1/26/10

Roadgames (1981): Rear Window on 18 Wheels

On a long car trip, I’m not opposed to playing a car game or two. Who doesn’t like a rousing round of the Alphabet Game or Car bingo? One of the lesser known road trip pastimes is The Suspect That The Driver In A Creepy Van Is A Murderer And Try To Uncover The Truth With Assistance From Assorted Hitchhikers Game. Not only is it far too long a title for a game, but it also takes a very special set of circumstances to make it playable. It just so happens that Richard Franklin’s appropriately titled film Roadgames details just such a situation. So while we might never get a chance to play, we can still watch and enjoy seeing one of the best players of all time playing the game.

That player of course is Patrick ’Pat’ Quid (Stacy Keach) who would be quick to inform you that even though he drives a truck it doesn’t mean he’s a truck driver. Before starting a long haul to deliver meat to Perth, Australia, Quid tries to check into a hotel, but the last room gets rented out to a guy in a green van. Pat ends up having to sleep in his truck overnight, jealous of the bed and the pretty hitchhiker that the stranger in the green van took to his room. The next morning, Quid sees the same guy acting strangely, and after hearing about a Jack the Ripper style killer, he starts to believe that Mr. Smith or Jones in the Green Van (Grant Page) must be the killer. Quid picks up pretty young hitchhiker Pamela (Jamie Lee Curtis), but when they begin to investigate the Smith or Jones, Pamela gets kidnapped and the authorities begin to suspect that Quid is her abductor.

During the filming of Franklin’s previous film, Patrick, he gave a copy of the script for Rear Window to his screenwriter friend Everette De Roche and told him about his idea of using the Australian outback as the backdrop for a thriller. This conversation lead De Roche to pen Roadgames, a film that wears its Hitchcockian influences on its sleeve. Like James Stewart’s character in Rear Window, Stacy Keach’s Quid is a shut in as well, all be it a mobile one. Quid is trapped interacting with the world from his perch in the cab of his truck with few human interactions. The only two people who enter his world are a talkative middle aged woman whose husband abandoned her by the road named Frida Day (Marion Edward) and the girl he picks up and refers to as “Hitch”, Jamie Lee Curtis’ Pamela. Clearly these two women are the stand-ins for Rear Window’s Thelma Ritter and Grace Kelly respectively.

The references to Hitchcock don’t end there. Not two minutes after Quid meets Frida Day does she informs him that her daughter is named “Doris Day like the American actress” who starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much. When Pamela rifles through Quid’s things, she uncovers a copy of a Hitchcock mystery magazine. Quid spies on Mr. Smith or Jones though binoculars like Stewart watches from his apartment, and Pamela goes into the killer’s lair and gets caught much like Grace Kelly breaking into Raymond Burr’s place in Rear Window. There is also a rotating cast of characters that Quid sees from the truck much like the other residents of the apartment complex. From Mr. Balls to the Frugal family and Captain Careful, these characters add a layer of comic relief and depth to the story much like Hitchcock did with his film.

Stacy Keach also really comes across like the male lead in one of Hitch’s film. While he spouts poetry and quotations, he is a terribly isolated and disconnected figure with only his dog Boswell to keep him company. One of the most genius strokes in Roadgames is how Keach and Franklin teamed up to display Quid’s descent into sleep deprived madness. Keach’s performance is strong throughout, but as he restlessly tries to track down Smith or Jones, the actor and filmmaker cleverly ease the character into a dialog with himself. It doesn’t take long before the lines between thinking in one’s head and actually carrying on a conversation with one’s self become quite muddied. I have long been a fan of Keach, but this film really shows off his chops. It’s also important to note that Quid is not the stock hero type, and if you need any proof of that, then just cue up the scene where he tries to chase the killer with a stolen motorcycle only to crash the bike. Even if his character was a bit of a putz, Mr. Keach actually learned how to drive the big rig so he (and who would ever question it) was a certified badass.

The supporting cast was quite good as well. Jamie Lee Curtis, who Franklin had met when he visited the set of John Carpenter’s The Fog, makes for a spunky, fresh faced counterpart to Quid’s erudite truck driver. Marion Edward also really made an impression in her short role as Frida, and I really enjoyed seeing her show each time she would pop up in the film. The same goes for the other passing characters. Even though most of them had little to no dialog, they were all memorable and created a rich world for the suspense thriller to exist in.

There are two more people I must talk about in conjunction with this film. The first of those is composer Brian May. No, sadly, not Brian May of Queen, but rather Brian May the Australian composer who worked on Patrick, Thirst, Mad Max, Turkey Shoot, and a number of other Auss-ploitation films. To go along with Franklin’s Hitchcock inspired film, May definitely took his cues from Bernard Herrmann’s work with the director and Franz Waxman’s score for Rear Window. There are several variations of memorable Hitchcock themes in Roadgames, and it adds an extra layer of feeling to the already suspenseful film.

I also want to mention cinematographer Vincent Monton, who also shot Long Weekend and Thirst. Monton did a great job with the entirety of the film, but the driving footage is really spectacular. He also captured the wide open spaces of the Australian countryside in such a way that it almost feels claustrophobic, and I would not be surprised if some of the inspiration came from the crop duster scene in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. There is also quite the collection of impressive camera movies in this film. One, a full 360 degree pan while Quid talks on the phone, was the source of a disagreement between Franklin and the American distribution company. They thought the whole scene was frivolous and added nothing to the film, but they could not have been further from the truth. These daring moves with the camera really make the countryside that Quid moves though seem quite dreamlike and surreal.


If you haven’t guessed by now, I really love this film. From its Hitchcock references to the acting and great look, Franklin brought together a film that holds up just as well as when it was made. It’s no wonder that after this film he would go right into filling Hitch’s shoes and directing Psycho II. Roadgames proves Franklin to be a skilled filmmaker, and it’s a shame that his star never really rose. I can’t recommend this one enough. It may not be a perfect film, but for me, it was near enough. I’m giving Roadgames my highest praise, and I hope you folks check it out. Not only do you get to see a great film, but the next time you go on a long road trip, you’ll have a fun way to pass the time.

Bugg Rating

3 comments:

  1. Great write up of a great flick!

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  2. Agreed--a surprisingly-good film that I saw a couple of years back. Somehow missed it in my teens--also check out Psycho 2 if you haven't seen it, also by this director and written by the talented Tom Holland.

    For all that I love Hitchcock, I enjoy Psycho 2 more than 1. Blasphemy, I know. (but my favorite Hitchcocks are The Birds and Lifeboat...)

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