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The crime and prison movie genre showcase only rare true successes

By Bernie Matthews - posted Tuesday, 27 January 2004

The release of Pauline Hanson from Wolston Correctional Centre rekindled a vicarious interest in prisons and the criminal justice system. When Ms Hanson attended a special screening of Gettin’ Square, a movie written by Gold Coast lawyer Chris Nyst, her rave reviews were accorded credibility from an insider’s perspective although she had only spent eleven weeks in prison.

Gettin’ Square is a humorous approach to the criminal milieu that closely resembles another Australian movie, Two Hands. Both movies portray criminals as whacky characters that conduct business with dialogues liberally dosed in slang and expletives and plots that undermine the realism of established career criminals.

Chopper, based on the self-promoted life story of Mark Brandon Read, gave a rare glimpse of criminal realism and the bloody-minded violence that accompanies most career moves within the Australian criminal culture. Blue Murder dragged its audience through the Sydney gutters of crime and corruption to where demarcation lines between police and criminals blurred with organised crime. The story of Neddy Smith’s rise to power in the Sydney underworld, inextricably linked to the sale of heroin and a green light (permission to commit crime free of police interference) given to him by notorious Sydney rogue cop Roger Rogerson, was graphically delivered from the screen in a no-holds-barred expose.


Gettin’ Square fails to deliver any social messages. It is light-hearted escapism whose characters are molded in a similar winning formula set by US lawyer/author John Grisham whose books; The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill and Runaway Jury, have all been successfully adapted to the screen. Like Grisham, Chris Nyst draws on his legal expertise to deliver fictional characters based on past clients and events drawn from the archives of his criminal briefs.

(Some Gettin’ Square characters have a striking resemblance to real-life Gold Coast career criminals Edward “Chicka” Reeves and Ronny “The Fat Man” Feeney who have both departed this world – Feeney from cancer and Reeves from a bullet probably delivered by a Sydney contract killer. His underworld murder remains unsolved.)

Gettin’ Square has strong audience appeal but the title remains a misnomer. “Getting square” or “squaring up” has distinct implications in Australian criminal jargon of which Chris Nyst should be aware. It has no bearing on the movie’s implication of trying to go straight or giving up a life of crime. “Getting square” is the primeval act of revenge - on an informer or somebody who has transgressed the protocols and proprieties of criminal boundaries.

The inevitable consequence of crime depicted by Gettin’ Square, Two Hands, Chopper and Blue Murder is prison. Not the celluloid prison of Ronnie Barker’s Porridge but real prison laid bare by Pauline Hanson’s emotional 60 Minutes interview, a tearful insight into what it is all about. The reality of squat-and-cough strip searches, cell doors slamming shut, body-bags containing the corpse of young prisoners and the coldness of an incarceration process that doesn’t give a damn. It is an emotive reality that few Australian movies have been able to effectively capture.

British and US film companies have continually explored the prison-movie genre from different angles in an attempt to deliver realism to an impenetrable world contained behind the walls, guard towers and razor wire of the prison system. Different aspects of the system have been graphically and realistically captured by movies such as; Dead Man Walking, The Green Mile, Papillion, The Hurricane, McVicar, A Sense of Freedom, and The Shawshank Redemption.

Some movies are more incisive in their examination of prison sub-cultures than others. The Defiant Ones (1958) revealed an inherent racist culture that pervades most US prison populations when Joker Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Pottier) escape from a southern chain gang manacled together. The movie explores the black and white relationship of two men forced to work as a team if they want to survive.


Survival on a southern chain gang is the main theme of Cool Hand Luke (1967) in which Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) is the prolific escaper who pits himself against authority in a constant test of wills. Adapted from the book written by Don Pearce, who served time on a Louisiana chain gang for safe cracking, the movie explores the oppositional forces of individuality and authority. The portrayal of Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward) as the prison guard who never speaks but constantly surveys the chain gang through reflector sunglasses epitomises the sinister pervasiveness that is prison.

The complexities of the southern chain gangs where prisoners were elevated to the role of trustee and earned freedom by stopping others from escaping was a concept imported into Australia and employed at the NSW Mt Penang Training School for Boys at Gosford. It allowed privileged trustees to chase “runners” or “dingoes” and forcibly drag them back to the institution where they were punished for escaping. The concept instilled a ruthless manipulation of authority but was abandoned by US prison authorities following the discovery of murdered prisoners buried in unmarked graves at Tucker Prison Farm in Arkansas during the 1970s. The scandal became the theme for Brubaker and explored how politicians allow cover-ups to perpetuate a corrupt and evil system.

The warehousing system of segregating the worst of the worst, the intractables or the “Dirty Thirties” of the US prison system, resulted with a Federal prison on Alcatraz in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz set the scene for many prison movies designed to exhibit a deterrent value with underlying messages of good triumphs over evil where Alcatraz was the end of the line. The underlying message, like the prison itself, dismally failed society in that regard.

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Winner of 2004 Queensland Media Awards - Most Outstanding Journalism Student – All Media.

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

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