Roadgames Blu-ray Review
Pat Quid (Stacy Keach) is an American truck driver based in Melbourne. Due to a strike in Perth, he accepts an assignment to drive a consignment of meat to the west coast city, a journey of several days across the all-but-featureless Nullarbor Plain. Alone in the truck with just his dingo Boswell for company, he makes up names and stories about the drivers he sees on the road. One of them is the driver of a green van he calls “Smith or Jones” (Grant Page). But soon he begins to suspect that Smith or Jones may n fact the killer of young women that police are chasing.
Roadgames was Richard Franklin's fourth feature film. Born in Melbourne in 1948, Franklin was a film fan from an early age, shooting on Super 8mm from the age of 10. He had a stint as the drummer in the none-too-successful ‘60s band The Pink Finks before going on to study film at the University of South California. A longstanding devotee of Alfred Hitchcock, he met the man after he accepted an invitation to talk at the university.
Returning to Australia, Franklin's first directing credits were on television, with 11 episodes of the long-running series Homicide. His feature debut was The True Story of Eskimo Nell, on which he met a publicist called Antony I. Ginnane. Ginnane soon moved into production, determined to make Australian films with more commercial and international appeal than the overly-arty fare he saw being made. He and Franklin were a good match, as Franklin saw himself as very much a genre filmmaker and a storyteller. Ginnane produced Fantasm (which Franklin directed under the pseudonym Richard Bruce) and also Franklin's next film Patrick, which saw Franklin switch genre from softcore erotica to horror/suspense. Minus the fantasy premise of that film, that was a direction Franklin followed in Roadgames.
American-born Everett de Roche had been the scriptwriter for Patrick, showing his flair for intelligent and witty dialogue while keeping a firm grip on the tropes and protocols of the genre. The initial idea for Roadgames was Franklin's, taking inspiration from Rear Window. De Roche suggested that this new spin on Hitchcock's film take place on a moving vehicle. De Roche then travelled to Fiji, where Franklin was co-producer of The Blue Lagoon, and the first draft of the script was written there.
Roadgames is an intriguing, if somewhat slow-burning and perhaps overlong, suspense piece. Importing foreign actors was nothing new in Australian cinema. Franklin and De Roche's original idea for the role of Quid was Sean Connery, but they soon realised that his asking price was more than their entire budget, which at A$1.8 million made this the most expensive film then made in Australia, so Stacy Keach was given the role. An Australian was playing the role of Hitch, but US partners Avco Embassy asked for another American in the role, as insurance for overseas sales, and so Jamie Lee Curtis was cast. The script wasn't rewritten to accommodate her, but her presence makes what is really a supporting role punch above its weight. Apart from a couple of shots of the back of her head as she stands by the roadside, Curtis doesn't appear until 37 minutes in and her disappearance around the hour mark kicks off the over-extended final act.
Curtis’ casting did cause some controversy on set, with some of the crew asking her what it felt like to deprive an Australian actor of work. As she and Keach are both playing their own nationality, this brings in an implausibility that could have been fixed with just a couple of lines of dialogue: while either American's presence in Australia is plausible, the fact that they meet each other in the back of beyond is never remarked upon. Before Hitch appears, her role in the narrative is taken by the loud middle-aged Frita (Marion Edward), nicknamed Sunny Day by her husband, stealing every scene she's in. Much of the film features Keach solo in his truck, so De Roche and Franklin give him a travelling companion, Boswell the dingo (distinguished from a dog by not barking, but actually played by a dog called Killer), silent listener to several quite extended monologues. Keach is a comfortable fit in the role, giving an engaging performance that holds the film together. Stunt coordinator Grant Page is a somewhat colourless villain, and isn't given any dialogue. Further down the cast is Robert Thompson, who played the title role in Patrick, as a motorcyclist Quid nicknames Sneezy Rider.
Franklin and DP Vincent Monton (who had photographed all of Franklin’s previous films except Patrick) shot Roadgames in Scope, partly because much of the action is seen through a truck windscreen, which is Scope-shaped. Franklin's direction tends to be self-effacing though there are exceptions to this: a slow 360-degree pan around Yellowdine Roadhouse (actually a studio set) as Quid tries to talk to the police on a public telephone. The final act is, as I mentioned above, rather long, though Franklin does his best to maintain tension, including staging a memorable ‘bus’ involving a kangaroo. Earlier in the film, he also stages a chase featuring a towed boat. The final scene, sending viewers home with a shock, was imposed by the producers and disliked by Franklin, (he and co-producer Barbi Taylor can be briefly glimpsed in this scene). Meanwhile, Brian May's score, while effective, is too often reminiscent of Holst's Mars, The Bringer of War for my liking.
