First published on 10 Sep 2008. Updated on 15 Sep 2008.
All set to go on stage at the Sydney Opera House and do some talking in between renditions of crime movie music by the Symphony, I'll be able to rely on my memory to a remarkable extent. I might have to look up the odd name and date, but mostly the stuff is already in my head. For most of my waking life, I've been seeing almost every movie as it came out, and I formed the habit right here in Sydney. Near my home suburb of Kogarah in the late 1940s and the 1950s there were three movie houses (always known simply as "the pictures") operating full blast. Early on, when I had barely cut my second teeth, my mother used to take me to every change of double bill at the Ramsgate Odeon.
A little later, but while still in short pants, I took myself to the Saturday afternoon matinee at Rockdale Odeon for a couple of action movies, four episodes from different serials, and 16 cartoons. Long pants having been acquired, I went solo to the Ramsgate double bill in the evening at least once a week, and, on another evening in the same week, to the double bill at the Rockdale Odeon. If the movie had Grace Kelly in it, I could see it repeatedly by chasing it from Ramsgate to Rockdale and back to Kogarah. I saw Dial M for Murder five times that way. When the Symphony plays the soundtrack music in the Opera House, they'll have to hose me down to stop me singing along.
Is there anything more ridiculous than a young man in love? No, but there is nothing more dedicated either. Time after time in Dial M for Murder I was sending thought waves to the screen, warning Grace Kelly that her life was in danger. (Many years later, when I heard the news of her death in a car-crash, I immediately had the guilty thought that I had not sent her a sufficiently powerful message when we were spiritually united in the thrilling darkness of the Ramsgate Odeon.) I even remembered the names on the credits, and so knew from an early age that the spine-tingling score had been composed by Dmitri Tiomkin - two words that I could not pronounce, but they were engraved in my mind as if with a stylus.
My golden-haired beloved was also in Rear Window, and once again I sent messages of warning as the music cranked up the tension. She's searching Raymond Burr's apartment for the missing wedding ring! She's found the ring! She's signalling James Stewart but he doesn't know how to tell her that Raymond Burr has come home early! Luckily my own signals reached her in time and she managed to bluff her way out of certain death. The music was by Franz Waxman. I assumed, of course, that he knew Grace Kelly personally.
I had no idea of how movies were made. All I knew was that I couldn't do without a regular supply of them. The experience of watching was closely allied with the experience of eating. In those days I existed on an exclusive diet of sweets and I graded them according to the type of movie on show. At the Rockdale Odeon, when the action films and serials and cartoons were running, I existed mainly on Jaffas and Hoadley's Violet Crumble Bars. Jaffas were ideal for popping like pills during an Eastern Western like The Golden Blade in which George Macready threatened Piper Laurie's virtue. Crumble Bars, which imposed a much slower chewing rate, were appropriate when enduring the tension of the latest episode of Lost City of the Jungle.
In reality, the actors were in no danger except from the set falling down, but I had no idea what the term "low-budget" meant. For any item on the endless matinee programme, the music could have been by Alfred Newman, who, during a long career, composed for every kind of movie there was. He also composed the Twentieth Century Fox logo theme. "Da-da-dah, da-da-dah, da-da-DAH!" I could sing it. They'll be playing it at the Opera House to start the show and I'll be singing it right along with them unless they can stop me.
For a high-end romantic movie at Ramsgate, I moved my sweet-eating choices upmarket, culminating in the luxurious Cherry Ripe, still the all-time most sensuous Australian gustatory experience. Either out of lust for Grace Kelly or loathing for Stewart Granger, I choked on a Cherry Ripe while watching Green Fire.
But sophistication was soon to arrive. In the late fifties I expanded my movie-going range. Sydney University had a Film Society whose operating members were drunk at all times. The movies were screened in the old Union Hall (gone now, alas, with all its atmosphere of girls longed for and time wasted) and the screening was always preceded, just before the lights went down, by Bunk Johnson playing ‘The Saints Go Marching In'.
Owing to the inebriation of the personnel in the projection box, the reels did not always come on in the right order. Thus my fourth viewing of The Sound Barrier was lent a unique dimension. I had already seen it several years before, two nights running at the Ramsgate Odeon and then again at the Kogarah Odeon.
In it, Ann Todd falls in love with a handsome test pilot (Nigel Patrick, whose suave sneer was much imitated by me) but he dies in a crash. In the Film Society version, he died in a crash and then she fell in love with him.
Imitating the male stars was a feature of my youth. Though I had no natural gifts as a mimic, I could get closer to a passable impression by seeing the movie several times on the trot. Variously rehearsed at both Ramsgate and Rockdale after multiple viewings of The Wild One, my Marlon Brando had a startling effect on my mother. When she said that she was getting sick of asking me to mow the lawn, I told her that I would mowm duh lawm domorrow. On the other hand, Brando's Mark Antony in Julius Caesar got me speaking in blank verse whatever the occasion. ("Have I not said the lawn will soon be mowed?")
Australia in those years is often accused of provincialism but the truth is that the movies connected us to a wider world. They always had. In the thirties, my mother and father, during those onerous depression years when they could not yet afford to have the child that would grow up to be me, would watch Myrna Loy and William Powell in the Thin Man movies and get a lasting idea of what men and women could be like when they treated each other as equals. And it wasn't just the standard Hollywood and British product that reached us.
By the time I was ready to sail, I had seen all the Italian neo-realist movies at Sydney cinemas. But it was an off-trail British movie that knocked me sideways. You couldn't see it in Ramsgate or Kogarah or Rockdale. You had to go "into town", as we used to say. It was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and for three nights on the trot I absorbed the chemicals that transformed me into Albert Finney. By the third night, I was talking with a Nottinghamshire accent and humming the score by Johnny Dankworth.
I was ready for England.
Symphony at The Movies: Crime Timeruns from Thu 11 Sep-Sat 13 Sep at Sydney Opera House, 2 Macquarie St, Sydney 2000. (02 9250 7419) $69; $32 for under 30s.