Underbelly: articles

Underbelly slices and dices with criminal intent

RAZOR, the latest in the Underbelly saga, is a mordant fable of avarice, violence and death.

Brilliantly realised, the new series traces the booze and cocaine-fuelled sex trades dominated by madam Tilly Devine (Chelsie Preston Crayford) and sly grogger Kate Leigh (Danielle Cormack) in late 1920s and early 30s Sydney.

Swift, lean and stunningly conceived, Razor relishes the shenanigans of the gangs of slashers and shooters who protected these infamous women as blood spreads in terrible, satiny puddles across the inner city's back lanes.

It tells how once upon a time there were two rival queens who waged war on each other for so long their stories became intertwined. Then one day they realised that while they couldn't live with each other, they couldn't live without each other either.

And as you would expect from the Underbelly team, the new series is almost decadently hip, enthralling and produced with show-stopping bravado. Tony Tilse's direction of the first context-creating episodes is rich in detail and teeming with incident. This is simply riveting storytelling delivered at rocketing pace and terrifying plausibility, leavened by a witty script by Peter Gawler and Burkhard Dallwitz's stunning musical score.

Gawler wrote the feature-length first episode, his characterisations pithy and sharp. His dialogue has a wonderful ironic hardness about it, a self-defence mechanism used by these criminal Sydneysiders to protect themselves against the harshness of their environment.

It's all based on Larry Writer's book Razor: A True Story of Slashers, Gangsters, Prostitutes and Sly Grog, and culminates in an episode called Armageddon where the gangs throw themselves into a public fight to the death, a riot that becomes the stuff of legends.

These celebrity villains are still household names with many Sydneysiders and were discussed in whispers long before true crime books became part of the household. Even in Melbourne where I grew up we knew of their exploits the way we knew about the criminal mischief of Squizzy Taylor (a menacing character in Razor too) and our own razor gangs in the inner suburbs' cobblestone lanes.

I can still remember my father telling us of the way the violent Snowy Cutmore - another early central character in Razor - was shot by Taylor in a small terrace in Barkly Street, firing back from his bed as the two exchanged 14 shots. Taylor staggered out into the street and later died in St Vincent's Hospital.

My father showed us the house when we were kids and later I lived around the corner in Carlton Street for many years, and could never walk past without hearing every one of those 14 shots.

If you've watched Nine only briefly recently you'll know the synopsis for this remarkable series: Throughout inner Sydney in the 20s and 30s, the fabled vice queens battle for underworld supremacy. And you'll know it is violent, lurid and sexy as the promotional clips have featured a libidinous parade of lingerie-clad actresses in smoky small Darlinghurst rooms and swarthy bare-chested men sharpening their razors.

As has been the case from the beginning, the latest series is staggering in its brazenness, continuing the wonderful tabloid intermingling of the mundane and the biblically heinous delivered by the first series. And again, there's that oddly affecting portrayal of the breathtaking stupidity that propels most homicidal actions, which is so characteristic of Underbelly.

The new series is set in the inner Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst, also known as Razorhurst, Gunhurst, Bottlehurst and Dopehurst and features, as well as our skimpily clad ladies of the night, a wonderful cavalcade of razor slashers, dope pedlars, sneak thieves, spielers, bare knuckle boxers, gunmen and every kind of racecourse parasite.

There is prostitution, sly grog, the sale of cocaine, opium and morphine and the standover from which to make easy money. As in the previous three Underbelly series, this is an epic narrative with countless stories spinning out of the central tale of a female gangland rivalry of Dickensian complexity.

It's 1927, and the new Pistol Licensing Act means automatic jail time for anyone caught carrying a firearm, so Sydney's crooks armed themselves with the cut-throat razor, that deadly straight shaving blade.

Tilly Devine, born into poverty in London and a prostitute at 15, runs the biggest brothel network Australia has seen. Her husband, "Big Jim" Devine (Jack Campbell), leads a team of hired muscle to protect their lucrative business.

