The Big Steal

Nadia Tass | Australia | 1990

2017 Melbourne

Nadia Tass’ third feature was this early Ben Mendelsohn vehicle, an award-winning, iconically Melbourne teen caper also starring Claudia Karvan and Steve Bisley. Danny is rapt that he’s lined up a date with Joanna, but there’s one big problem: he promised he’d be rolling up to her door in a Jaguar, a car he absolutely doesn’t have. Taking the family Nissan Cedric to the car lot of dodgy salesman Gordon Farkas, Danny swings a deal for a Jag that’s too good to be true. Sure enough, when it turns out his new car is a bomb, Danny recruits his mates for an intricately plotted plan of revenge. Written by Tass’ long-time creative partner David Parker (whose efforts won him the AFI Award for Best Screenplay), The Big Steal would be worth seeing for Bisley’s gloriously slimy costuming alone if it also wasn’t Australia’s answer to a John Hughes-esque teen comedy, complete with the first lead performance in a film from the prodigiously talented Mendelsohn.
– Melbourne International Film Festival 2017.

The Big Steal is a delightfully offbeat 1990 coming-of-age comedy from the Australian filmmaking team of Nadia Tass and David Parker. The pair had made an auspicious debut with Malcolm in 1986, which won eight categories at the Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film. Their follow-up Rikky and Pete didn’t make quite as big of a splash, but The Big Steal garnered nine nominations and three wins, and it also did well at the Australian box office. Tass is the director, but like all of their early films, Parker served as screenwriter and cinematographer, while both handled producing duties. (Their partnership extends off the set as well, since the pair has been married for decades.)

In The Big Steal, Danny Clark (an impossibly young and fresh-faced Ben Mendelsohn) is a self-conscious high school student who obsesses over owning a Jaguar, with the hopes of using it to attract the attention of his fellow student Joanna Johnson (Claudia Karvan). He’s dismayed when his parents give him their stodgy old 1964 Nissan Cedric as an 18th birthday present, so he cooks up a scheme to trade it in for a 1971 Jaguar XJ6 at a used car lot run by the shady salesman Gordon Farkas (Steve Bisley). Unfortunately, Danny has underestimated both Farkas and Joanna, so he has to learn some hard lessons along the way, and he also has to use all of his ingenuity to come out on top.

The Big Steal gets a lot of mileage out of Mendelsohn’s innate charm, as well as his genuine chemistry with Karvan; the two make an appealing couple. As Danny’s parents, Marshall Napier and Maggie King are arguably even more appealing — they steal nearly every single scene by virtue of their mild-mannered quirkiness. Danny may be embarrassed by them sometimes, but he knows that their hearts are in the right place, and he loves them as much as they love him.

Steve Bisley stands out as the conniving Farkas; his oiliness ensures that audiences will cheer when he gets his comeuppance. There are also some memorable supporting characters, like Tim Robertson as Joanna’s father, and Angelo D’Angelo as one of Danny’s friends — the latter gets one of the most memorable lines in the film: “My first car chase, and it’s a bloody Volvo! I hope none of my cousins see it.”

That car chase is every bit as ridiculous as the one involving a split car in Malcolm, but it’s a perfect example of one of Tass and Parker’s greatest gifts. Their comedies combine a naturalistic slice-of-life milieu with absurdist elements, which often lets the stories turn farcical, but never in a way that takes away from the verisimilitude of the characters. In other words, the characters always ring true, even when the action doesn’t. In The Big Steal, the goofy chase scene at the end works to provide closure for everyone — though it doesn’t hurt that Parker and Tass also provide Animal House style character bios before the credits roll, just to help drive the point home. Danny and Joanna’s fate was never really in doubt, but it’s still nice to get the extra confirmation.
– Stephen Bjork, The Digital Bits, 1 Feb 2022.

David Parker shot The Big Steal on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Umbrella describes their transfer as an “exclusive 4K restoration,” which was performed by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. There’s no information regarding the elements that were used, but it appears to have been the original camera negative. It’s a beautiful restoration, clean and finely detailed, with smooth and even grain throughout. The optically printed opening titles are naturally softer and less detailed, but everything else looks wonderful. The colors are lovely, well-saturated but never excessively so, with accurate flesh tones. The Big Steal is a film of contrasts, not just in terms of the story and characters, but also because of the widely varied color palette, sometimes drab, sometimes vivid. Speaking of contrast, the actual contrast range is strong, but there’s noise visible during the darkest scenes, and that reduces the apparent black levels. It’s one of the only noteworthy flaws in the entire transfer, aside from a bit of speckling during the closing credits — but that’s nitpicking.

Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The Big Steal was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, so this is a four-channel matrixed mix. There’s a bit of ambiance in the surrounds, and infrequent directionalized effects like cars or trains traveling past the viewer, but The Big Steal is primarily driven by its dialogue and the eclectic soundtrack combining pop songs with the score from Chris Gough and Philip Judd.
– Stephen Bjork, The Digital Bits, 1 Feb 2022.

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