Release Date(s)1990 (September 1, 2021)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Umbrella Entertainment – Sunburnt Screens #7)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
[Editor’s Note: This is a REGION-FREE Blu-ray release.]
The Big Steal is a delightfully offbeat 1990 coming-of-age comedy from the Australian filmmaking team of Nadia Tass and David Parker. The pair had made an auspicious debut with Malcolm in 1986, which won eight categories at the Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film. Their follow-up Rikky and Pete didn’t make quite as big of a splash, but The Big Steal garnered nine nominations and three wins, and it also did well at the Australian box office. Tass is the director, but like all of their early films, Parker served as screenwriter and cinematographer, while both handled producing duties. (Their partnership extends off the set as well, since the pair has been married for decades.)
In The Big Steal, Danny Clark (an impossibly young and fresh-faced Ben Mendelsohn) is a self-conscious high school student who obsesses over owning a Jaguar, with the hopes of using it to attract the attention of his fellow student Joanna Johnson (Claudia Karvan). He’s dismayed when his parents give him their stodgy old 1964 Nissan Cedric as an 18th birthday present, so he cooks up a scheme to trade it in for a 1971 Jaguar XJ6 at a used car lot run by the shady salesman Gordon Farkas (Steve Bisley). Unfortunately, Danny has underestimated both Farkas and Joanna, so he has to learn some hard lessons along the way, and he also has to use all of his ingenuity to come out on top.
The Big Steal gets a lot of mileage out of Mendelsohn’s innate charm, as well as his genuine chemistry with Karvan; the two make an appealing couple. As Danny’s parents, Marshall Napier and Maggie King are arguably even more appealing—they steal nearly every single scene by virtue of their mild-mannered quirkiness. Danny may be embarrassed by them sometimes, but he knows that their hearts are in the right place, and he loves them as much as they love him. Steve Bisley stands out as the conniving Farkas; his oiliness ensures that audiences will cheer when he gets his comeuppance. There are also some memorable supporting characters, like Tim Robertson as Joanna’s father, and Angelo D’Angelo as one of Danny’s friends—the latter gets one of the most memorable lines in the film: “My first car chase, and it’s a bloody Volvo! I hope none of my cousins see it.”
That car chase is every bit as ridiculous as the one involving a split car in Malcolm, but it’s a perfect example of one of Tass and Parker’s greatest gifts. Their comedies combine a naturalistic slice-of-life milieu with absurdist elements, which often lets the stories turn farcical, but never in a way that takes away from the verisimilitude of the characters. In other words, the characters always ring true, even when the action doesn’t. In The Big Steal, the goofy chase scene at the end works to provide closure for everyone—though it doesn’t hurt that Parker and Tass also provide Animal House style character bios before the credits roll, just to help drive the point home. Danny and Joanna’s fate was never really in doubt, but it’s still nice to get the extra confirmation.
David Parker shot The Big Steal on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Umbrella describes their Blu-ray transfer as an “exclusive 4K restoration,” which was performed by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. There’s no information regarding the elements that were used, but it appears to have been the original camera negative. It’s a beautiful restoration, clean and finely detailed, with smooth and even grain throughout. The optically printed opening titles are naturally softer and less detailed, but everything else looks wonderful. The colors are lovely, well-saturated but never excessively so, with accurate flesh tones. The Big Steal is a film of contrasts, not just in terms of the story and characters, but also because of the widely varied color palette, sometimes drab, sometimes vivid. Speaking of contrast, the actual contrast range is strong, but there’s noise visible during the darkest scenes, and that reduces the apparent black levels. It’s one of the only noteworthy flaws in the entire transfer, aside from a bit of speckling during the closing credits—but that’s nitpicking. Short of a 4K UHD release, this is unquestionably the definitive home video version of The Big Steal.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The Big Steal was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, so this is a four-channel matrixed mix. (The packaging incorrectly describes it as mono despite the fact that the closing credits clearly display the Dolby Stereo logo.) There’s a bit of ambiance in the surrounds, and infrequent directionalized effects like cars or trains traveling past the viewer, but The Big Steal is primarily driven by its dialogue and the eclectic soundtrack combining pop songs with the score from Chris Gough and Philip Judd.
