Monday, October 12, 2009

Tomorrow's Bacon

Several weeks ago the New Beverly ran a one-night marathon of five trucker movies and while I wasn’t there for the whole thing I did come by for a few which included some interesting titles I hadn’t seen before, such as WHITE LINE FEVER and the latter day Patrick Swayze vehicle BLACK DOG which, so help me, wasn’t half bad. But the real find of the night turned out to be Richard Franklin’s 1981 suspense film ROAD GAMES, which was also a slight change of pace for the evening. Not only was it more of a straight-out thriller than a 10-4 good buddy trucker movie, it wound up surpassing all expectations for what otherwise were pretty much a few enjoyable drive-in movies. What this one turned out to be was an absolutely terrific film, at times stunningly suspenseful as well as extremely well-executed. Even if it isn’t as well known as it should be, I suppose that it helped to get Richard Franklin the job of directing PSYCHO II a few years later and though Franklin, who died in 2007 of prostate cancer, directed several more times after that it could possibly be said that he never came close to following through on the huge promise that this film showed. But at least there was this one. If you haven’t seen it, get that taken care of fast.

Truck driver Patrick Quid (Stacy Keach), working in Australia, is assigned against his protestations to deliver a shipment of meat across the desert to Perth. With his trusty Dingo by his side Quid (who always insists, “Just because I drive a truck, it does not make me a truck driver”) alleviates his boredom by making up stories to himself about all the different people he passes on the road. When news of a possible serial killer begins to pop up Quid find himself suddenly suspicious of the driver of a green van who he dubs “Smith or Jones” and soon Quid’s conversations with the attractive young hitchhiker he picks up who he calls “Hitch” (Jamie Lee Curtis) only increases his suspicions. But a continuing series of events, which manage to get certain people suspicious of Quid, only increases his questions. What really is up with the driver of the green van? Is he actually engaged in a series of games with Quid? And just how many pigs is Quid supposed to be carrying back there in his truck, anyway?

Best described as a cross between REAR WINDOW and Spielberg’s DUEL, it’s pretty easy to look at ROAD GAMES (Screenplay by Everett De Roche from a story by De Roche and Franklin) as inspired by Hitchcock, something I don’t think Franklin would have ever downplayed, but it succeeds as more than just a tribute by featuring a terrific script, expert direction and a hugely enjoyable lead performance by Stacy Keach as Quid, a very enjoyable character to follow along with in this film. In addition to the ever-growing suspense, the film has an enjoyable sense of humor throughout, mostly coming from this lead character and his interactions with people but it manages to expertly combine all of these tones—the way Keach’s interaction with the stranded housewife played by Marion Edward moves from comical bickering to a more gradual revelation of what might be going on to the fear of a character who up to that point had been comic relief who from revealing her own backstory suddenly makes her believably sympathetic. Out of nowhere, a sequence which began as archly funny has crept up and become much more serious than first realized. The film is filled with tiny little things like that.

The fact that we see the setup to one of the murders at the very beginning—the layout of the scene resembles straight out DePalma more than Hitchcock—but it doesn’t necessarily give everything away entirely, allowing us to sort everything out as gradually as Quid does. As much of a character piece as a suspense thriller-chase picture (I particularly like the quiet campfire stopover with Keach and Curtis), ROAD GAMES ratchets up the tension throughout with well-utilized devices like a car alarm that blares incessantly throughout one sequence, keeping it going right up until the very end with a fantastic climax as the ‘Games’ have one driver leading the other through a series of alleyways that get smaller and smaller, making the use of the truck all the more dangerous. It takes the concept of this one guy out there on the road to the limit, allowing him to go slightly crazy with his fatigue and genuine uncertainty over exactly what is going on, with a genuinely creepy trip into his truck with all those pigs hanging in there—are we going to find something unexpected hanging as well?—as well as some striking, sneak-up-on-you visuals that are employed by Franklin to illustrate this, all masterfully assembled. Right up to the end you can feel Franklin pulling all the strings of his narrative with a confidence that reveals somebody who learned all the absolute right lessons from Hitchcock. On the DVD extras, the late director slightly disowns the final sting saying it was what distributor Avco-Embassy wanted and he’s completely right, it does seem a little out of place for what the tone of the film is going for (a more subtle, darkly comic coda would have worked better). But the film is so good that it’s not enough to kill the fun and when those doors slam shut at the very end it’s hard not to feel a little elated at just how damn good this film was.

