Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Once Over Twice: Road Games

(1981) Directed by Richard Franklin; Written by Everett De Roche; Starring: Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marion Edward and Grant Page; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ****

“Just because I drive a truck does not make me a truck driver…” – Pat Quid (Stacy Keach)

“…the term ‘thriller’ is used differently in the States than it’s used elsewhere in the world. In the States I have to refer to myself as a director of psychological suspense or psychological drama. Hitchcock was called a thriller director, but when he made Psycho, he kind of re-defined the genre, and from that point on it’s become synonymous with horror… horror is not something that I’m keen on as a genre. I like doing pieces that take place in the mind.” – Richard Franklin (from DVD commentary)

Richard Franklin is one of Australia’s best kept secrets, with a string of Hitchcock-flavored thrillers that could have been directed by the master himself. Between the criminally underrated psychological suspense film Patrick (1978) and the thankless job that was Psycho II (1982), Hitchcock devotee Franklin paid homage to Rear Window with his serial killer on the highway movie, Road Games. Once again, Franklin teamed with Patrick scribe Everett De Roche to create a script that’s exciting, darkly comic and alive with great dialogue. Road Games manages to be an unapologetic homage to Hitchcock while being tense and visually inventive on its own terms.   

Road Games caused quite a fracas by casting two American leads in an Australian production. According to Franklin, however, it was difficult to finance Australian productions without an “imported” actor. Stacy Keach shines as Pat Quid,* an American making his living as a truck driver. He travels the outback with his faithful dingo companion Boswell, ** passing the long hours on the road by reciting poetry and making up names and stories about the travelers he encounters on the highway. *** It’s a delightfully witty and idiosyncratic performance that recalls Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. Quid’s latest assignment is transporting his cargo of pork to Perth. Meanwhile, he plays cat and mouse with the driver of a green van, “Smith or Jones” (played by Grant Page, who also served as the film’s stunt coordinator), who might or might not be linked to a string of murders.

* Fun fact: As hard as it is to imagine anyone else occupying the role of Quid, Franklin stated that his first choice was Sean Connery, whose salary turned out to be far beyond what the producers could afford.

** Minor Spoiler Alert (but essential information for all of the pet lovers out there). I’m happy to report that Boswell, played by Killer, does not meet his demise, as would probably be the case in lesser thrillers.

*** According to Keach: “I think truck drivers, generally speaking, live in an isolated world. They create a lot of things in that world that become important to them.” (from featurette “Kangaroo Hitchcock: The making of Road Games”)

Quid meets his match when he encounters “Hitch” (short for hitchhiker, but obviously a reference to the filmmaker), played by Jamie Lee Curtis.* She’s an heiress who hit the road to escape her wealthy father and humdrum life. By the age of 21, Curtis had already been typecast in the “scream queen” role, so the character represented a nice departure. Hitch is strong-willed, independent, and very much in charge of her own life. Her banter with Quid is one of the most endearing parts. Even though he’s significantly older than his traveling companion, they’re operating on the same level, as they try to construct a profile for the serial killer who preys on young female hitchhikers and dismembers their bodies. Curtis doesn’t occupy a lot of screen time, but she makes up for it with pluck and razor sharp wit.

* Franklin originally cast an Australian actress in the role, but Curtis was brought on board after the distributor, Avco Embassy Pictures, insisted on an American co-star.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Hitchcock on the highway without a suitable MacGuffin, which appears in the form of a small ice chest on a van’s passenger seat. What’s in the chest? That, dear reader, is for me to know and you to find out. Franklin and De Roche leave no stone unturned when it comes to toying with the audience. The theme of games is literal and figurative, enough to plant a seed of doubt in the viewer’s mind. Is “Smith or Jones” who Quid thinks he is? Everything leads to a climactic confrontation that will reveal once and for all if his suspicions were correct. Even if the conclusion seems a trifle undercooked,* we’re willing to forgive the film any trespasses, because the preceding 90 minutes were so engrossing.  

* Franklin and team had storyboarded a longer, more elaborate final scene that arguably would have done a better job tying things up.

Brian May’s scores were frequently an indispensable component of Aussie cinema, and Road Games is no exception. Borrowing liberally from Holst’s “The Planets” (particularly the “Mars, The Bringer of War” section) and Ravel’s “Boléro,” the music helps ratchet the tension up several notches. In places, it’s almost seductive in tone, underscoring the deadly tango between hunter and hunted.

Richard Franklin’s films have a habit of flying under the radar of film fans, and that’s unfortunate. It’s about time more movie watchers discovered his contributions to cinema. Road Games is brimming with great performances, exceptional dialogue and edge of your seat thrills (the truck vs. boat scene is not to be missed). The DVD has been out of print, at least in these parts, for a number of years. Thankfully, an all-region Australian import Blu-ray was recently issued. Even if the sound and picture aren’t quite up to Criterion standards, the extras certainly are, providing a wealth of information about this long neglected and mostly forgotten Australian gem. If you haven’t seen Road Games, it’s time to remedy this immediately.  


  1. I guess I need to pony up for the Australian import now that I have a region free BD player. I've wanted to see this for years. Patrick is great, and I've always been a staunch defender of Psycho II (which, regardless of how one feels about the project overall, is waaay better than anyone could have reasonably expected). I watched Franklin's Link for the first time a few years back - which is derided in many circles as being something of a dog - and found that surprisingly entertaining and suspenseful as well. Somehow, though, Road Games has always eluded me. Franklin truly knows what makes suspense tick. Even Link had some beautiful compositions. Being pursued by something and having said pursuer in the same frame with the antagonist always ratchets up the tension. There's relatively simple film grammar one uses to build suspense, and it's amazing how many would-be thriller directors don't know any of it. Franklin is way underrated. Also, lovely post as always Barry! On a related note, have you seen the documentary Not Quite Hollywood? It digs deep into Ozploitation, and it's well worth a watch.

    1. Thanks for stopping by my neck of the woods, Brandon! I really appreciate the kind words. I agree with you about Psycho II. It's never gotten the love it deserves. I feel the same way abut Road Games and Patrick (hey, this would probably be a good experiment for Dog Farm).

      You're absolutely right about many thriller directors messing things up. It's a simple stew, but the recipe often loses something along the way.

      Not Quite Hollywood was an amazing documentary, which turned me on to so many other Ozploitation titles. Now that you've mentioned Link, however, I really need to check that out.

      P.S. - All region players are a wonderful thing. I can't believe I waited so long to get one.