The central character in The Legend Maker (Ian Pringle, 2014) is an avuncular crook, a criminal type familiar to contemporary audiences from the recent Hollywood hit American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013) to the home-grown comedy caper Gettin’ Square (Jonathan Teplitzky, 2003). Alan Figg (Tony Nikolakopolous) is a short, muscular man with an open face and urbane manner. Figg’s criminal bona fides as a dominant figure in the Australian forgery business are quickly established – and, equally rapidly, identify him as a clear target for the next generation of violent, master forger aspirants represented by “The Croat”.
In a few economically rendered opening scenes, Australian writer/director Ian Pringle sets out the rules of cinematic engagement. Align the audience with a likeable criminal with an intriguing, artisanal occupation. Add a loyal off-sider “Roy Rogers” (Jeremy Kewley), a circumscribed Melbourne location and escalating tension courtesy of a cohort of temperamentally and ethnically diverse thugs and fraudsters.
The Legend Maker is Pringle’s first foray into filmmaking in more than two decades. His previous feature, the AFI-nominated French Australian co-production Isabelle Eberhardt (1991), was a sprawling exploration of the eponymous writer’s life set in 19th century Algeria. While that film and The Legend Maker are both inspired by true stories, the commonalities end there. Where Isabelle Eberhardt featured striking European and African locations, an international cast and – by 1990s Australian standards – a substantial budget, the low budget The Legend Maker showcases an unashamedly parochial cast and setting.
One of the most distinctive features of the film is the way in which the limited action plays out within the narrow confines of a recognisable Melbourne locale. Based on the real-life story of a Russian forger, the action is set in the inner urban municipality of Brunswick, an area closely associated with the infamous “Underbelly” gangland wars (1). The film’s vérité inspiration and geographical specificity provides the most obvious way in which to initially contextualise the story – through the lens of Melbourne’s onscreen “true crime” genre.
In its broadest conception, the genre can be traced back to the earliest days of cinema history and includes various iterations of the Ned Kelly story (such as The Story of the Kelly Gang [Charles Tait, 1906]; Ned Kelly [Tony Richardson, 1970] and Ned Kelly [Gregor Jordan, 2003]) and other tales of early 20th century Melbourne underworld figures (Squizzy Taylor [Kevin James Dobson, 1982]). More contemporary contributions include the TV franchise detailing the aforementioned Melbourne gangland wars (Underbelly, 2008 – 2013) and feature films The Hard Word (Scott Roberts, 2002), Chopper (Andrew Dominick, 2000) and Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010).
In these examples, actual criminal events provide the basis for the action, from the unsolved 1976 “Great Bookie Robbery” (The Hard Word) and colourful activities of self-confessed career criminal Mark “Chopper” Read (Chopper), to the decade long gangland war involving the “Carlton Crew” (Underbelly, 2008) and the exploits of the Pettingill crime dynasty (Animal Kingdom). Inner metropolitan Melbourne plays a central role as the identifiable and distinctive backdrop in these true crime scenarios. The importance of this geographical specificity was made clear with the commercial release of Underbelly [Uncut] (2008), where the precise locations for each gangland murder are plotted across the map of inner city Melbourne that comprises the DVD cover (2). As with these antecedents, references to specific Brunswick locations, images of familiar strip shopping streetscapes and other identifiers firmly situate The Legend Maker in this sinister, onscreen vision of inner urban Melbourne.
If exteriors are significant in setting the scene in The Legend Maker, interiors are even more decisive in shaping the conflicts and escalating atmosphere of tension that characterises the film. Most of the action takes place in Figg’s office, a modestly proportioned and unexceptional space. The equally restrained time frame – events are confined to the period before the showdown with the Croat the following day – and limited cast of characters establish the film’s credentials as fundamentally a chamber piece. Pringle embraces the structural and temporal constraints of the form with relish, making the confines of the claustrophobic office, the small cast and the 24-hour scenario work to considerable effect.
