Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Targets (1968) ****



Director/Screenplay: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O'Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Peterson, Monty Landis, Nancy Hsueh 

Like the French New Wave directors, Peter Bogdanovich began as a critic before going on to make movies heavily informed by his passion for directors like Hawks, Hitchcock and Welles, imbued with a poignant sense of loss that chimed well with the so-called ‘nostalgia boom’ (when audiences suddenly realised that, with the collapse of the studio system, something cherishable had been lost beyond recall.)
Targets (1968), his directorial debut, is many things: a thoughtful and brilliantly tense thriller, a love letter to the past and a poison pen letter to the present, an elegy for Hollywood’s golden age, and – for its star Boris Karloff – the kind of loving valediction of which all actors must dream.

Karloff plays Byron Orlok, a horror star who decides to cancel his next film and retire because he has grown to loathe Hollywood, and the modern world, and feels like an anachronism amidst slick new kinds of film-making and vapid young audiences:

Everybody's dead. I feel like a dinosaur. Oh, I know how people feel about me these days - old-fashioned, outmoded... 'Mr Boogeyman, King of Blood' they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream... I couldn't play a straight part decently anymore. I've been doing the other thing too long... and even that isn't the point. You know what they call my films today? Camp, high camp.
Wait a minute, I want to show you something. My kind of horror isn't horror anymore. Look at that. 
[He produces a newspaper, headlined YOUTH KILLS SIX IN SUPERMARKET.] 
No-one is afraid of a painted monster.

He will honour one last professional commitment - to introduce his new film (actually Karloff's 1963 Corman quickie The Terror) at its drive-in premiere. 
As we follow him through the day in the company of his director friend Sammy (played by Bogdanovich), Karloff/Orlok holds court on old age, the decline of the movies, the golden age, and modern society. We see him argue with agents and studio heads, reminisce, get drunk and fall asleep, and even watch himself on television in Howard Hawks's The Criminal Code.

Karloff told Bogdanovich that one of his lines in the film was the truest he had ever delivered. When the writer-director asked him which one, he replied: "The one when I'm looking out the car window at the city streets and I say, 'God, what an ugly town this has become.' My Lord, it's never been truer."
Perhaps the most impressive moment comes when Orlok is, with the utmost reluctance, meeting the moronic, trendy interviewer who is going to speak to him as he introduces the movie ("When I was a kid, Mr O, I must have dug your flicks four zillion times. You blew my mind." "Obviously.")
So infuriated is he by the inanity of the questions he decides instead to tell a story to the audience, and launches into it. It's a short, clever tale of the unexpected about a man who meets Death in person, delivered hypnotically by Karloff in a single fluid tracking shot that moves slowly to extreme close-up in time for the punchline. It is utterly mesmerising, and the crew burst into spontaneous applause after shooting it. Later Bogdanovich noticed that Karloff's wife Evie had been discreetly crying. "Do you know how long it's been since a crew has applauded for Boris?" she explained quietly. 

Throughout all this, Bogdanovich is constantly cutting to a second, seemingly unrelated story, concerning a disaffected young man, living a sterile, joyless existence with his wife and parents who, we soon learn, is dangerously disturbed. Eventually, he murders his family and we watch him matter-of-factly take his gun collection to a water-tower, climb it, and shoot randomly at the cars passing by on the nearby freeway.
As the two stories alternate, they begin to brush against each other. ("Guess who I saw coming home? Byron Orlok!", the young man tells his family at dinner. "Did he scare you?" jokes his father, explicitly evoking Orlok's own analogy between his tame, old-fashioned horrors and the new horrors of the real world.)
We realise that each man is moving in ignorance of the other to the same ultimate destination: the drive-in. Here, as Karloff approaches to make his public appearance, the young killer climbs the scaffolding behind the screen and, through a small hole in the fabric, begins shooting at the audience.
They finally meet in the film's final moments in a confrontation that is dramatic, clever, and moving. Walking blithely into danger, Orlok disarms the killer and slaps him hard in the face, encountering for the first time not just the evil but also the banality of this new kind of horror. 
"Is that what I was afraid of?" Karloff asks in sadness and disgust.

As I said, this is a gripping thriller, a profound rumination on cultural decline, and a salute to a great star that allows Karloff a chance, at just the right moment in his career, to show exactly the kind of work of which he is capable. He made other films after, Curse of the Crimson Altar in England and some terrible back-to-back quickies in Mexico, but apparently always referred to Targets, with metaphorical if not literal accuracy, as his final film. One can easily imagine many another old actor watching it and wishing that they had been given an opportunity to round off their career so show-stoppingly.

Bogdanovich followed the promise of the the film with three deserved smashes (The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc? and Paper Moon) and then an unending run of bad luck, if not bad movies. Films like At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon (1976) reflect not so much a drop in standards as a sense of being left behind by fashion. Though major commercial and critical flops, there's not much wrong with them except, perhaps, opportunistic casting. He still makes good films when he's given the chance - The Cat’s Meow (2000) was excellent - but in the final analysis, Targets remains his masterpiece.


2 comments:

Andrew T. Smith said...

I'm a huge Bogdanovich fan and have to agree with your statement that this is his masterpiece. I think it's also worth bearing in mind that it was probably just as much Polly Platt's film as it was his.

One of his films that often gets overlooked is 'Saint Jack'. I'd highly recommend seeking it out.

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, I've heard it said that Polly Platt is a decisive figure in separating the early and later PB films. Having said that, though, it tends to be offered as an explanation for why the later ones aren't as good, but I liked the later ones too. Loved Nickelodeon; loved Daisy Miller. Haven't seen Saint Jack, I'm afraid.
PB is one of those directors I feel I should have seen everything by, and I'm painfully aware that I haven't. Another is Paul Morrissey. Another is Cecil B De Mille, but I'm getting there!