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Our fears take many forms. I was born and (mostly) raised in California so it’s probably not surprising that I fear natural disasters such as earthquakes and wildfires, which are currently ravaging the place I call home. Others are terrified by serial killers and mad gunmen such as the Las Vegas shooter who recently killed 59 people and wounded nearly 500 others. There are those who fear monstrous creatures like werewolves, giant apes and vampires and some who have phobias triggered by clowns, arachnids or great heights. War, disease and the death of loved ones are typically things we all fear. In the case of Peter Weir’s The Plumber (1979), the main protagonist fears a discourteous plumber who invades her privacy and personal space during a string of ill-timed repairs.
At first glance, the simplistic plot of The Plumber seems rather absurd. Jill (Judy Morris), an anthropologist working on her master’s thesis, and her husband Brian (Robert Coleby), a medical professor teaching at a nearby university, get an unexpected visit from a plumber (Ivar Kants). According to the plumber, he was sent to their compact high-rise apartment by building management to fix some nebulous problem but the couple never reported any trouble. After the plumber barges in and dismantles their bathroom his boorish behavior causes Jill to become extremely anxious and upset. She immediately starts to question his motives but Jill’s husband dismisses her concerns. Is the plumber a serious threat? Or is Jill just suffering from a bad case of paranoia?
Australian director Peter Weir (The Cars That Ate Paris , Picnic at Hanging Rock , The Last Wave , Gallipoli , Witness , Dead Poets Society ) wrote and directed this taut 76-minute made-for-TV film loosely based on his real-life experiences and those of his friends. Despite its short running time and minimal budget, Weir was able to use his directorial expertise to create an isolating atmosphere of dread and suspicion assisted by the committed performances of the film’s two stars. The story of an uptight college student tormented by a churlish plumber probably looked rather dull on paper but as he proved in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir is able to build suspense out of the most innocuous situations. The Plumber also contains a dark comedic streak that is reminiscent of the humor found in The Cars That Ate Paris.
Produced for Australian television with just $150,000, The Plumber is a masterclass in effective low-budget filmmaking. The picture was predominantly shot in a small apartment filled with relics from New Guinea that establish Jill’s interest in anthropology but despite her experience and education, she is unable to understand or communicate with her neighborhood plumber. An interesting dynamic emerges that hints at the class conflict simmering underneath the surface of this leisurely-paced thriller. This conflict is emphasized by the film’s soundtrack that includes tribal drums and chants.
Despite the film’s relative obscurity, particularly among American audiences, in a 1980 interview with Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature the director suggested that The Plumber was his most successfully executed film explaining, “I don’t think it (The Plumber) was one hundred percent in any sense of what I wanted to do, but it was significantly higher than with some of the other films. I got better control of rhythm and structure in that film. Mind you, it was a simpler piece, made for television. It was a short story if you like, as against a novel. I tried a different system with that film, too, in the cutting. I videotaped it all, each cut . . . And I kept copies of all the cuts here at home on television, and would just rerun it, late at night or early in the morning, sometimes for friends and sometimes for myself. So I think I got to know the material better. There’s a curious ritual about going into the cutting room and looking at what the editor has done the day or night before. This demystified that cutting-room.”
Most director’s tend to favor their latest movie so it’s not too surprising that Weir was partial to The Plumber in 1980 but if you’d like to assess his achievement for yourself, you can currently catch this atypical Australian thriller streaming on the Criterion Channel at FilmStruck. It makes for great Aussie-inspired Halloween viewing along with Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I spotlighted in December of 2016.
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