Roadgames did well enough at the box office. It was nominated for 4 Australian Film Institute Awards (for Marion Edward, Brian May, Vincent Monton and editor Edward McQueen-Mason), but none of them won. Within two years Franklin was in Hollywood making Psycho II, a sequel to a masterpiece that's a lot better than it had a right to be. Franklin had mixed fortunes in Hollywood, and in the 1990s returned to Australia making rather more upscale fare such as Hotel Sorrento and Brilliant Lies. He taught at the Swinburne School of Film and Television in Victoria, Australia. He died in 2007 from prostate cancer, four days before his fifty-ninth birthday.
There have been several previous releases of Roadgames on DVD and more recently Blu-ray. Many of the extras on this new Region B-encoded Powerhouse edition (Indicator spine number 198) are carried forward from previous Blu-rays from Umbrella in Australia in 2016 (which I reviewed here) and Shout Factory in the USA in 2019, but some are new. Given an AA certificate in UK cinemas (restricted to those aged 14 and over), Roadgames is now a 15. The short film ...And His Ghost May Be Heard doesn’t appear on the BBFC database, but it’s unlikely to be rated higher than a U.
First, the transfer. It’s in the correct ratio of 2.35:1 but while Umbrella’s edition was based on a 4K scan of a release print, this time that 4K scan is of the 35mm internegative. The difference is palpable, with strong colours and shadow detail in quite a few darker scenes and plenty of filmlike grain. I’d go so far as to say it looks like the sort of a cinema showing in a good 35mm print (which I haven’t experienced, having only seen the film on TV broadcast and disc) this is currently as good as the film has ever looked in home media.
Dolby Stereo was in its infancy in 1980-81, so Roadgames was released in cinemas in mono, and that’s what’s on this Blu-ray. It’s clear and well-balanced and no complaints from me. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available. The Umbrella edition also had a remixed 5.1 soundtrack, but that’s not included here, and as it’s not an original soundtrack it’s redundant anyway.
The extras begin with 3 commentary tracks. The first features Richard Franklin interviewed by Anchor Bay's Perry Martin, recorded in 2003. This is a very informative, sometimes funny chat, with Franklin on good form talking about a film he clearly has a lot of affection for. Inevitably, much of this overlaps with the other extras.
The second commentary was recorded in 2019 for Shout Factory, and is moderated by Not Quite Hollywood director Mark Hartley, featuring Vincent Monton, production secretary Helen Watts and costume designer Aphrodite Kondos. If you want behind-the-scenes stuff on a not-all-that-typical Australian film of the period, look no further. Monton and Watts dominate it, but the other two do get to say their piece. It paints a picture of a difficult shoot, with a foreign completion guarantor (a first for an Australian film) stepping in after only three days of shooting, and the result being long days and considerable tiredness and disaffection. The third commentary is new, recorded in 2020 by Anna Bogutskaya and Olivia Howe of The Final Girls, with a sometimes feminist-inflected look at the film which is certainly of interest but which does run out of steam somewhat partway through as there are increasingly long gaps in the second half.
“Kangaroo Hitchcock” (20:06) is a making-of featurette featuring Franklin and Stacy Keach. Franklin begins with his meeting with Hitchcock which started over the phone after Franklin tried to organise a showing of Rope at USC. Keach talks about the demands of his role, which included learning to drive a truck.
This is followed by a batch of interviews. The newest is one with Keach from 2019 (13:15) where he looks back with fondness at this film, which he sees with hindsight as his final cinema role as a leading man. Many of his films of the previous few years hadn’t made money, and like many actors in a similar position he spent more time on television from that point.