In Figg’s tightly controlled world of identity fraud, secrecy and security are central. The confrontation with the “psychopath” Croat in the opening scene convinces Roy to ramp up security precautions by installing CCTV surveillance in the office. For additional protection, the CCTV is streamed live to Figg’s lawyer Harry (David Cameron) and Roy’s laptop, while separate surveillance is also set up to keep tabs on their collaborator, Ranjit (Sachin Joab). Figg is effectively trapped in his office, but the surveillance loop allows Pringle to expand on the uninspiring interiors by cutting between multiple CCTV locations. The use of the fish-eye lens of the CCTV camera to enable reverse shots of Figg and his clients, and the cutting to Roy in the adjoining space and Ranjit in his office are effective and succinct means of opening up space and introducing characters, without leaving the room.
Figg’s increasing concern about “The Croat” encourages him to chat to Harry on camera in a semi-confessional manner. As he works on documents, Figg explains the finer points of the forgery game and ruminates on his lengthy and successful “career”. A detailed and disturbing anecdote about the fate of a former assistant provides the only flashback in the film, and another opportunity to temporarily shift the action away from the office. While Harry is only occasionally glimpsed, the overall effect of these shared conversations is two-fold: to align the viewer unambiguously with Figg’s point-of-view and reinforce the nature of his increasingly precarious situation. Clearly cognisant that he is the subject of counter surveillance, Figg peers nervously at the computer screen and out of the office window, reinforcing his (and our) sense of escalating unease.
If the true crime genre and the economies of the chamber drama shape The Legend Maker, Pringle’s screenplay is equally underpinned by the idea of conflicted or contested personal identity. It is a preoccupation that has characterised some of his earlier works, from the disaffected and dislocated Dr David Trueman of Wrong World (Ian Pringle, 1985) to the social, cultural and religious contradictions embodied by the central protagonist in Isabelle Eberhardt. The Legend Maker, featuring a central character involved in the business of identity fraud, offers arguably the most overt interrogation of this thematic preoccupation.
As befits a master forger, Alan Figg operates under an alias (real name: Alexi Figgopolous). He creates fake identity documents for a steep fee – everything from university qualifications for embezzlers wanting to skip the country to UNHCR identification cards (“as good as a passport”) for asylum seekers desperate to remain in the country. In his conversations with Harry, Figg reflects on the “art” of forgery and the creative process of devising new personal identities. In addition to the technicalities around pen, brush and ink choices, the business of choosing a new name and backstory (“personal legend”) is equally important: “You gotta think sideways when deciding on the details of a new identity… don’t always opt for the obvious”. The choice of a new name is “critical” and likewise the plausible details of the personal legend.
As an expert on the subject of confected identity, Figg is often asked practical questions about the process of adopting a new persona. “You need to get used to signing your new signature.” “You grow into a name.” But Figg’s clients also probe him on the moral and even metaphysical challenges of embracing a new identity; despite the decision to disappear and start a new life, these questions still clearly confound his clients. When Figg urges De Lisle (Adrian Mulraney) to “feel comfortable” with his new personal legend, he demands “How do I do that?” In a subsequent exchange with another client he is asked: “What is the value of a life?” to which he responds “Yours or somebody else’s?”
Pringle’s use of legend is intriguing in this context. Given its multiple meanings around narrative and identity, from the traditional notion of a popular or unverified historical story, to its more colloquial use to denote an inspirational or famous figure, the association of legend and identity fraud in The Legend Maker suggests a droll etymological take. Hardly mythologised or inspirational, the new identities and personal legends Figg creates for his clients offer a mundane and wholly verifiable version of self that, as he emphasises, must expunge every other version and “become true in every sense.” As evidenced by the reaction of Figg’s clients however, when presented with these credible new versions of themselves, they are in some respects both improbable and unsettling. De Lisle queries the appropriateness of his new first name (Robert) while Graham Rinks (Steve Mouzakis) objects to his newly acquired status as an Arts graduate on the basis that he “wasn’t smart enough to go to uni”.
