Not Quite Hitchcock (*), Not Quite Hammett… ROADGAMES And DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS Reviewed

Roadgames. BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

(* Well, it was either that or “North By New South Wales”…)

Typically of his film making generation, Richard Franklin (1948-2007) grew up (in Melbourne) in the thrall of Hitchcock, Psycho (1960) and the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61) leaving particularly vivid impressions on his precocious creativity. He was directing his own 8mm efforts, aged 10 and subsequently worked as an assistant cameraman on TV commercials. In 1967, Franklin relocated to The States to study film at the University of Southern California. To paraphrase the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson, he was tired of being a wannabe Hitchcock acolyte… he wanted to be a Hitchcock acolyte! To this end he invited the great man to introduce a screening of Rope (1948) and answer questions from an audience of fellow students. Sir Alfred reciprocated by hosting Franklin on the sets of Topaz (1969) and his swan song feature, Family Plot (1976). RF’s “Hitchcock acolyte” status would be clinched when he directed Psycho II in 1983 and turned a property with high fiasco potential into a witty and worthwhile effort that riffed cleverly on its illustrious predecessor and certainly did it no harm at all (showing the fruit cellar door to Robert Bloch’s then recent and identically titled literary attempt to continue the franchise). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

After graduating USC in 1969, Franklin returned down under to direct 11 episodes of Oz cop show Homicide (197) and the 1973 short …And His Ghost May Be Heard, the latter included among the bonus materials on this set. Bawdy comedies The True Story Of Eskimo Nell (aka Dick Down Under) and Fantasm (directed under the pseudonym “Richard Bruce”) followed in 1975 and 1976 respectively. Franklin really started to get noticed with the Avoriaz and Sitges garlanded Patrick (1978), in which Robert Thompson’s comatose title character uses his telekinetic powers to do away with troublesome medics and pursue sexy nurse Susan Penhaligon. Quickly but skilfully assembled to cash in on Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch from earlier that year, Patrick did particularly well (with Brian May’s OST replaced by Goblin outtakes and a couple of original themes from Simonetti and co) at Italian box offices, predictably inspiring a mini wave of spaghetti knock offs. Nobody who’s ever seen Mario Landi’s truly hysterical Patrick Still Lives (1980) is ever likely to forget it, although Lucio Fulci’s Aenigma (1987) is among the less memorable entries on that particular Horror maestro’s increasingly variable filmography.

It was Roadgames (1981), though, that earned Franklin his stab at Psycho II. The film is at once a meditation on the awe-inspiring landscape of the Australian continent (c.f. Nic Roeg’s Walkabout, 1971 and Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, 1975), a road movie and, you guessed, an hommage to Hitchcock. Specifically, it emerged from co-director Everett De Roche’s musings about a kind of anti-Rear Window (1954), in which the protagonist who thinks he’s seen a murder is not stuck in his apartment, rather ranging freely across the Australian desert even while he’s confined to the cab of his HGV, the windscreen dimensions of which approximate those of Jimmy Stewart’s rear window and generate similar reflections on the experience of immersing oneself in a thriller on the big screen. Or you can choose to see it as “that moment” in North By Northwest (1959) magnified to feature length. Either way is good.

Franklin and De Roche wrote the part of eccentric loner Pat Quid (catchphrase: “Just because I drive trucks doesn’t make me a truck driver”) for Sean Connery but although Roadgames became the biggest budgeted Australian film of the early 80s, that proposed casting would have amounted to a wage bill too far and ultimately they settled for Stacy Keach (still possibly choking on the memory of how human flesh tasted in Sergio Martino’s Prisoner Of The Cannibal God, 1978). As the hiker he picks up, whose boring secret identity is revealed towards the film’s conclusion, but whom Quid dubs (d’oh!) “Hitch”, we get Jamie Lee Curtis, keen by that point to climb out of what she perceived as the “scream queen” ghetto but crucially for Franklin, carrying some of her mother Janet Leigh’s Psycho cachet (she also offers oblique observations about her Dad, Tony Curtis, during Road Games).

Their cat and mouse games with suspected sex killer “Smith or Jones” (Grant Page from Mad Max, among many other credits, who also co-ordinated the stunts on Roadgames) makes for suspensful stuff, plentiful plot twists and a handful of satisfying hi-tech action set-pieces… all this plus a coda that “owes much” to the closing frames of Friday The 13th (1980). Franklin’s film, consequently, did tidy domestic and international business, though not everybody involved in the contemporary renaissance of the Australian film industry was pleased about that. There were predictable quibbles about the casting of American rather than Aussie leads, regardless of how well the obvious chemistry between Keach and Curtis enhances its pleasing mix of adventure, suspense, romance and comedy. Nor was it felt, in certain rarified quarters, that such a commercially orientated production was quite the done thing. So much for Mad Max (whose director George Miller was a major supporter and champion of Franklin’s endeavours). So much, indeed, for Hitchcock. Because you’re reading House Of Freudstein rather than Cahiers Du Cinema (or its Australian equivalent), I assume that you’ll take Roadgames for the rollicking good thriller fun it undoubtedly is, even more appealing in this brand new 4k restoration by Powerhouse Films, the limited edition running to 5,000 copies for its UK BD Premiere.

