Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With Mad Max speeding back into theaters, we go Down Under for some Ozploitation classics.
“The more I see of man,” says a bald bureaucrat with a round face in Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan, “the more I admire dogs.” This remark—a slight paraphrase of a quotation attributed to Madame De Staël—could function as a guiding sentiment for the Ozploitation movement in general. But the chaotic, raucous Mad Dog Morgan fits the bill particularly well. This is a movie of grisly sights and filthy, unforgivable behavior: an old drunk mooning an officer in a bar; a gang-rape on the disgusting floor of a prison cell; sweaty, wounded bodies bleeding out in the hot Australian sun.
Mora’s chronicle of the short life of mid-19th-century bushranger Daniel Morgan (Dennis Hopper) contains an unorthodox structuring of time. After the Chinese community frequented by Morgan is obliterated in a racist slaughter—which Mora shows in grotesque detail, the blood of the victims erupting like spurts of lava—Morgan turns to a drifting life of robbery. His ensuing time behind bars—with its physical exertion (pounding stone, chopping wood) and humiliation (his right hand is branded “M” for “malefactor”)—is conveyed through startlingly elliptical means: As many as five or six years are leaped over in a single cut.
The majority of the movie, however, concerns Morgan’s time after prison, when he and an aboriginal sidekick (David Gulpilil, from Walkabout and The Last Wave) begin exacting revenge on the dogmatic, colonialist powers controlling the area. The reckless, hard-living, Last Movie-era Hopper at times seems dangerously close to his character’s rampancy—in one amazing, spontaneous gesture, he hugs a decanter of booze as if it were a stuffed animal—but the performance always remains focused and dialed-in. On a few surprising occasions, Hopper even undercuts Morgan’s newspaper-headline bravado with small grace notes of vulnerability. Mora, for the most part, is content to let this loose-cannon leading man run wild, but the director and his strong DP (Mike Molloy, a camera operator on the previous year’s Barry Lyndon) offer numerous flourishes of their own: A scene in which Morgan guns down a man on horseback in a field of vibrant, purple flowers may have inspired one of the stand-out images of Django Unchained.
Availability: Mad Dog Morgan is available on DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased digitally through Amazon and iTunes, and is currently streaming in full on YouTube.