Squizzy Tay­lor

Melbourne’s favourite gang­ster

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blundell

MELBOURNE loves its crooks, gang­sters and leg­endary ra­zor gangs. I can still re­mem­ber my fa­ther telling us about a gun­fight be­tween Squizzy Tay­lor and the vi­o­lent Snowy Cut­more in a small ter­race in Carl­ton’s Barkly Street in which the pair ex­changed 14 shots.

The flashy Tay­lor — my dad proudly called him ‘‘ our own Al Capone’’ — stag­gered out into the street and later died in Melbourne’s St Vin­cent’s Hos­pi­tal.

They’re both at the cen­tre of Screen­time’s new Un­der­belly in­stal­ment chron­i­cling the ex­ploits of the pint-sized Melbourne crook, chris­tened as Joseph Les­lie Theodore Tay­lor but bet­ter known as ‘‘ Squizzy’’, be­tween 1915 and 1927. As Un­der­belly: Squizzy’s wry nar­ra­tion in­forms us, his nick­name refers to the fact he was short, though the moniker is also a ref­er­ence to the fact ‘‘ squiz’’ was slang for a bowel move­ment.

Like its pre­de­ces­sor, Ra­zor, the lat­est in the Un­der­belly saga is a mor­dant fa­ble of avarice, am­bi­tion, vi­o­lence and death, this time a colour­fully re­alised an­thro­pol­ogy not of Syd­ney’s in­ner mean streets but Melbourne’s postWorld War I gam­ing houses, knock­ing shops and opium dens. Be­gin­ning with the world still at war in Europe and the Mid­dle East, the word Gal­lipoli al­ready a synonym for Bri­tish be­trayal, the se­ries charts an­other bat­tle.

Squizzy, played with in­sou­ciant charm by Jared Daperis, is leader of the pick­pocket gang known as the Bourke Street Rats. Hav­ing branched out into rob­bing jewellery shops and brib­ing his way to ac­quit­tal for mur­der in the first dou­ble episode, he takes on ‘‘ Long Harry’’ Slater’s Nar­rows gang for con­trol of the city’s un­der­world. Slater, played with an ap­pro­pri- ately ma­ni­a­cal edge by Richard Cawthorne, is a vi­cious ad­ver­sary for the ‘‘ short arse crook’’, as pro­ducer Peter Gawler calls him. But the charis­matic Squizzy has the bru­tal John ‘‘ Snowy’’ Cut­more by his side, as hard as a cop’s billy club, with some­thing foul alive in his eyes. He’s a hand­some devil in a care­fully dis­si­pated sort of way but a hood with a hair­trig­ger tem­per.

Matt Boe­sen­berg in a stand-out per­for­mance gives him the right so­cio­pathic edge, hold­ing back the drug-fu­elled un­pre­dictabil­ity with­out los­ing the men­ace. And, in the be­gin­ning of this vi­o­lent saga, there’s also Camille Keenan’s Dolly Grey stand­ing by our Squizzy. She’s 11 years his se­nior, his first true love and a part-time whore and thief. Keenan is silk­ily im­pres­sive, giv­ing Dolly a weary sex­i­ness but she also finds cheek­i­ness.

A lot of plot and many sto­ries of vi­o­lence and be­trayal will fol­low as the se­ries un­folds, Melbourne’s lit­tle crim­i­nal gen­eral adroit at sell­ing out his friends for fame, but fa­tally at­tracted in the end to his own mythol­ogy.

When we first meet him, naked, re­hears­ing mantras of suc­cess and sur­vival to his long mir­ror, sur­rounded by can­dles, he seems a crea­ture of ex­treme craft and cool, his lips sealed in an up­ward sneer, his will and sel­f­re­gard iron­clad. We get the sense that shrewd­ness of cal­cu­la­tion and hard­ness of spirit will pro­pel him to win out over any­one he chooses to go to war against; hubris, though, is writ­ten all over him. As Gawler says: ‘‘ He was a kid who dreamt large.’’ And one who fell in love with the idea of be­com­ing fa­mous, as­sid­u­ously col­lect­ing his press clip­pings.

The se­ries — the first dou­ble episode con­cisely di­rected in the stylised fash­ion of Ra­zor by David Cae­sar and tautly writ­ten by Felic­ity Packard — is a clever variation on the clas­sic gang­ster films of the 1930s, a nar­ra­tive about a so­cial out­sider whose mon­stros­ity seems as much a re­sult of ac­ci­dent and cir­cum­stance as evil in­ten­tion. And at times it is easy to sym­pa­thise with young Squizzy’s at­tempts to gain suc­cess and ac­cep­tance in re­spectable so­ci­ety by be­com­ing the most cel­e­brated gang­ster of his time.

But, of course, in clas­sic movie fash­ion, his de­sire to move from so­ci­ety’s mar­gins leads him to over­reach him­self — his death in Carl­ton is still a piece of Melbourne mythol­ogy — and to threaten so­ci­ety it­self, thus ne­ces­si­tat­ing his demise. In that way it’s a kind of dis­guised parable of so­cial mo­bil­ity as a pun­ish­able de­vi­a­tion from one’s as­signed place, a class con­flict ob­scured by the vi­o­lent melo­drama of Tay­lor’s short life.

And like the best episodes of the Un­der­belly fran­chise — I’m an un­abashed fan — there’s a ni­hilis­tic out­ra­geous­ness to the nar­ra­tive; Squizzy isn’t just on the edge, he is the edge, and there’s a wicked amuse­ment to the whole des­per­ate saga. In some ways, like much of the Un­der­belly saga, it’s a med­i­ta­tion on the dark places that ro­man­tic yearn­ing can take a neigh­bour­hood boy, his han­ker­ing to bet­ter him­self, to climb in so­ci­ety, to hang out with the toffs. Squizzy is like the ar­che­typal gang­ster: vain, ma­nip­u­la­tive, not par­tic­u­larly in­tel­li­gent but al­most ma­ni­a­cally driven, ex­ud­ing over­ween­ing con­fi­dence, an in­de­fati­ga­ble wom­an­iser and so­cial climber. And, of course, he’s a lovely dresser.

Again the Un­der­belly pro­duc­ers and writ­ers have taken on them­selves the task of ex­am­in­ing un­tidy truths about slices of our past cul­tural his­tory, jolt­ing, prod­ding and some­times ca­ress­ing them into a pleas­ing shape­li­ness. Squizzy is not quite as con­vinc­ing as Ra­zor — at least in the first dou­ble episode. The dia­logue lacks the hard pithi­ness of the pre­vi­ous se­ries and the pro­duc­tion lacks the same rock­et­ing pace and plau­si­bil­ity.

Ra­zor fea­tured tow­er­ing per­for­mances from Chelsie Pre­ston-Cray­ford as brothel madam Tilly Devine and Danielle Cor­mack as sly grog­ger Kate Leigh, and good as new­comer Daperis is as Squizzy, ever-smil­ing and coolly dap­per, he sim­ply doesn’t dom­i­nate in the same elec­tric fash­ion — at least not yet. We know he has to age a lit­tle and that bad times will come his way, and it will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see how this tal­ented young ac­tor — he’s in al­most ev­ery scene — copes with the de­mands of this com­plex pro­duc­tion.

Un­der­belly shoots up to 10 min­utes of footage a day and the stress on the ac­tors is ex­haust­ingly in­tense, the pro­duc­tion of­ten film­ing two episodes si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Once again the pro­duc­tion de­signer

is

Un­der­belly: Squizzy

Camille Keenan and Jared Daperis in

Un­der­belly: Squizzy

Jared Daperis,

cen­tre, in

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