Roadgames (1981)

[24 November 2004]

By Daniel Mudie Cunningham

Hitchcock Soufflé

I had this image of watching the world through glass.
—Richard Franklin, “Kangaroo Hitchcock: The Making of Roadgames

During the audio commentary for the DVD of Roadgames, Richard Franklin claims that during the renaissance of Australian cinema in the 1970s—the “Australian New Wave”—most directors were making art-house movies, while he opted to make “calling card” films in order to attract future work in the U.S. Franklin’s commercial ambitions were helped along by the fact that his third film, the psychological thriller Patrick (1978), was a modest success (ironically, in all markets except the U.S.). With his 1981 follow-up Roadgames, a U.S. audience was assured by a then unique deal that guaranteed distribution before the film even went into production. Undoubtedly, the casting of U.S. actors Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis helped seal this deal, even though the latter had only acted in a few films, notably John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980).

But Franklin’s casting of imported talent almost shut down the production because Equity unions challenged the casting of Curtis instead a local. What the unions failed to recognize was that the casting of Curtis was an integral point in the intertextuality that Franklin establishes between Roadgames and his chief cinematic influence, Alfred Hitchcock. On an obvious level this is established by the connection between Curtis and her famous Hitchcock, damsel-in-distress mother, Janet Leigh. What cements Roadgames’ Hitchcockian overtones, though, is the way Franklin borrows the basic premise of Rear Window (1954), replacing its apartment block window setting with the windscreen of a truck.

Roadgames begins at night outside a Melbourne motel (a setting that invokes the Bates Motel). Pat Quid (Stacey Keach) sits in his truck, chatting with his pet dingo, Boswell, preparing to spend the night in the motel. A green van pulls up outside the motel and Pat loses the last available room to the driver (Grant Page), whom he dubs “Smith or Jones” later, when Pat notices his refusal to sign the motel registry. When a young woman (Angelica La Bozzetta) steps out of the van, Pat recognizes her as one of the many female hitchhikers he’s seen in his travels. Settling for the night in his truck, Pat plucks his guitar as if to mourn the loss of creature comforts.

Cut to the interior of the motel where the naked hitchhiker is fondling a different guitar. Smith or Jones is busy unwrapping a spare guitar string in the bathroom. He flushes the paper packaging, à la Marion Crane’s similar evidence disposal in Psycho (1960). With face concealed from viewer, the man approaches his prey from behind and pulls the wire taught around her throat. Her scream is muted by the sound of the motel’s trashcans being rattled by early morning garbage collectors.

At this point, we are a few steps ahead of Pat by being witness to the motel murder, and this is the key conceptual distinction between Roadgames and Rear Window. Because Hitchcock doesn’t show Thorwald (Raymond Burr) murder his wife, the audience is forced to accept Jeff’s (James Stewart) obsessive accumulation of clues without being sure if he’s indulging in paranoia and delusion. Seeing the murder upfront, Roadgames’ audience is situated in a more privileged watchtower than Pat’s truck, because he hasn’t seen it. The connection established to Rear Window is more seamless in its playful depiction of scopophilia and voyeurism as mediated by the device of a “screen” (his windshield) that allows the world to be framed through glass and partially viewed at a distance.

The morning after the motel murder, Pat sets out on a Perth-bound journey to deliver pig carcasses to service a meat strike. Pat maintains his lofty driving-seat privilege by making value judgments about passing motorists based on their visual characteristics. A vacationing family passes with their trailer, and he christens them “Fred and Frita Frugal”; a sporting goods salesman passes with a carload of balls and Pat pronounces him “Benny Balls.” Others drive by, including a horny newlywed couple like the one in Rear Window, and are likewise reduced to Pat’s pat reductionism. When he’s not playing such games to whittle away the time, he listens to the radio news (which announces key plot points, like the dump-site discovery of mutilated body parts and the ongoing Perth meat workers’ strike).

Composer Brian May scored the outset of the journey with a repetitive, Bolero-like march that has been reworked as a western frontier theme made complete by Pat’s diegetic contribution of harmonica riffs. The DVD includes an intelligent featurette called “Kangaroo Hitchcock,” made in 2003. Here Keach explains that Pat is “a bit of a cowboy, an ex-pat American living out the fantasy of the Wild West in his mind, in a truck.” So he’s more than “just” a truck driver. When ambushed into picking up Frita Frugal (Marion Edwards), Pat explains that he and Boswell are “aristocrats.” Frita claims that, for a truck driver, he is “stuck up.” Pat is quick to rely, “Just because I drive a truck does not make me a truck driver.” After leaving Frita at a roadhouse, Pat breaks company regulations and picks up a hitchhiker, whom he nicknames Hitch. Finally after about 30 minutes Curtis has entered the picture.

In Hitch, Pat has a fellow American with whom he can play games while traveling across the desolate Nullarbor Plains. Along the way, they catch sight of the green van and speculate about how its driver, Smith or Jones, may be connected with the murder announced on the radio. The pace picks up when Smith or Jones kidnaps Hitch when he finds her sleuthing in his van, thinking it abandoned.

Pat and Hitch’s relationship is an all too brief affair and perhaps one of the failings in Everett De Roche’s otherwise tightly plotted screenplay. (Franklin notes that critics complained that even though Curtis was relatively unknown at this point, Roadgames was “a waste of Jamie.” Another wasted opportunity is that she does not reunite with Franklin and Keach for the DVD extras). Another oversight in Roadgames is that Pat and Hitch are both American and never note their shared heritage, despite meeting in such a remote location. Nevertheless, Roadgames is ultimately a clever Hitchcockian soufflé that “is full of air, but rises nicely,” to quote a self-congratulatory metaphor Franklin uses on the featurette. If he was using the experience as a “calling card” to the U.S. film industry, it was to pay dividends. His next film, appropriately, was Psycho II (1983).

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/roadgames-dvd/