More predictably, Pringle also explores the theme of identity via the traditions of the crime thriller. In keeping with one of the genre’s central conventions, the key protagonists in The Legend Maker are at times contradictory and ambiguous figures. Demarcations of guilt and innocence, and notions of transgression and lawfulness fluctuate, and the idea of (criminal) identity is complicated accordingly. Figg’s violent backstory and status as a master forger establish him as a hardnosed criminal businessman – but confined to barracks, he regularly breaks into a sweat, glances nervously in the mirror and ruminates on whether, at his age, he should simply give the game away. He is also revealed as a compassionate man willing to risk his own personal security by assisting asylum seekers and other vulnerable individuals. As Pringle ramps up the tension in the latter half of the film, the actions of the other central players are also progressively harder to read. The motives of Roy, Ranjit and Wasim (Michael Vice) become increasingly opaque, but in what remains an enduring trope of the genre, one thing does become clear: no-one in The Legend Maker is entirely who they appear to be (3).
The theme of identity can also be traced more broadly through the notion of collective or community identity. In a reflection of the specific demographics of its Melbourne locale, Pringle depicts a determinedly multi-ethnic and multicultural vision of collective criminal identity. Figg’s Greek heritage is made clear, as is the background of his Indian colleague Ranjit. Rival Australian forgery groups are of Israeli, South African, Iranian and Eastern European extraction. The only female character of any consequence in the film is Figg’s petrifying, power-dressing fellow fraudster Helena Yussipova (Danielle Carter). A Ukrainian who has recently been “done over” by a Moldavian-born rival, Helena makes a worthy Eastern European counterpart to the persistent threat posed by the malevolent Croat. Figg’s clientele hail increasingly from the Horn of Africa and asylum seekers from Afghanistan and unspecified African countries make an appearance. Pringle’s version of successful multiculturalism is a wilfully ironic take on the notion of an inclusive community identity, but one that also makes comparisons with another, earlier Melbourne crime film hard to avoid.
More comedy caper than crime drama, the title of John Ruane’s Death in Brunswick (1990) attests to the film’s violent premise and precise locale. A hapless chef (Sam Neill as Carl) gets inadvertently caught up in local turf wars featuring rival criminal factions of Turkish and Greek Cypriot extraction. The choice of these ethnic groups reflects a specific period in Melbourne’s immigration history in the same way that the eclectic criminal and asylum seeker community depicted in The Legend Maker exemplifies the changing face of Australian immigration in the intervening decades. In its idiosyncratic depiction of the Brunswick milieu, regular references to well-known local landmarks, and overt emphasis on the multicultural heritage of its criminal protagonists, Ruane’s entertaining and proudly parochial film offers yet another way of situating The Legend Maker. And while there are clear tonal distinctions between the two films, it is worth noting that Figg’s wry pronouncements on the value of arts degrees and eBay, Pringle’s droll choice of character names and use of the Australian vernacular evidences a restrained but effective brand of humour throughout.
For a film clearly identified as a crime thriller, and unlike many of the aforementioned local examples of the genre, Ian Pringle’s The Legend Maker is notable for its relative absence of violence. Rather than exploiting the limited appeal of explicitly violent action, the film’s strength lies in its combination of a charismatic central character (Nikolakoplous is compelling in the lead role) and the insight it offers into the intriguing world of the forgery business. The latter is both a topical issue given the current concern around escalating individual and corporate identity fraud and a milieu rarely depicted on the big screen (4). The Legend Maker represents a welcome return to the big screen for Pringle and a considered contribution to the local true crime genre.
The Legend Maker will screen at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival on 6 and 16 August. You can purchase tickets at the MIFF website.
1. The so-called Melbourne gangland wars took place between 1994-2005 in the inner metropolitan suburbs of Melbourne and featured a series of murders primarily involving the “Carlton Crew” and Carl Williams and his followers.
2. Interestingly, given the context for this discussion, the location for Lewis Moran’s murder is incorrectly identified on the Underbelly DVD cover as the Brunswick Club, Sydney Rd, “Carlton”, rather than Brunswick.
3. The idea of the fluidity of guilt and innocence as embodied in the central protagonists in the crime/thriller genre is perhaps best exemplified in many of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
4. The history of cinema has featured a number of films that have tackled the theme of forgery, but most have focused on the production of counterfeit art or other cultural artifacts rather than the production of fake identity documents. Examples of the former include The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977) and The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 1999).