The New York Times review at the time of its release written by Herbert Mitgang is insultingly dismissive—it’s easy to imagine that Janet Maslin having a greater appreciation for what the film was going for and would probably have worked the word ‘witty’ into her review as well. It’s no surprise to learn that Quentin Tarantino is a big fan (one tiny dialogue exchange between the two leads seems to have turned up in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) and ultimately ROAD GAMES is a real find, that occasional film that you find yourself looking for, the one that makes all that obsessive searching for the ever-elusive gem completely worth it. It’s not a guilty pleasure or a goofy trucker movie in the slightest. It’s a real find and a truly excellent film that deserves to be better known than it is.

For the most part it’s all Keach’s show and he’s excellent. An actor who still works after all these years quietly doing very good work (I remember being halfway into AMERICAN HISTORY X before I realized that he was playing a key supporting role) and he nails this character, making us like him with all his good-natured eccentricities and relate to him during the more hysterical moments. When under pressure he drops his pretensions to someone stating, “I’m just a truck driver,” as if admitting that his prior boasts were nothing but, we see how vulnerable he is as well, but neither he nor the film ever makes too big a deal about it. It’s a fantastic character played by a terrific actor. Is it the best film role he ever had? Even if it isn’t, it certainly ranks up there. Curtis has less screen time and as a result isn’t quite the second lead you would expect but she does pull off being both likable and a little mysterious. Even though they’re not together as much as we’d like, she and Keach have a very nice rapport together. The Dingo gives a very good performance as well. The score by Brian May (not the one from Queen, but rather the composer of the scores for MAD MAX and THE ROAD WARRIOR) is excellent as well, alternating pounding suspense with a heroic, open road fanfare throughout that only makes the film all the more endearing.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I can’t think of anything substantially bad to say about ROAD GAMES. Its complete and total enthusiasm for its genre plays like the early work of a director who should have gone on to be huge and while Franklin did get his shot (PSYCHO II is pretty good and he also helmed CLOAK & DAGGER, which I’m planning on revisiting soon) it seems like a shame that didn’t happen. It’s our loss. But ROAD GAMES is a genuinely fantastic film and it was a great idea for the New Beverly to show it, exposing it to new viewers. It’s on DVD as well, so don’t let anything stop you.


christian said...

This is a terrific thriller for all the reasons you mention that I'd watch every time it came on HBO.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Why didn't I ever see it on HBO all those years ago? It must have had something to do with that whole "HBO will show this feature only at night" thing.


Will queue this one up. THE FUTURIST! admires director Franklin's very impressive PSYCHO II. You go into it thinking "this is gonna be a mistake" and come out feeling quite entertained and surprised.

christian said...

Yes, PSYCHO II was a pleasant surprise. That final moment wowed me and the audience.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I need to see PSYCHO II again, I know I have a disc around here somewhere. And what the hell, I'll watch III also. At least it's bizarre.

Will Errickson said...

This ended up in my Netflix queue last year, and I can't even recall why. My girlfriend & I had a blast watching it one Saturday night at home; she still talks about how, much as you said, it was such an unexpectedly cool, satisfying movie.

Ned Merrill said...

Saw this sometime in the late '90s on one of the premium channels, maybe one of the Encores, and loved it. Wish I could have seen the trucker mini-fest as I'm a big fan of the genre. WHITE LINE FEVER is a lot of fun, more of a trucker Western, where this one is more of a thriller as you say.

Keach deserves more love than he gets. Was lucky enough to see him as King Lear a few years back at the Goodman in Chicago. He was ferocious even in his late '60s, even doing a crazy naked dance when Lear really wigs out.

Will have to pick up the DVD, which I've been meaning to do, except, knowing that it's Anchor Bay, it's probably out of print now.

There was a good thread on Richard Franklin a few years ago on the Mobius forums dealing with his final days. Apparently he was an extremely friendly, down-to-earth fellow.