The Cult Movies of Director Brian Kavanagh

*contains spoilers

Director/Editor/Producer Brian Kavanagh (1935-) is one of the key filmmakers in the resurgence of the Australian film industry in the 1970s after a couple of decades where the industry more of less lay fallow.

He directed only three feature films but he left his mark as a film editor on some bona fide Australian classics and also produced his own films.

Director and Editor Brian Kavanagh has many feathers in his cap

I thought I would do an article on his film Double Deal (1981 or 1983 on IMDb) but when I looked further, I discovered that the two other movies he directed, of which there are scant reviews, are also cult-like. The other movies are A City’s Child (1971) and Departure (1986). What is interesting is that all three films are quite different…. A City’s Child is kind of arty and almost hallucinatory, Double Deal is a mainstream thriller and Departure is almost a filmed play. But let’s look quickly at Kavanagh’s career.

He wrote, produced and directed his first short film in 1962 entitled Joyful and Triumphant which was about Christmas in Australia. Kavanagh is essentially an editor and an award winning one at that. He began his feature career editing The Naked Bunyip (1970) which is considered an Ozploitatation classic as it explores sex through “a searching and tolerant survey”.

The Naked Bunyip (1970)

After directing A City’s Child, Kavanagh worked as editor on Libido (1973) on The Priest episode which was one of several stories in the film, with director Fred Schepisi (1939-).

The two must have hit it off, because the pair would work together again for The Devil’s Playground (1976) a few years later. This drama about life at a Catholic school seminary was a hit at the Australian box office and won the award for Best Film and Best Director from the Australian Film Institute (AFI). Kavanagh had to live with a nomination.

The editor then worked on the cult film Long Weekend (1978) starring John Hargreaves (1945-96 AIDS). Written by Everett de Roche (1946-2014 cancer) who wrote Patrick (1978) and Quentin Tarantino favourite Road Games (1981), Long Weekend was deemed so influential that it was remade in 2008. It is one of my favourite Aussie movies.

Long Weekend (1978) trailer

The same year as this film, Kavanagh would work with Schepisi again on The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) which is considered another Australian classic about racial abuse. It won a Best Actress AFI award for Angela Punch McGregor who would later appear in Kavanagh’s Double Deal.

Kavanagh also edited the Vietnam war set The Odd Angry Shot (1979) and produced …Maybe This Time (1980) which is relatively forgotten today but got Kavanagh a nomination for Best Film by the AFI as well as much kudos for its actors. He then directed Double Deal (1981) which for some reason in Wikipedia and the IMDb is dated as 1983 which is a mistake.

Latter day art for The Odd Angry Shot (1979)

The year 1985 saw the production of semi-cult film Frog Dreaming aka The Quest starring E.T. The Extra-terrestrial (1982) star Henry Thomas (1971-). It’s a good family film about a mysterious bunyip type creature at a waterhole, or former mining quarry, which is tied up with Aboriginal folklore. And it was with this film that Kavanagh peaked critically with a well-deserved AFI award for Best Editing, certainly after also being nominated and not winning also for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Certainly, Kavanagh deserved the award for the opening sequence alone in Frog Dreaming!

Frog Dreaming (1985) trailer

He directed Departure shortly afterwards and would continue to edit feature films until 2001. He was made a life member of the Australian Screen Editors in 1997.

But this still remains only a part of his achievements as since he finished his film career, he reinvented himself as a mystery novelist. His novels are known as the Belinda Lawrence mystery series and they are critically acclaimed including titles such as Capable of Murder, The Embroidered Corpse and A Canterbury Crime.

Now I will talk about A City’s Child, which opens with a quote from British author Iris Murdoch (1919-99), as it shows a woman walking down a Melbourne suburban footpath. It is a well-trodden path and somewhat of a rut for the woman who cares for a bedridden mother who belittles and disrespects her. This browbeaten woman is shown to be a submissive character with an inner life and her mother dies before the opening credits…

A City’s Child (1971) poster

This plain, middle-aged woman must now face a life alone and isolated in her home. She talks to herself and seems to eventually take on the persona of her mother at one stage. She also reads the racier novels of John Steinbeck (1902-68 heart failure) and upon buying a book also purchases the first in a collection of Barbie dolls which will become central to her life. The Barbie dolls, in fact, become an obsession with her and she has so many Ken dolls in her cupboard, if the neighbours knew, they would definitely talk or even form a posse!

