The Empty Beach (1985) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Corris_The-Empty-Beach_unwinBryan Brown played Australian private investigator Cliff Hardy in this adaptation of the fourth in the continuing series of mysteries by Peter Corris. As of this year Hardy has featured in 40 books, and as the author is usually credited with establishing the first contemporary Antipodean PI series, I thought it was time I gave it a look. The eponymous place in the title is Bondi in Sydney …

I offer this film & book review for Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for links, click here); Bev’s Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“You can sunbathe all year round in Sydney if you pick your spots and days and have nothing better to do” 

First off, special thanks to the indefatigable Margot Kingberg , the blogger and mystery writer extraordinaire behind Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, for putting me on to this series. After my first visit to Sydney in the summer, this proved a perfect reading choice. Cliff is forty, divorced, trying to quit smoking, fought in Malaya in the 1960s, drinks a bit too much, enjoys the open air and after various jobs is now a PI. He is hired by super-rich Moira Singer to find out if her husband, who made money from pinball machines and perhaps slightly shadier activities, is dead or not. He’s been missing for two years, last seen on Bondi Beach, and was presumed drowned until a letter arrived, claiming that he is still alive. Cliff makes several contacts in the Bondi area looking for people who might have known Singer or his associates. Before long he partners up with Bruce, an American journalist, and his friend Ann, who is a sociologist from a wealthy background with an interest in young women barely surviving on the streets. Corris does a good job of capturing the counterculture ethos of those living in the underbelly of the area, from indigents and drunks, prostitutes and drug users and those looking for spiritual salvation in an ashram. It is not long however  before events turns fatal.

“I’ll be in touch,” I said.
“No more bodies, Hardy. Please, no more bodies.”

Corris_The-Empty-Beach_tieinBruce, who was looking into the local drug trade, is garrotted; then a wino named Leon he had just spoken to is also found dead in the ramshackle apartment building he stayed in. Is there a connection? When Hardy gets sapped and taken for a ride in time-honoured PI fashion to get beaten up and threatened by a local Mr Big, the depth of Singer’s business interests in the seamy side of Sydney start slowly to come into view. Hardy makes for an appealing investigator, an essentially straightforward person who carries a few scars (some that show, some that don’t) but who is struggling under the pressure of any overbearing traumas (though we get hints of his dislike for his stretch in the army). He is laconic and fairly laid back, more Moses Wine that Philip Marlowe,  likeable without being too special – in other words, he is a plausible and fairly realistic character. This is what gives the book its distinctive tang – while he gets mixed up with criminals, as you would expect fromt he genre, he is resilient but not especially brave, his reactions to fear and danger are those we would all have. The standout sequence is the horrifying discovery of a scam involving several elderly people who are kept drugged and locked up while a pair of criminals cash and steal their pension and social security payments – Cliff’s revulsion at the filth and degradation he discovers is very powerful but there is no sermonising. So, how did this translate to the big screen?

“The beach got a clean slate very day, unlike people.”

Bryan Brown with his long frame and lupine good looks is physically very good casting for Hardy, though things get off to a poor start in his opening exchange with Mrs Singer (Belinda Gibbin), which comes across as hurried and under-rehearsed, the actors seemingly intent on spitting out the words as quickly as possible. After this though things do improve, as do the changes fromt he novel. Bruce is now a gruff Australian (played by Nick Tate) who had previously written about Singer, which tightens the plot. Anne is now his girlfriend and her wealthy family connected with Singer, again streamlining the story and its characters, which is to be expected in a genre movie. Making the most of the visual possibilities of Sydney, Bruce’s murder now takes place while he is surfing, which is not all that plausible but certainly looks spectacular. The sequence involving the house of horrors inhabited by ripped off pensioners works extremely well and is again made much more concise, though this does tend to make it even more obvious that this subplot is mostly disconnected from the Singer storyline (as is the complete removal of the ashram sequence). Oddly this actually made the movie slightly harder to follow than the book, which can’t have been intentional …

Peter Corris worked on early drafts of the script but eventually it was made by others and he was apparently fairly displeased at the finished product. There have been some cosmetic changes, including the interesting choice to make Bruce’s notes into a McGuffin the book never had, as well as adding more action – in the shape of a car chase that ends in a shootout – but mostly the film follows the beginning, middle and end of the book. In fact much of the dialogue and most of the characters are retained too, though considering that the novel itself is only 160 pages, it is interesting to consider how much still had to be cut down to fit a 90-minute running time. As the movie’s approach is fairly routine and we don’t really get to find out much about Hardy as a person, I’m not surprised that there weren’t any sequels (the very 80s synth score doesn’t help either), though the series of books would make for a great TV show. This is a modest, no frills, perfectly enjoyable movie from a well carpentered novel and apart from Brown is mostly notable for making the most of its locale, thanks largely to the work of John Seale, then and now one of the best cinematographers around (Witness, Dead Poet Society, The English Patient and the upcoming Mad Max reboot were all shot by him). For now Hardy continues only in print – but he certainly gets around a lot:

The Cliff Hardy series (so far):