Additional extras include not one but three audio commentaries, one by Franklin and film historian Perry Martin, another with film pundits Anna Bogutskaya and Olivia Howe and yet another involving cinematographer Vincent Monton, costume designer Aphrodite Kondos, production secretary Helen Watts and filmmaker Mark Hartley. There’s over an hour of interview out takes (with Franklin, Keach, Curtis, Grant Page, De Roche and assistant director Tom Burstall) from Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood documentary and separate interviews (some of them in audio format) with Franklin, Keach and Page. Kangaroo Hitchcock is a 20 minute mini doc on the making of the film and there’s over two hours of a college lecture given by Franklin, co-producer Barbi Taylor and composer Brian May. You also get nearly two hours of pre-production read-through from Franklin, Keach and Marion Edward… even five minutes of May’s music demos, alongside the expected trailers and image galleries. Neil Sinyard’s appraisal of the film is a predictable standout… if this guy had a rugged profile, quiffy hair do and fashionable clothes he’d be all over TV, even if he was nowhere near as good as he invariably is. The limited edition also packs an exclusive 80-page book with original essay by Lee Gambin, archival interviews with Franklin, Keach and Curtis, Franklin’s Hitchcock obituary, an overview of contemporary critical responses, Mark Hartley on …And His Ghost May Be Heard, full film credits and an exclusive double-sided poster.

Quid’s in…

Devil In A Blue Dress. BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

Writer / director Carl Franklin learned a thing or two about Genre, coming up in the school of Roger Corman. His Devil In A Blue Dress (1995) typifies that strain of Neo Noir which eschews the original article’s reliance on German Expressionism’s bag of visual tricks (forced perspective, broken up black and white, Dutch angles, et al) to play up the sunshine, swimming pools and orange groves found in the pages of Raymond Chandler and his hard boiled buddies. Adapted (in cahoots with the author) from a novel by Walter Mosley (Bill Clinton’s favourite writer, apparently) DIABD also filters its vision of post-WWII LA through the experience of its black characters. It’s a perfectly honourable undertaking to shift paradigm along racial lines, though recently it hasn’t always reaped the artistic dividends that might have been expected. I’m thinking of Warner TV’s Lovecraft Country (which started strongly but collapsed into incoherence) and Jordan Peele’s disappointing Twilight Zone reboot.

Franklin’s film, by contrast, is a very assured piece of work indeed (the school of Corman never did turn out too many duds), which regrettably didn’t stop it from underperforming in box office terms. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is a black guy with aspirations to something more than American society has allotted him but after being laid off from the aircraft factory, he’s struggling to pay his mortgage. Against his better judgement, he accepts a job from the slick (and as becomes increasingly evident, psychopathic) Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), who wants him to track down the missing Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), runaway fiancee of Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), who has just pulled out of the LA Mayoral race. Daphne has an unfortunate, for some, penchant for the company of gentlemen of colour and it doesn’t take much sniffing around Central Avenue’s juke joints for Easy to pick up her trail. But who’s really tying to track her down and why? And as the plot uglifies (casual racism is the least of Easy’s worries as he struggles to stay out of the frame for the multiplying murders that pepper his investigation) our man attempts to square his conscience with the much needed nice little earner he’s signed up to.

Franklin’s accomplished direction throughout is nicely complimented by an Elmer Bernstein score. The casting of Beals makes sense in terms of the secret that her character’s concealing (though frankly that’s not particularly difficult to guess) but as a femme fatale? Well, she hardly lives up to her billing in the film’s title… Washington’s every bit as good as you’d expect but Don Cheadle as Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, the rather “excitable” friend Easy is obliged to call on, steals every scene that they share. One quibble… how long could the recklessly violent Mouse realistically remain free / alive in an America that has always been and continues to be (as a cursory glance at current headlines would confirm) unrelentingly harsh on its black offenders?

Cheadle’s screen test is the jewel in the crown of extras adorning this limited (to 3,000 units) edition UK BD Premiere, a 2K restoration with 5.1 surround and stereo audio options. Accompanying it there’s an audio commentary from Franklin and and an archival interview with the writer / director, conducted by the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller at a screening of Devil in a Blue Dress. Yeah, you get image galleries and a trailer plus, if you’re quick enough, an exclusive 36-page booklet with new essay by Keith M Harris, archival interview with Carl Franklin from Positif magazine, extract from Walter Mosley’s source novel, an overview of contemporary critical responses and full film credits.

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