Apparently, Kavanagh got permission to use the dolls as it was early on in their production and they had not become the phenomenon they are today. It would now cost a fortune to license and use them!

Sean Scully and Monica Maughan in a scene from A City’s Child (1971)

Anyway, among the dolls, she begins a secret life, making clothes and talking to them, adopting them as her own children… She also appears to be having chance meetings with a young man… He comes to the door more than once and there is one rather effective and slightly terrifying scene where the woman knows he’s at the door but won’t let him in. They are soon acquainted over a glass of port inside her home… By this time, it would appear the woman has a baby as we can hear it cry… The neighbours are talking as there are nappies on the clothes line and they think she has grown even more strange since her mother’s death. Is the man real? Is the baby real? Or is it just a doll and the man a part of her imagination built entirely on loneliness? Even the end of the movie hints at the Immaculate Conception!

Maughan (left) in tv show Prisoner

The woman is played by theatre and all-round actress Monica Maughan (1933-2010 cancer) who I will always remember for her stint on Prisoner aka Prisoner Cell Block H in 1979-80. She won an award for Best Actress at the Australian Film Awards for this film and A City’s Child also won a bronze award for feature film.

The man is played by Sean Scully (1947-) who was a child actor in British Disney films in the early 1960s like The Prince and the Pauper (1961) and Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow (1963). Unable to make the transition to adult roles for a time, it was Kavanagh who gave him one of his first breaks with this film and Scully would go on to do much tv and would later appear in Kavanagh’s Departure.

Actor Sean Scully in The Prince and the Pauper (1961)

One of the neighbours, ironically, is played by Vivean Gray (1924-2016) who played Mrs Mangel in popular Aussie soapie Neighbours in the 1980s and previously played another gossipy neighbour in long-running Australian series The Sullivans, for which she won awards. So, she was well spotted and ideally cast in A City’s Child.

The film resonates for me as only in the last year an acquaintance stalked me when she got my mobile phone number – let me just add that I’m not worth stalking! I eventually blocked the calls but this lonely woman left countless messages and I would listen to them after they came in at two or three in the morning just to make sure she wasn’t self-harming. Our relationship began to grow in her mind to the point where I would enter her apartment and visit her bed while she was asleep – and I didn’t even know where she lived!…

Loneliness and mental health struggles in the suburbs are real

And she then claimed she had fallen pregnant and could feel the baby kicking, despite being over sixty years of age. She looked into getting a baby capsule for her car and insisted I meet her at the pharmacy for a pregnancy test, which of course turned out negative when she went ahead alone… Anyway, it would be funny if it weren’t so serious and her family intervened when her health began to fail and I now no longer hear from her but I hear she is doing fine and now has a carer to support her. A City’s Child isn’t funny either and is really kind of factual in a way – it really can happen in the isolation of the suburbs!

According to the credits, Kavanagh was responsible for the story but the script is credited to Don Battye (1938-2016), who was a prolific tv writer in Australia during the 1970s and 80s. As is always the case with credits, you never know who really wrote what or how much.

The interesting soundtrack for A City’s Child (1971)

What is amazing about A City’s Child is that it was made for very little money and only in the tens of thousands. It is a classic mood piece as well as an evocation of lonely children who have become even more lonesome adults. The effective music score was co-written by Peter PInne (1937-), who wrote musicals with Battye among others.

A City’s Child was also edited by Kavanagh and that was the direction his career took for many years. That was until Double Deal…

A clip from A City’s Child (1971)

Double Deal was one of those Australian movies of the 1980s era that imported an international star to help its chances at the box office. The star this time was Louis Jourdan (1921-2015 natural causes) but it didn’t help this film as it was probably dumped briefly on the cinema circuit which led to a reported box office of around $3000. Shot in 1981, its international release may have been delayed in the United States until 1983, but it’s copyrighted 1981… the IMDb seem to have it wrong.

I have always liked this film since it came out on VHS in the early 1980s. It’s never going to be a bona fide classic but it still has something which kept it on my mind over the years and I would revisit it every now and then. The screenplay is by Kavanagh who directed but did not edit as he obviously had enough work to do.

