Saturday, January 31, 2009
The Welfare Of The People
After the FREEBIE AND THE BEAN/HICKEY & BOGGS double bill at the Egyptian, I did the only thing that made any sense: I raced down to the New Beverly for the midnight screening of TARGETS. It wasn’t because I’d never seen TARGETS—as a matter of fact when I mentioned what I was doing someone I’d only met the night before asked, “Haven’t you already seen it?” which I honestly found flattering. The truth is I’ve seen TARGETS many, many times through the years including once at the Walter Reade Theater in New York years ago. But even after that night at the Cinematheque, there was no way I was going to miss this chance. It’s made for just about the best triple bill I’ve ever seen. TARGETS is a favorite for me not just because of how good it is, but also because of both its place in the history of film and the story of its making, something that feels almost as important as the film it produced. It shows that you can make something truly special from, if not nothing, then from an idea that on its surface wasn’t very much. In spite of reviews from such places as The New York Times which called it “original and brilliant,” TARGETS didn’t get much of a release in 1968, at least in part due to real world events, but its cult status has justifiably grown over the years. If I could show it to everyone I know who hasn’t seen it, I gladly would.
The 1968 directorial debut of Peter Bogdanovich, the dual plot of TARGETS tells the story legendary horror icon Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff, essentially playing Boris Karloff) who his recently finished THE TERROR, his latest film and though the company that employs him is already planning for his next vehicle he abruptly announces his retirement, feeling that the kind of horror he is known for is now too old-fashioned to be compared to the present day horrors of the real world. As if to prove this point in an alternate plotline, young Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) a gun enthusiast who lives with his parents and his wife in suburban tranquility in the valley while not saying much about his own feelings beyond “sometimes I get funny ideas,” suddenly begins to demonstrate what he isn’t saying in shocking, terrifying way. The two stories begin to converge as Orlok prepares for what he expects will be his final public appearance at a drive-in premiere of THE TERROR.
TARGETS began life when producer Roger Corman offered the young Bogdanovich the chance to direct basically by telling him that he still had Boris Karloff under contract for a few days of shooting. The idea was to combin Karloff footage from Corman’s own 1963 film THE TERROR, new scenes shot with Karloff, as well as filming new footage with other actors that could make up the rest, giving Corman a new Karloff vehicle. What Bogdanovich (as well as his then-wife Polly Platt and an uncredited Sam Fuller who essentially reworked the story over an afternoon) came up with was considerably different from what Corman had in mind, to put it mildly. In many ways it’s a death knell for what was then the history of Hollywood (“All the good movies have been made,” muses Orlok’s director played by, of course, Peter Bogdanovich) and what the world of the late sixties was turning into. The first-time director works wonder with the low budget, even if a few of the sets do look just like sets. Ultimately, thinkgs like that don’t matter very much. Not as we witness the enjoyable interplay between Karloff, Bogdanovich and the underappreciated Nancy Hsueh as Orlok’s secretary and certainly not during the various suspense setpieces which show Bogdanovich using seemingly every trick from Hitchcock he ever learned (the director points out a few of these on the DVD commentary;at the very least, Bobby Thompson’s quiet rearranging of things in one scene has a strong touch of Norman Bates’s post-shower cleanup in PSYCHO). The remarkable drive-in climax in particular is very skillfully cut to give the impression that much more is going on than was available to the production. Bogdanovich has points to make about love of film, the realities of the world and the use of guns but he never puts too much emphasis on any of them. For the most part these things are sprinkled in there and you either take them willingly or just watch it as a normal thriller. But it’s metaphor for what films can really mean is pretty amazing—if it ever played at a drive-in it’s hard to imagine a more unnerving experience and it’s possible that watching it wouldn’t have nearly as much impact on somebody who didn’t have a true love of film in the first place. I’m deliberately trying to be light on plot points here but I’ll just say that when the two stories literally converge (or maybe I should say when one of the stories literally closes in on the other) the moment pays off remarkably well. I showed this film to somebody a long time ago and even with just the two of us in the room that person began applauding at this point. It honestly gives me an emotional chill each time I see it.
The film’s use of Boris Karloff should not be minimized. Not his last film appearance (although it would probably make sense to consider it as such) one thing that struck me seeing the film at the New Beverly is how genuinely old the man looks in it (particularly when compared to the clips we see of him in THE TERROR). A good amount of dialogue is spent what’s going “to happen” to Byron Orlok and though the idea of his death is never discussed, it seems to be something that he is always thinking about, the most unforgettable example of this being when he tells the “Appointment in Samarra” story climaxing in a chilling close-up of his face. He thinks of himself as a relic, a dinosaur and aware that the end is near but what he is unexpectedly faced with is the question of how he is going to face that end. It occurs to me that then as much as now the idea of an actor of this advanced age playing such a lead role is almost unheard of, unless he’s just there to die and pass on a special lesson to someone younger and more vibrant. Even if this was an inadvertent move by Bogdanovich, it still helps make the film even more unique. It’s also a must for any fans of the legendary actor and in spite of the onscreen character protesting that he “couldn’t play a straight part anymore” he does an excellent job from the endearing comic bits sprinkled throughout to the film’s unforgettable final moments.
It’s not totally Karloff’s film, of course, with Bogdanovich (probably familiar these days as Dr. Elliot Kupferberg on THE SOPRANOS) particularly enjoyable to watch in his scenes he plays with the star. As his secretary, the very good and sadly unknown Nancy Hsueh reminds me of somebody I used to know…and let’s leave it at that. Tim O’Kelly, who even Bogdanovich has no idea what became of, is extremely effective as the All-American boy with something simmering inside. It should also be noted that the clips of THE TERROR, which don’t make up as much of the film as Corman originally had in mind, make use of cast member Jack Nicholson. Since EASY RIDER was still a year in the future at that point, his appearance then wasn’t very distracting.
The New Beverly got a pretty large crowd for TARGETS and it was good to see people respond to it so well, particularly near the end. The world has changed since it was made, as has Los Angeles and I should mention that anyone who would be interested in what the city looked like during this time should see the film as well. Many of the locations are gone, but a few here and there can still be spotted. It’s appropriate that enough of the film still resonates including the horrors of guns that we are sometimes face with and what movies can ultimately mean to us, what they can do. It can be very difficult to reconcile that clash between films and reality, particularly when you live in L.A. That’s probably why TARGETS is one of my favorite films about the movies. It might just be one of my favorite films.
“Is that what I was afraid of?”