Tilly's rival has capitalised on the new law forcing pubs to cease trading at 6pm, and opened numerous saloons to provide liquor to punters after hours. Protected by her own combative nature and a team of bashers and gunmen, Kate Leigh is one of the wealthiest, and most flamboyant, Sydneysiders.

When Tilly steals Kate's Pomeranian dog, the women become sworn enemies. Driven and seemingly incorruptible, Detective Inspector Bill Mackay (Craig Hall) polices Darlinghurst with Detective Sergeant Tom Wickham (Steve Le Marquand) for back-up.

School-aged beauty Nellie Cameron (Anna McGahan), described at the time as a "redhead with a ripe figure and provocative china blue eyes", ignores the advice of Australia's first police woman, Lillian Armfield (Lucy Wigmore), and cheerfully becomes a prostitute for Tilly.

Her relationships with Sydney's gangsters (and their deaths) lead to her becoming known as "the Kiss of Death Girl". Nellie is the jewel in the crown for the men of Razor -- powerfully sexy, curiously innocent, and effortlessly classy and brave -- a sensual mix of loyalty and pragmatism. Sins never stain her soul.

At the start of the series, the vicious Melbourne gangster, standover man Norman Bruhn (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor), one of gangland boss Squizzy Taylor's top men in that city, a beater of women, a thief and a pimp, arrives in Sydney.

His plan is simple: with a talented cast of supporting enforcers he will take out Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh and become the new leader of Sydney's underworld.

The acting throughout is authentic and authoritative, especially Taylor, who has a malevolent athletic grace to him and a fury that radiates. But good though the men are, the women quite properly dominate the screen. Preston Crayford and Cormack are awesome: glamorous, ferocious, tough, passionate and, for all their beauty, convincingly careworn.

And both have a capacity for aching resolve. These are fierce queens with no time for exasperation. Anna McGahan's Nellie is breathtaking in her portrayal of almost frightening sexuality and amorality. McGahan is to be congratulated too, for not shying away from several displays of dazzling art deco harlotry.

The series slides through many marginally interconnected narratives and the taut, ironic narration is again a significant device in the new series.

The voice is still that of Caroline Craig, who played senior detective Jacqui James in the first series and voiced the one that followed. Again her witty, evocative narration provides just the right sense of continuity, joining scenes and introducing characters, and wryly commenting on the mayhem.

We feel we know the woman behind the voice who represents the world of generations of copper insiders; hardly objective but full of a knowing sadness. The narration emphasises this is real storytelling based on actuality, yet suggests there is something archetypal about the stories.

The Underbelly producers and writers have taken on themselves the task of examining untidy truths about slices of our past cultural history, nudging and sometimes caressing them into a pleasing shapeliness that for the past four years has been highly addictive.

Some international critics have hailed the earlier series as Australia's answer to The Sopranos, given that they document the history of brutal skirmishes among rival drug gangs. It was hailed as not merely a saga of coked-up trashy hoods, but a modern-day parable on loyalty, betrayal and the corrupting influence of power.

But Underbelly has always been pulpier, more lurid and even more noirish than the American gangster classic, its narratives wandering sometimes haphazardly as it has followed the course of actual events.

Some British critics thought it closer in form and quality to a high-end cable crime docudrama that can afford reasonably good actors for the extensive re-creations and re-enactments. But that undervalues the writing and editing skill that is able to tie so many well realised characters to so many real events in such a coherent way.

Again in Razor, the producers brilliantly lock us in a small box of a world crammed with insecurity, doubt, accident, corruption, amorality, suddenly vanishing alliances and violent murder.

Underbelly is not simply a fiction that borrows plot patterns from real events, but rather a highly dramatised narrative whose effect is partly dependent on the viewers' awareness that past events are to some degree being reconstructed.

The producers do this by employing a dense texture of contemporary historical detail, which gives their terrible stories a shocking specificity. Look at the haircuts, the guns, the suits, the lingerie, the vehicles and the clever use of computer-generated imagery to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge before our eyes across the episodes.

This is some of the slickest, most astutely engineered commercial drama we've seen, fast and gaudy but highly intelligent: throw out any doubts, sit back and suck up the excitement.

By Graeme Blundell
July 30, 2011
The Australian