There are two archival interviews with Franklin on the disc. The first is a featurette from 1981 (25:31). A narrator and onscreen interviewer (unidentified) covers Franklin's early career and time at USC and we also see extracts from his work, including a clip featuring a car chase that Franklin shot for Homicide. An audio interview from 2001 (23:29) has an unidentified interviewer. This was clearly recorded in front of an audience from the laughter coming from it from time to time. He begins by talking about USC, some of his famous fellow students including John Carpenter and George Lucas. He talks about the talks by visiting directors such as Hitchcock, John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, whom he describes as looking like a derelict. This is an overview of his career rather than specific to Roadgames, stopping with that film and his leaving for Los Angeles after some of the critical sniping it faced (comments that it was written by an American wanting to be an Australian and directed by an Australian who wanted to be an American) and being offered Psycho II.
Next are two audio interviews conducted in 2016. One is with Stacy Keach, clearly conducted over the telephone (9:10). Keach says that learning to drive a truck on the wrong side of the road (from an American perspective) was one challenge. Another was to go from rehearsals, then flying halfway round the world to Cannes for the premiere of The Long Riders and then back to Australia for the shooting of Roadgames, so any exhaustion was not acting. The second interview is with Grant Page and is much longer (32:48). He has some anecdotes of the filming which aren't elsewhere on the disc, such as his chess games with Keach, which continued by mail (one move per letter) after the film had wrapped and Keach had left the production to work in England. Due to the demands of one scene, he got to share a sleeping bag with Jamie Lee Curtis.
The final credit of Franklin's lifetime was his appearance as an interviewee for Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood, a film which more than anything else popularised Ozploitation. Included on this disc are the full versions of interviews Hartley carried out with Jamie Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach, Richard Franklin, Everett De Roche, Grant Page and first assistant director Tom Burstall (63:17) in total. This item has a final dedication to Franklin and De Roche, both of whom have now passed away.
Next up, and half an longer than the main feature itself, is a lecture on Roadgames which took place on 20 November 1980 in Australia (130:28). This was shot on video, and there are quite a number of tracking errors and other artefacts. After an introduction, we hear from Franklin, Barbi Taylor and Brian May. It's long, and undoubtedly too detailed for a general audience, but it's valuable for anyone interested in how Australian films were made, financed (Taylor's contribution) and scored. Everett De Roche and Vincent Monton are absent, then filming The Race for the Yankee Zephyr, which Franklin was associated with for a while but was eventually filmed in New Zealand with David Hemmings directing.
“Trouble Ahead” (12:40) is an appreciation of Roadgames by Neil Sinyard, which covers Franklin’s career, beginning with his watching Psycho at age twelve and his later meeting with the great man at USC, and covering his career in the USA after Roadgames and his later return to Australia.
The next item is audio-only over a black screen: a recording of a script readthrough (116:29), which begins with Franklin talking about his ideas for the film and requesting fairly neutral accents (not broad Strine, in other words) from his cast. The script differs from the final film in a few respects: for example, Quid’s companion of the road is called Bosko rather than Boswell. Also audio-only are some of Brian May’s music demos, played on a piano (4:12). Finally on the disc is the green-band US theatrical trailer (2:11) and a pair of image gallerys, one consisting of stills and posters and the other of promotional material.
The final item on the disc is a 1973 short film by Franklin, “...And His Ghost May Be Heard” (15:31). Shot by Monton, in black and white 16mm in 4:3, this looks like it has been transferred from a video copy of a source with a good few scratches and splices, but nothing disastrous. With no spoken dialogue, the film shows the wanderings of the ghost in question (David Byrne, not that one, who also provides the music score) from the Victoria countryside to the big city – Melbourne, shot with what I presume was a hidden camera.
Indicator’s limited edition (5000 copies) also includes a double-sided poster and a seventy-six page booklet. This begins with an essay by Lee Gambin which covers all bases ably enough. It is followed by film credits and a lengthy interview with Franklin carried out during the Roadgames shoot in 1980 for Cinema Papers, with a shorter interview with Keach done at the same time for the same publication. Also from 1980 are an interview with Keach and Curtis from the Los Angeles Times and Franklin’s obituary for Hitchcock for Cinema Papers. A summary of contemporary reviews for Roadgames is followed by credits for “...And His Ghost May Be Heard” and a short essay on it by Mark Hartley.
Roadgames is available to own on Blu-ray.
Road Games (1981)
Dir: Richard Franklin | Cast: Grant Page, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marion Edward, Stacy Keach | Writers: Everett De Roche (original story), Everett De Roche (screenplay), Richard Franklin (original story)