A poster for Double Deal (1981)

Jourdan was a French actor who started out in Hollywood in the 1940s in the lesser Hitchcock movie The Paradine Case (1947) and Max Ophul’s Letter to an Unknown Woman (1948). He was later in the musical Gigi (1958). His cultish exploits film-wise in Hollywood include the ‘let’s throw a virgin in the volcano’ movie Bird of Paradise (1951) and the woman’s picture The Best of Everything (1959). By the 1970s, he was doing television including Count Dracula (1977) which earned him good notices until the feature Double Deal came along. He followed this up with the fun comic book movie Swamp Thing (1982) and then played the villain Kamal Khan in the Bond film Octopussy (1983). So Double Deal kicked off appearances in a couple of good roles for Jourdan, who would finish his career with one of my favourite red wine moves The Year of the Comet (1992).

The Paradine Case (1947) trailer

In Double Deal, Jourdan plays the rich businessman husband to a bored wife who is played by celebrated Aussie actress Angela Punch McGregor (1953-). She won an award as I mentioned for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith before being picked up by the Americans for the Michael Caine film The Island (1980) which was a notorious critical and commercial flop. It is also one of the best father/son adventure movies of all time! The Australian posters for The Island were stamped with “Also Starring Australia’s Angela Punch McGregor” or something but it was R-rated and only played drive-ins in my city.

The Island poster with Punch McGregor stamp at bottom

With her career seemingly in free fall, Punch McGregor took on the role in Double Deal which I have read she looked back on as a mistake… Yet after Double Deal, she would go on to make more Aussie classics: We of the Never Never (1982) and Annie’s Coming Out (1984) aka A Test of Love for which she got a couple of AFI Best Actress nominations, winning one for the latter.

Angela Punch McGregor in Double Deal (1981)

So, we have a couple of good lead actors in Double Deal. Punch McGregor has an ethereal beauty as an actress and she plays the Australian equivalent of a supermodel in this movie, who is busy shooting a spread for photographer Bruce Spence (1945-), an actor who was the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2 (1981). She discusses with Spence how the “the honeymoon is over” with husband Jourdan.

She doesn’t have a good time in bed with Jourdan anymore as she takes on the role of trophy wife with a butterfly tattooed on her thigh. Jourdan collects the real thing and leaves the marital bed after orgasm and quickly dresses without a word. Punch McGregor must put up with boring dinners with elderly businessmen talking business. And she is, sadly, no intellectual who can curl up with a book.

Bruce Spence as the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2 (1981)

Her home seems bereft of books, in fact, as vases and ceramic figurines are gathered on her living room shelves instead. She has no inner life and must look for it elsewhere.

“He’s so charming, it gives you the creeps,” she says of her husband Jourdan.

Instead, she takes an interest in astrology with an expert, played by June Jago (1926-2010), and her star sign is Libra, symbolised by the scales. The scales are the only object among the star signs… and the film is about objects of beauty. She hopes to learn her future but Jago says that’s not possible, a comment which will eventually see the scales unbalanced in Punch McGregor’s life… especially when she captures the eye of a sociopathic criminal drifter played by Warwick Comber (no info). This motorcyclist, dressed in silver, turns up on her Toorak mansion doorstep saying he’s hungry.

Actor Louis Jourdan

“…any gardening to do, odd jobs around the house, or in the bedroom?”

She is taken by this comment and upon letting him into her home she puts on airs… but we know she’s really a working-class girl who still visits her mother and ailing nan… When Comber starts dropping expensive vases and scratching the furniture with his knife, Punch McGregor joins in and together they trash the living room… This leads to a road trip in a car as her life falls under the influence of Comber’s heavenly body.

Actor Comber has an unusual look and he is the opposite of Jourdan as he is sexy in an animalistic kind of way. He eats a Chiko roll somewhere during the movie and one wonders what else he consumed during the production as he has a bit of a sucked in gut at the beginning of the film whereas later on, he almost has a washboard stomach. But I’m nit-picking and that aside, he is an effective bad boy who is given sparse dialogue.

Warwick Comber in Double Deal (1981)

The pair dress up as clowns and rob a country post office but leave the money blowing down the highway as it seems it was all just a thrill.

And the Double Deal? Jourdan has a secretary played by Diane Craig (1949-) who has long worked for him and had an unrequited love for her boss – and I mean financially, as she wants money in the form of a million-dollar opal known as the Empress of Glengarry. Craig knows Comber, something hinted at the beginning… Soon Comber and Punch McGregor are asking for ransom from Jourdan as a further thrill… But it turns serious as Comber ties her up…

Title credit for Double Deal (1981)

“Is this another kink? Are you going to rape me?,” says Punch McGregor playfully, before she realises it is serious. It all comes down the the opal.

