We Aussies have been transfixed by our outlaws from the Kelly Gang days, and the stories of plenty of Aussie criminals have made it into novels and movies and onto TV screens. Aussie audiences also love their true crime, as the popularity of the Underbelly franchise attests.
The first season of Underbelly depicted the gangland wars of Melbourne from 1995-2004 when two rival drug gangs fought for the spoils and wiped out many of their members. It starred some of Australia’s most popular actors—buffed and tattooed they were thrust into our lounge rooms, and won actors and producers six Australian Film Industry awards.
A critical and ratings success, it was called “Australia’s best ever crime drama” and was based on Leadbelly: Inside Australia’s Underworld by Age journalists John Silvester and Andrew Rule.
Before the first season went to air, in February 2008, a Supreme Court injunction was put in place to protect ongoing trials. It was not shown in Victoria until later that year, and not initially available in Victoria on DVD or via the Internet.
The second in the series Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, was billed as a prequel. It was followed by Underbelly: The Golden Mile, and this year, Underbelly: Razor.
Although it is criticised for glamorising brutal crime, and even seen as a catalyst for an upsurge of gun crimes in cities like the Gold Coast, the franchise continues.
The most recent TV offering is the fourth in the Underbelly franchise. Underbelly: Razor is based on the true crime book, Razor, by Larry Writer. It brings Sydney’s dark past to light —1920s razor gangs, vice queens Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, gangsters Guido Calletti, Big Jim Devine and Frank “The Little Gunman” Green— in an orgy of illegal drugs, prostitution, gambling and extortion. And the cops, corrupt and honest, who walked the streets.&
Early on a voiceover warns, “Hang onto your hats, it’s not going to be pretty.” And it’s not. Sure, there are plenty of good-looking actors, but the content and its portrayal are, if you’re like me, peek-through-your-fingers gritty.
The soundtrack, headlined by It’s A Jungle Out There by Durkhard Dallwitz, sets the scene for a dark and steamy portrayal of the underbelly of Australia most of us never get to visit, but, judging by its popularity, boy do we want to.
Underbelly: Razor is a feast of flappers fashion, fresh-faced flesh, and flashes of pure evil in characters like Norman Bruhn who comes up with the idea of using barber’s razors as the weapon of choice in a war for the Sydney underworld.
The women at its centre, brothel owner Tilly Devine and bootlegger Kate Leigh, who had been on top of the crime heap, fight each other, and for survival.
It’s been called the best Underbelly since the first series, and so far I agree – an intoxicating mix of sex and violence.
The first three series of Underbelly are available on DVD. The fourth series is playing on Sunday nights on Channel 9, Australia. [Note: Although the DVDs are not USA-formatted, some streaming services do have Underbelly available to US customers.]
Jan Richards is an Aussie crime author. Dusty Dexter PI – Her First case can be found at www.dustydexterpi.com