Melbourne’s favourite gangster
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
Camille Keenan and Jared Daperis in