciated, when all the pieces are put in place for the privilege of the spectator – but not for any of the surviving characters. But these ironies are not so far below the surface, since this gift is blood money in two senses: it has been raised from crime and a murder; and it’s a legacy for the child who may be Pete’s.

Which is to say that Blood Money draws on the rich, sometimes ambiguous thematic matrix of home and the outsider present not only in crime dramas, but more especially in Westerns like, again, The Searchers. The particularly good ending shows its dramatic excellence, as well as its intelligent assimilation of American conventions. Earlier, we have seen Pete and Jeannie arrive at a schoolyard to pick up Kathy; Jeannie remarks: “Brian says she looks like you”. This instantly sets in play all the tensions that surround Pete’s intrusion into the family.

The coda offers a reworked repetition of the scene. It’s Brian who has now come to pick up Kathy. With Pete dead, and his memory and significance once more shoved down and away, the words “Do you love your Daddy?” and “We’re going home” (almost exactly as in The Searchers) voice Brian’s newfound hold over his position as father and husband. Blood Money avoids a simple, facile Happy Ending by making these undertones clear through the differential process of scene-repetition.

The film is most successful in its understated, suggestive moments and passages, structured carefully into the script and skilfully executed by the cast. The scattered attempts at action sequences and accelerated pacing (a robbery, a fistfight, a car chase) are neither especially well done in themselves, nor integrated into the overall tone of the work. And, for a genre film, it is all rather under-stylised in the use of lighting, camera work and sound effects. (Chris Fitchett subsequently directed a few further films, but channelled most of his energy into project development at various government funding bodies, and teaching.)

Although the film is entirely neither mood piece nor thriller, what it attempts, and the intervention it makes in its national cinema context, are more important than the final results. Blood Money is soaked in cinema history, and does not hide the fact. It consciously and conspicuously places itself within a narrative tradition that most of the officially patronised filmmakers of Australia like to pretend does not exist – and their films are the poorer for it.

Like the later directorial work of co-writer John Ruane (Feathers [1987], Death In Brunswick [1991], Dead Letter Office [1998]), Blood Money tends more toward good literature than good cinema. But that is a virtue which, in certain circumstances – like that of Australian film culture, impoverished as it generally is – should not be underestimated.

© Adrian Martin December 1980 / May 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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