Malcolm: 'I just want a room'
Frank (John Hargreaves) comes to rent the spare room at Malcolm’s house. He has seen a notice in the milk bar up the street, but he’s surprised to hear that Mrs T (Beverley Phillips) and the neighbour Jenny (Judith Stratford) are following his progress. Malcolm (Colin Friels) runs through the questions Mrs T has told him to ask, without waiting for Frank to answer. Once inside, Frank is amazed to see Malcolm’s tram set-up.
Summary Paul Byrnes
This scene tells us a lot about the neighbourhood, an old working class street in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, but in a humorous way. Two women are watching Frank as he walks to Malcolm’s house; they are very protective of Malcolm since his mother died. The feeling of being watched unsettles Frank, who’s just had two years of being watched in prison. Hargreaves tells us a lot about his character with the way he approaches the house – almost furtively like a thief (which, indeed, he is). There’s a slight anxiety in his face as he meets Malcolm, and sees the tram tracks from the letter box. This is richly comic acting, but he never overdoes it. Even before he says a word, we can tell that Frank’s not too bright.
Malcolm (Colin Friels) gets fired from his job at a Melbourne tram depot for building his own tram. He’s a mechanical genius, but his shyness borders on mental disability. He takes in a boarder, Frank (John Hargreaves), who’s just out of jail. Frank’s girlfriend Judith (Lindy Davies) moves in, and Malcolm begins to blossom. When Frank discovers Malcolm’s talent for larceny, the trio begin a life of crime. With Judith’s brains, Malcolm’s toys and Frank’s command of the criminal argot, they make a formidable, if unlikely, team.
Malcolm is one of the most charming comedies of modern Australian cinema, and probably the closest we’ve come to matching the joyful silliness of Britain’s Ealing comedies of the 1950s. It was made with great affection for its characters, and a lot of that comes from a personal connection. The character of Malcolm was inspired by the director’s own brother, John Tassopoulos. The writer and cinematographer was David Parker, who’s married to the director, Nadia Tass. Parker and the first assistant director Tony Mahood made most of the gadgets, including the splitting car, themselves. The script is cleverly constructed, with very few elements – three main characters, a small number of locations and minimal dialogue. The most complicated elements are the scenes involving gadgets, but many of them did not require actors to be present. In some ways, the film is a textbook example of how to make a first feature – with maximum imagination and controlled logistics, although a lot of the gizmos required great technical ingenuity to bring off.
The film’s other great asset is the cast – the performances are uniformly superb, with the late John Hargreaves particularly memorable as Frank the nervous crim. Look at the way he approaches the house in clip one – we know nothing about this man yet but we know he doesn’t trust the world. He’s about to run when the neighbours start yelling instructions. Hargreaves had a great gift for playing lovable failures; his roles in films like Careful He Might Hear You (1983) and Don’s Party (1976) were full of insecurity and vulnerability. In Malcolm, those qualities became hilarious, because Frank thinks he’s the smart one, especially in comparison to the simple Malcolm. Hargreaves died in 1996, at the age of 50, from AIDS.
Notes by Paul Byrnes