There is further double dealing as Jourdan turns up with the opal as ransom for Punch McGregor only to get shot by her… yet, he is not dead in some contrivance over a toy gun and the real thing not containing real bullets…

Did he bring the real opal? Will the secretary get her hands on the real thing from the safe? Will Comber kill any one of these characters?

“I got paid for what I had to do,” says Comber, with a certain detachment to Punch McGregor near the ending, which kind of sums up the movie and the plot and the actors. But the film doesn’t deserve such cynicism.

Diane Craig and Warwick Comber with the Empress of Glengarry

The double dealing that takes place in the movie is surprising along with the climax in a hot tub… and the final scene on a country train where Jourdan and McGregor are strangers and yet they know each other even better. Their stare shows they have perhaps come up closer to each other in knowing one another as a result but of course it will never be the same despite the scales being rebalanced.

There is a policeman investigating it all played by Peter Cummins (1931-) who was the father in classic kid’s tale Storm Boy (1976). But he is ineffective and again the symbol of the scales of justice being as useless as astrology. Punch McGregor is given a gift of some silver scales by her astrologer sometime during the movie and they are knocked onto the floor when she and Comber trash the living room.

Angela Punch McGregor shoots Louis Jourdan in Double Deal. Or did she?

Look at the title credit of Double Deal and the title card is reflected and made double. Also, the credit of Punch McGregor’s name at the beginning of the film is first while at the end of the film her name is second after Jourdan’s. Almost a double deal in itself.

Double Deal, like astrology, has the stars to carry it and as a young teenager I was amazed that such semi-Hollywood royalty would come Down Under to make a movie, especially way back then… James Mason (1909-84 heart attack) came and made A Dangerous Summer (1982) around that time too. Double Deal may not be the best thriller and at times has a lackadaisical charm to it… Perhaps it all comes down to sex, which most things do, and the love of the butterfly as the symbol of the missionary position in terms of Jourdan’s and Punch McGregor’s sex life, as well as of life itself, as Jourdan pins down the dead butterflies in his collection. They are dead and only objects now, like the possessions on the living room shelf, outwardly beautiful but really nothing…

Angela Punch McGregor robs a post office in Double Deal (1981)

Even the Empress of Glengarry opal may be regarded as beautiful… but it is all in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps it isn’t sex at all that matters but money as Punch McGregor’s mistake was to marry a much older man with money but without real sex in the end which leads to the delicate balance becoming unbearable and boring.

There are doubles in the movies such as the two clowns robbing the post office making their crime doubly silly… there is also two opals, one real and one a fake… and the ending as the train rattles down the two tracks and husband and wife look at each other and look away… They will forever have to look at their double in the mirror and the crimes they have committed.

Double Deal (1981) clip

I may be straining on the pot but Double Deal is also a revelation of the double standards of the bourgeois, especially those who leave their working-class roots behind and embrace the upper classes and in doing so betray their family and eventually themselves. Punch McGregor is high and mighty over her friend played by Kerry Walker (1948-) at work, she also poses with her cigar like cigarette in front of her mother and embraces the bourgeois science of astrology… She rejects her own intuition. The double deal of her affair with Comber is not love but sexual – there is that love of a bad boy again.

Brian Kavanagh as editor early in his career

“Love doesn’t exist,” says Comber, and this reflects on Punch McGregor’s working-class roots which she has left behind. She doesn’t even acknowledge her grandmother upon her visit and doesn’t touch her. Her profession as a model leaves her in a vacuum as it is another bourgeois career of being at the pinnacle and yet devoid of meaning. If Punch McGregor is anything, she is not political unlike the characters in Kavanagh’s Maybe This Time and Departure. Also, the accruing of money in the film through the stock market is hinted at as almost double dealing by one of Jourdan’s dinner guests.

Jourdan even has framed butterflies on his office wall. Here is perhaps the pure bourgeois who is charming and yet banal for his fussiness and aloofness. Punch McGregor and he are aloof to the sex on offer at a decadent party as the guests pair off… as their alienation of each other spreads further afield. There are many dynamics at work in Double Deal. It’s perhaps a slight distraction that a couple of the suspense moments aren’t quite fully accentuated and the music score’s use of the horn is slightly heavy handed… possibly quashing some sensitive shots of Punch McGregor. But there I go nit-picking again!