Umbrella’s Region-Free Blu-ray release of The Big Steal is #7 in their Sunburnt Screens line. The insert is reversible, with one side omitting the mandatory Australian “PG” classification from the front cover artwork, and also substituting the theatrical poster art for the back cover blurb. Most of the extras are taken from their 2003 DVD release of the film, with two new additions:
- 2021 Audio Commentary with David Parker moderated by Paul Harris
- 2003 Audio Commentary with Nadia Tass & David Parker
- Filmmakers Featurette with Nadia Tass & David Parker (Upscaled HD – 22:29)
- Cast Interviews: Ben Mendelsohn 2003 (Upscaled HD – 16:03)
- Cast Interviews: Claudia Karvan & Ben Mendelsohn 1990 (Upscaled HD – 14:10)
- Cast Interviews: Claudia Karvan 2003 (Upscaled HD – 16:06)
- Cast Interviews: Steve Bisley 1990 (Upscaled HD – 16:11)
- Cast Interviews: Steve Bisley 2003 (Upscaled HD – 19:17)
- Original Cast Audition Tapes (Upscaled HD – 7:48)
- “Where Was It Filmed?” (HD – 14:56)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:43)
The 2003 commentary with Tass and Parker starts off unpromisingly, with Parker describing what’s happening on-screen (something that both of them are guilty of doing throughout the track). They do give interesting information regarding the production, including how they had to rewrite some of the dialogue to cover a mistake made by the art department. Parker also points out that he picked up the sales patter for Gordon Farkas when he was shopping for a car for Tass, and admits that as a writer, he loves eccentricity. Both Tass and Parker are at their best when they are talking about the characters, who they genuinely seem to love; Tass notes that while the film pushes the edge of reality sometimes, they kept the characters grounded in naturalism. It just would have been nice if they spent less time narrating the action.
The new 2021 commentary solves that problem by pairing Parker with Paul Harris, who keeps things much more focused (though they still don’t completely escape falling back on narration). Harris wryly describes himself as a “film buff,” but he’s far more than that—he was the host of the long-running show Film Buff Forecast on the Australian community radio station 3RRR. He’s definitely a fan of The Big Steal though, and he has plenty of questions for Parker that result in more consistent practical information regarding the making of the film than in the 2003 commentary. They have an interesting conversation about what it’s like for Parker to work with his own wife (Parker explains that their jobs are usually compartmentalized during production, so it’s not an issue). Parker also talks about the challenges with shooting the finale, noting that he always seems to get involved with the world’s silliest car chases.
The Filmmakers Featurette offers Tass and Parker in 2003 looking back at the film 13 years after making it. Tass talks about how she still loves the innocence of the piece, and Parker explains how it was a personal story for him, since it was partly based on some of his own experiences. They also give their thoughts about the story and the characters, as well as the challenges of being independent filmmakers. The Cast Interviews alternate between those shot in 1990 during the release of the film, and those conducted in 2003 for Umbrella’s DVD. It’s interesting seeing how much Mendelsohn and Karvan had aged over those 13 years, though Mendelsohn still looked pretty young in 2003. (Bisley, unsurprisingly, hadn’t changed that much.) The Cast Audition Tapes are videotaped auditions with Angelo D'Angelo, Claudia Karvan, and Damon Herriman.
“Where Was It Filmed?” is the other new extra. It was produced by Paul Hagl in 2020 for his YouTube channel. He takes a look at the locations for a variety of films before settling in for those from The Big Steal. The other films covered include Alvin Purple, Pure Shit (yes, really), The Pirate Movie, Ned Kelly, and Dogs in Space.
It’s a decent collection of extras, even if one of the commentaries is a bit disappointing. Regardless, The Big Steal is a genuine classic of modern Australian cinema, and it’s never looked better than it does here. Umbrella’s Blu-ray is a must-own for fans of the film, and hopefully it creates new fans as well.
- Stephen Bjork