|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 12 August 2003|
Peter Bogdanovich was a busy cinema journalist in the late 1950s and early '60s, and had interviewed many of the key figures in movie history. But he was also a walking stereotype: he really wanted to direct. He worked for a while for Roger Corman, assisting on "The Wild Angels" and directing one of those movies Corman assembled out of a Russian film, "Women of the Prehistoric Planet." (Bogdanovich doesn't mention this in the "Targets" commentary track.)
Corman told Bogdanovich that if he used footage from Corman's "The Terror" and shot new footage of Boris Karloff, who owed Corman two days, Bogdanovich could make another feature. "The Terror" is a ponderous horror movie, not very good (though a book on its amazing production history would be interesting), but it also didn't make much money. And Roger wanted to earn something from it.
For a while, Bogdanovich was frustrated. He wanted to shoot a contemporary, 1967 movie, not something set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, as was "The Terror." And then he had the bright idea of opening with scenes from "The Terror," then cutting to Karloff watching the film in a screening room, declaring he was going to retire.
Bogdanovich and his then-wife Polly Platt worked out a story, which he showed to his friend, tough-guy director Sam Fuller. The older man paced about, tossing out one idea after another, amazing Bogdanovich who offered him screen credit, he says, but Fuller refused the honor. In both the commentary track and short documentary for "Targets," Bogdanovich says that Fuller felt that if his name was on the film, everyone would assume he was the true director.
Bogdanovich and Platt carefully planned "Targets" (at first called "Before I Die") to be shot swiftly on a low budget, making the best use of Karloff that they could. They worked without permits and shot footage that a more expensive film wouldn't have been able to get away with, such as stunts on a freeway (the 405, north of the Ventura Freeway).
The film turned out better than anyone expected, and Corman allowed Bogdanovich to try to place it with a more prestigious studio than American International, the usual outlet for Corman-directed and -produced films. Thanks to knowing Jerry Lewis, Bogdanovich made contact with Robert Evans at Paramount. After some hesitation, the studio bought the film. And then both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated.
The movie, which is about a sniper, sat on the shelf for some time, finally being released with an unpleasantly exploitive campaign. But it got good reviews and gained Bogdanovich recognition. In 1971, he made "The Last Picture Show," and for some time had a solid career until it pretty much collapsed. He's slowly regaining what he lost.
In "Targets," Karloff plays Byron Orlok, a character modeled closely modeled on the actor himself. He's tired of being a bogeyman, feeling that his type of horror is old hat, out of date, and he wants to return to England and retire. He's fond of his eager young director, Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich), who has a new kind of script for him, but Orlok's mind is made up.
Bogdanovich introduces the other half of his story in a brash, unforgettable manner: we're watching Orlok and Sammy talking on the Sunset Strip, and suddenly the actor is seen through a telescopic rifle sight. In the gun shop across the street, Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) has taken a practice sight on Orlok. We then follow Bobby as he buys some guns; putting them in the trunk of his white Mustang convertible (there are plenty of other carefully-placed guns in the trunk already), he drives to his San Fernando Valley ranch-style home.
He and his wife (Tanya Morgan) live with his mother (Mary Jackson) and slightly domineering father (James Brown). Bobby is feeling a bit troubled, and tries to talk to his wife before she leaves for her night job. But she's in a rush, and when she gets home, he doesn't want to talk. In the morning, we see Bobby type "DIE" -- we don't see the whole message until later -- and when his wife comes in, he shoots her dead. He kills his mother and a delivery boy, then tidies everything up.
After some wandering about, he notices some large storage tanks next to a busy freeway. He lugs a bag full of guns to the top, and begins killing drivers below.
Elsewhere, Sammy and Orlok watch some scenes from Howard Hawks’ “The Criminal Code,” which featured a strong performance by Boris Karloff. (Here, of course, it’s Orlok.) He does convince Orlok to make a personal appearance at the drive-in where "The Terror" is to have its premiere. Together with his assistant Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), Sammy's girlfriend, as night falls Orlok heads for the drive-in.
But we've seen Bobby find the drive-in too. He's climbed up behind the screen, where he finds a hole. Unseen by the audience, he takes aim....