  1. Corris_Dying-tradeThe Dying Trade (1980)
  2. White Meat (1981)
  3. The Marvelous Boy (1982)
  4. The Empty Beach (1983)
  5. Heroin Annie (1984) – short stories
  6. Make Me Rich (1985)
  7. The Big Drop and Other Cliff Hardy Stories (1985) – short stories
  8. Deal Me Out (1986)Corris_Beware-of-dog
  9. The Greenwich Apartments (1986)
  10. The January Zone (1987)
  11. Man in the Shadows and Other Stories (1988)  – short stories
  12. O’Fear (1990)
  13. Wet Graves (1991)
  14. Aftershock (1992)
  15. Beware of the Dog (1992)Corris_Heroin-Annie-and-other-Cliff-Hardy-stories
  16. Matrimonial Causes (1993)
  17. Burn and Other Stories (1993)  – short stories
  18. Casino (1994)
  19. The Washington Club (1997)
  20. Forget Me If You Can (1997)  – short stories
  21. The Reward (1998)
  22. The Washington Club (1998)Corris_aftershock
  23. The Black Prince (1999)
  24. The Other Side of Sorrow (1999)
  25. Lugarno (2001)
  26. Salt And Blood (2002)
  27. Master’s Mates (2003)
  28. The Coast Road (2004)
  29. Taking Care of Business (2004) – short stories
  30. Saving Billie (2005)
  31. The Undertow (2006)
  32. Appeal Denied (2007)
  33. The Big Score (2007) – short stories
  34. Open File (2008)
  35. Deep Water (2009)
  36. Torn Apart (2010)Empty-Beach_VHS
  37. Follow the Money (2011)
  38. Comeback (2012)
  39. The Dunbar Case (2013)
  40. Silent Kill (2014)

Corris’ homepage can be found at:

DVD Availability: Sadly, this title is available … nowhere, except on VHS tapes made decades ago! This is a real shame, so for now I’m hanging on to my very old recording from TV.

Director: Chris Thompson
Producer: John Edwards
Screenplay: Keith Dewhurst
Cinematography: John Seale
Art Direction: Lawrence Eastwood
Music: Martin Armiger, Red Symons
Cast: Bryan Brown, Anna Maria Monticelli, Ray Barrett, Nick Tate, Belinda Gibbin, John Wood, Peter Collingwood, Kerry Mack, Sally Cooper

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘place in the title’ category – and my first bingo!



***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)


This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Australia, Peter Corris, Sydney. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to The Empty Beach (1985) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. le0pard13 says:

    God, I’ve never heard of this, but it does look interesting. Always appreciated the work of Bryan Brown (or maybe it’s just jealousy that he married Rachel Ward). Nonetheless, he’s always been an interesting actor. Hopefully, this makes somebody’s release in the near future. Thanks for the heads up, Sergio.

    • Thanks Mike – it’s incredibly nice to know how solid their relationship seems to have remained compared with most actor relationships one hears about 🙂 I haven’t seen any of her films as a director yet but really look forward to it.

  2. tracybham says:

    I just (finally) got a copy of the first book in the Cliff Hardy series, and look forward to trying the series. I assume I won’t try to read all 40 books in order, but hope I will like the series. Great to see your review.

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I have to admit I like the Cliff Hardy series very much. I’ve not seen the TV adaptation, so it’s good to know you found it enjoyable. I may try to look it up, as it’d be interesting to see how it all looks on screen. Hmmm….Corris started work on the screenplay but didn’t complete it…that makes me wonder, to be honest, but still, worth a look, I think. Thanks as ever for the great review.

    • Thanks for introducing me to the series Margot – this was a feature adaptation, not for TV, but is unfortunately very hard to get hold of – on the other hand, Corris has been very critical of it!

  4. Colin says:

    How can there be a series of 40 books I never heard of? Your piece make it appear a pretty solid slice of PI fiction though, and one I’ll try to dip into.

    • Scary stuff, right? I’m looking forward to plenty more as I plan to go back to visit Oz again next year. Maybe if the movie had done better …

      • Colin says:

        Again it’s a new one to me. Brown was/is a solid enough leading man but I guess the movie just didn’t come together as well as it could have.

        • Ultimately it feels a bit too routine – the director spent most of his career in TV and I suspect that this is where it should have gone. I can count the great PI movies made int he last 30 years on one hand!

          • Colin says:

            You’d think there might have been scope for a series of TV movies from such a wealth of material – I’m thinking something along the lines of the Jesse Stone series Selleck did.

          • Well, exactly! In fact Brown could still play the role as he is clearly still very fit – I would definitely watch that – let’s hope ABC in Australia are listening to us Colin! I’ve mentioned that I really like the Jesse Stone films, haven’t I? They left the books behind in the end (not necessarily a bad idea in fact), but in fact even if they adapted a novel per episode they’d have enough for 4 series!

          • Colin says:

            I’m a fan of the Stone series too – well made and very entertaining stuff, some of Selleck’s best work.

          • And also play like modern-day westerns, which is what I think really plays to Selleck’s strength in the role.

  5. I dunno, 40 books, haven’t read any of them, never heard of film: I don’t think I can embark on this, even though that sounds interesting. There are too many books in the world….

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    Both the series and the film look interesting and I also like Brown. I see my library has none of the books. So discouraging.

  7. Yvette says:

    My library has one, Sergio, THE DUNBAR CASE, which is the very latest (the 32nd book!) in a series I’d never heard of before. In this book, Hardy has had a quadruple bypass and sports a limp. I like a flawed detective.

    Lupine? Yes, great word to describe Bryan Brown.

    I liked him in THE THORN BIRDS even if he was a bit put out by his bride and the priest. I mean, wouldn’t you be?

  8. Yvette says:

    Make that the 39th. Or maybe it’s the 32nd published in this country. Confusing.

  9. Good combo, Sergio. I like the characterisation of Cliff Hardy as well as his cinematic portrayal by Bryan Brown who I have seen, maybe, in a couple of films including COCKTAIL, I think, alongside Tom Cruise. A fine actor, however. Forty books in the series and I have never even heard of Peter Corris. The Sydney-based plot sounds interesting.

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