Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Roadgames (1981)

ROADGAMES is a Aussie thriller directed in 1981 by Richard Franklin.  It stars the great Stacy Keach as Pat Quid ("like the Pound Sterling"), an intellectual truck driver who thinks he may have stumbled across a serial killer.  He tracks the suspect across Australia while en route to Perth to deliver a lorryload of frozen meat, stopping only to pick up the occasional hitch-hiker, including "Hitch" (Jamie Lee Curtis).


That nickname he gives to Curtis is your big clue as to what kind of movie this is; yep it's a light thriller right out of the Hitchcock mould.  Richard Franklin was a lifelong cinephile who, while studying film at the University of Southern California (with George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and John Carpenter) managed to get Hitchcock himself to introduce a screening of ROPE (1948).  Apparently they became friends after that and this movie is a real homage to the great man.

A classic Hitchcockian shot
So, what's Hitchcockian about it?  Well, for a kickoff you've got the classic Hitchcock theme of an ordinary man caught up in mysterious and dangerous events.  On top of that you also have the same man under suspicion for the crime he finds himself innocently mixed up in.  You also have the wise-cracking romantic subplot, the long drawn-out chase and the nick of time climax.  And as if that's not enough you also have some shonky rear projection thrown in for good measure.

Stacy Keach wonders whether he's been past that tree before
But it does have enough originality to stand on its own and not merely be a slavish copy.  Quid is a much quirkier character than a lot of Hitchcock heroes: he's fond of quoting poetry and talks to his pet dingo, Boswell.  He's a bit of a doofus too - there's a great sequence where he thinks he has the killer cornered in the cubicle of a roadside toilet, only to find he's got the wrong guy entirely.  There are some great stunts in it too, mainly involving the massive articulated lorry that Quid drives, which owe more to MAD MAX than they do to Hitchcock.

A couple of great shots: the killer about to strike ...

... and spotted in the desert at night - illuminated only by a lightning flash
Given that his character is on screen for practically the entire running time, and spends much of that time in alone in his cab (apart from Boswell, of course), Keach really has his work cut out for him.  But he's such a fine actor that he totally pulls it off.  You're really rooting for him the whole time, even when he makes daft mistakes and gets himself deeper into trouble.

Stacy Keach
Stacy Keach is one of my favourite actors but he's criminally underrated.  For about 10-12 years from the beginning of the 1970s he made a string of really interesting and unusual movies and gave great performances in most of them.  He's one of the most selfless actors I can think of; there aren't many actors who take on roles that put them through the wringer like Keach does.  Just watch him in FAT CITY (1972), THE SQUEEZE (1978) or THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980) getting beaten up, abused and humiliated, you name it.  He really puts himself on the line for the films he's in, often to a greater extent than they deserve.  Sadly he doesn't get leading parts any more, which is a real shame because I think he's terrific.  If anyone deserves a Travolta-esque, Tarantino-inspired renaissance it's Stacy Keach.

Pat Quid and Boswell

Jamie Lee Curtis as "Hitch"
Richard Franklin went on to further Hitchcock-related projects, most notably the pretty decent PSYCHO II (1983) but never really established himself in Hollywood, returning to Australia at the end of the 80s.  Sadly he died of cancer in 2007, aged 58.  ROADGAMES was written by a guy called Everett de Roche who wrote a lot of Australian genre movies in the 70s and 80s.  He did Franklin's earlier picture PATRICK (1978), Colin Eggleston's cult eco-horror LONG WEEKEND (1978) plus the weird HARLEQUIN (1980) and also RAZORBACK (1984), memorably described by (I think) Alex Cox as "the best killer pig movie of all time".

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