It's surprising to realize that no one else had filmed a story using a movie screen as a blind from which to shoot people in the audience. Certainly this sort of thing had occurred to lots of people in those audiences. Seeing it realized, and realized as well as it is here, makes "Targets" an uneasy but memorable experience. Cutting between the two stories, Bogdanovich builds a great deal of suspense, if only in that the audience doesn't quite understand how the stories can converge. But they do, in an imaginative, highly cinematic fashion.
"Targets" is a cool, brutal movie, imaginatively made and stylishly impressive, and it becomes very suspenseful. It's clearly cheap -- the Thompson family home never looks like anything other than a budget set -- and dramatically wobbly. Bogdanovich is okay as eager young director Sammy, but the movie probably would have been served better with another actor in the role.
But on the other hand, his having to use Karloff is the strongest value of the film. By this time -- Karloff died the next year -- Karloff had gone beyond being scary, and was one of the most beloved icons of movie history. The great masterstroke of "Targets" is having Karloff essentially play himself, or at least the version of himself that, by this time, everyone thought they knew existed. Our fondness for Karloff is immediately transferred to Orlok, making the confrontation between the old style of horror he represents with the new style of horror embodied by the handsome blond sniper far more effective than if the Orlok role were played by almost anyone else. Boris Karloff simply had to play the role.
Karloff only made four more movies, cheap Mexican productions shot very quickly during a hot Los Angeles summer. Unlike Orlok, he never wanted to retire, and was preparing to appear in yet another movie when he died. He's splendid here, and Bogdanovich was smart and generous enough to give him one great scene, in which he tells the story of an appointment in Samarrah.
Tim O'Kelly is unnervingly believable as the gunman, who was -- if you haven't realized it already -- based on Charles Whitman, a handsome young man who, evidently driven by a brain tumor, mounted a tower on a Texas college campus and shot people. Bogdanovich only hints at a reason for Bobby's murderous rampage, in the scene in which he tries unsuccessfully to talk to his wife. Other movies about spree and serial killers try to outline explanations, but it's pointless, since such murderers often do not have motivations that the sane understand. "Targets" is much more effective for avoiding such an explanation. Ordinary people like Bobby sometimes suddenly do go crazy and kill people. Bogdanovich isn't concerned with why, but instead with how.
This is the only movie of any significance that O'Kelly, who resembles Ryan O'Neal, ever made. On the commentary track, Bogdanovich admits rather helplessly that he has no idea what became of him.
The new DVD from Paramount presents the film as well as possible. It was shot very quickly and cheaply, and so has almost no production values other than the crisp photography by Laszlo Kovacs. The sound is mono, and brilliantly mixed -- the entire sequence of Bobby shooting from the tanks was shot without sound. Verna Fields, then a sound editor, added all the sound effects. The result is seamlessly realistic, from the scrape of the guns on the metal of the tanks, to the crack of the rifles, to the little gasps Bobby makes just before firing.
It's interesting that Bogdanovich never made a movie remotely like "Targets." His most recent film, "The Cat's Meow," involved a murder, but it is a dry, satirical look at old Hollywood royalty, not a thriller. Bogdanovich is a remarkably inconsistent director; at first, he carefully followed the styles of the directors he most admired, but never really quite developed a style of his own. If he has good material and a strong script, he'll make a good movie. If he doesn't, he lacks the skills to make it at least an exercise in style.
The disc includes "'Targets' -- An Introduction by Peter Bogdanovich," a largely superficial interview with the director, intercut with scenes from the film. It's superficial because his commentary track provides most of the same information. But it's also harmless, and of some interest. The commentary track is more interesting and entertaining, filling in details about the production, pointing out now well-known people making small appearances (actor Mike Farrell is a shooting victim, producer Frank Marshall takes tickets at the drive-in). But as usual with Bogdanovich when left to his own devices, the commentary track is also rather self-indulgent; Bogdanovich frequently refers to his famous director friends, even launching into a fair impression of Hitchcock. He shuts up altogether too frequently, and occasionally resorts to the "and this is the freeway" fallback used by some commentary tracks.
But overall, "Targets" is an excellent DVD package. Though it was made 35 years ago, it's still timely, still disturbing. It doesn't answer any questions because it doesn't raise any. Instead, it's a cool but tense and involving examination of a murderous incident and how it affects a beloved old actor. Strongly recommended.