Angela Punch McGregor at the end of Double Deal (1981)

Ultimately, Double Deal is a film for the bourgeois, whether lower middle class or upper and I am guilty of that in my writing of this article. It is a perfect escape from the boredom of middle-class life which is part of the movie’s genius and why I like it doubly so. It also has the attraction of a beefy criminal sort for women of any class. Or men?! Whatever you like!

Double Deal is neither serious art, nor is it fake junk. It is the journey that is worthwhile, like the day in the life of a butterfly. Reviled by critics and even by Punch McGregor, it has been forgotten and is worthy of more respect than it has been given when it was resounding thumped upon release… I will watch it again. Maybe twice.

As astrologer Jago says in the film about the stars and she could be talking about those involved in acting and making movies: “They are our friends and do influence our lives… but do not allow their influence to swamp you”.

Speaking of swamps, here is Jourdan in a scene from Swamp Thing (1982)

To look briefly at Departure, which was Kavanagh’s final film released as a director, and it is essentially like a play that has been filmed. When I first saw it, it reminded me of the plays of the American Film Theatre which were filmed in the 1970s that got some classic plays with great casts and captured them on film forever, often without losing their theatrical origins. They still remain a pleasure to watch and I was surprised to find the same of Departure. That was after reading a review which said that at the AFI screenings of the movie, it was deemed so appalling that it was nearly hooted from the screen.

It is in fact a good play. It tells of an aging couple who must face some home truths on the eve of their departure to Rome where they are planning to live. They are in Tasmania and their son is about to run for Parliament for the Labor Party. However, an old scandal which concerns the father is about to be run in the newspapers and the scene is set for a dramatic weekend before the Monday papers are printed.

Leslie Phillips (left) and June Jago in Please Turn Over (1959)

The couple are played by OBE winner for the performing arts, actress Patricia Kennedy (1916-2012) and British actor Michael Duffield (1915-86) who was nominated for an acting award for his role in The Last of the Knucklemen (1979). Their son is played by Serge Lazareff (1944-). June Jago makes another appearance and just to mention her career, she was an Australian who went to England and appeared in some comedies such as Please Turn Over (1959) with Leslie Phillips (1924-) while perhaps her most famous comedic role was as a nurse in Carry on Doctor (1967) who at the end is revealed to be wearing red knickers.

Playwright Michael Gurr

Having proved herself a pleasing comedienne, Jago returned to Australia and devoted herself to theatre including productions of Shakespeare. She has a prim and proper voice in her Kavanagh roles… I think she deserved more success in England and she is fondly remembered for her English roles on a few websites.

The play A Pair of Claws which Departure was based on was written by Michael Gurr (1961-2017 short illness), who himself was a speech writer for Australian Labor Party figures in the 1990s. Gurr was a man so beloved that a dozen people crowded around his room and the corridor at the hospital the night he died. His plays include Sex Diary of an Infidel which was written in 1992 and tells of sex tours of the Philippines and another entitled Jerusalem from 1996 which concerns another Labor member of Parliament. Departure is the only Gurr play I have seen and I wish more were recorded on film for posterity.

A clip from Departure (1986)

Kavanagh is using a small budget again but the scenes are well opened up from the stage origins of the play into something akin to it appearing to be a normal feature. It’s just the few idiots that saw the film on the big screen didn’t know a play on film when they saw one… What did they want – The Bourne Identity?! Departure deserves more respect.

Kavanagh did many editing jobs after that, including the comedy Dags (1998) and horror movie Cubbyhouse (2001) for another interesting director Murray Fahey (no info).

Legend Brian Kavanagh

He continues to bring joy to readers with his mystery novels with another on the way.

Brian Kavanagh helped revive the Australian film industry and his first film A Child’s City is some kind of masterpiece, while Double Deal continues to bring – at least for me – great enjoyment as some kind of cult film. Those who have seen Long Weekend and Frog Dreaming know they too are special experiences worthy of more than just one look, along with the Schepisi films The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which this film legend edited in a career worthy of far more than a cursory glance. And so, we depart…

For an interview with Brian Kavanagh and some great behind the scenes photographs PRESS HERE.

For an interview with A City’s Child actor and former Disney star Sean Scully PRESS HERE.

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