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Targets

by Glenn Erickson May 30, 2023

Peter Bogdanovich’s intriguing suspense thriller is a near ‘perfect mousetrap’ of a movie that neatly sidesteps accusations of topical exploitation. Polly Platt and Samuel Fuller helped Bogdanovich concoct a low budget winner from Roger Corman’s restrictive requirements: utilize a couple of days of owed time from actor Boris Karloff and fold in stock footage from Corman/Karloff’s The Terror. Instead of a lame hodgepodge, the show derives its power by contrasting two kinds of horror — film fantasy and a real-life serial killer. Criterion’s excellent extras don’t neglect to laud Polly Platt’s contribution to what became the official start of a stellar career.


Targets
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1179
1968 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 90 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date May 16, 2023 / 39.95
Starring: Tim O’Kelly, Boris Karloff, Nancy Hsueh, Peter Bogdanovich, Tanya Morgan, Sandy Baron.
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Production Designer: Polly Platt
Film Editor: Peter Bogdanovich
Sound Editor: Verna Fields
Screenplay by Peter Bogdanovich, story by Bogdanovich & Polly Platt
Directed and Produced by
Peter Bogdanovich

Quick, figure out how to make a palatable fiction thriller based on the terrible shooting massacres of the last 20 years, without committing a gross exploitation crime of your own. In 1968, concurrent with two chilling national assassinations, civic riots and a police melee at the Democratic Convention, Peter Bogdanovich released his first signed feature film — a fictional story inspired by the Charles Whitman Texas tower sniper massacre of 1966. In less careful hands it would have been the bad-taste feature of the decade.

The show was denied a big initial release but Paramount did give it a decent launch and it did chalk up a critical hit for writer-director Bogdanovich. Judith Crist’s very favorable piece in New York supplied the “Remarkable! Terrifying and thrilling!” ad quote. We first saw Targets on a 1973 repertory double bill with The Manchurian Candidate. The Nuart touted it as a once-only screening: they claimed that both films were at the time officially withdrawn from distribution, which was only true for Manchurian. Peter Bogdanovich’s show impressed as fine work created under tight production constraints, and is one of the better director debuts of the ’60s. It offers a clever critique of the place of Horror in the modern world, built around a terrific sunset role for the screen legend Boris Karloff.

 

The fates of two very different men will cross in just a few hours. Outwardly happy gun enthusiast Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) tells his wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan) that he’s feeling disturbed, but she hasn’t time to hear him out. Meanwhile, aging horror film star Byron Orlock (Boris Karloff) reluctantly agrees to a publicity appearance at a drive-in, even though he’s bitter and has announced his retirement. Director Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich) tries to get Orlock to change his mind. The paths of Bobby and Byron will eventually cross, as Bobby embarks on a wave of modern horror to outpace anything in Orlock’s old movies.

The classiest low-budget Filmgroup film that American-International never released, Targets is one of those Roger Corman concoctions cobbled together from found items, in this case a few days of Boris Karloff’s time and recycled film footage from The Terror, an earlier Corman feature that had itself been shot with ‘extra’ days owed by the great Karloff.

 

Some big creative names helped Peter Bogdanovich make a movie in such difficult circumstances. Although not credited, Roger Corman was the original producer. Bogdanovich had helped him greatly on  The Wild Angels, and Corman immediately put him to work on a film of his own. Working as a creative team with his wife Polly Platt, Peter concocted a brilliant movie idea from Corman’s impossible recipe. The repurposed footage from The Terror becomes a film-within-a film to depict ‘Byron Orlock’s’ latest drive-in movie attraction. The payoff comes when the Gothic Horror Star confronts a new kind of real life horror. Has the ‘nostalgic anachronism’ Byron Orlock become totally irrelevant?It’s a screenwriting dodge worthy of Singin’ in the Rain’s Cosmo Brown, yet it makes excellent thematic sense.

Bogdanovich was a fully-established film critic, and his idea of heaven was to hang out with famous directors 24-7. Faced with an impossible scripting problem, he tapped his friendship with the famed director Samuel Fuller. Some accounts say that Fuller provided the show’s basic structure. Bogdanovich convincingly explains that Fuller suggested good story points and extra details, some of which were altered later. The central dramatic scenes in Targets might have come from a ’30s script — the argument in the projection room, the drunk scene in Orlock’s hotel. Bogdanovich began as an actor, and would much later return to performing. He himself plays the young director, the next most important character after the august Orlock and the impenetrably psychotic Bobby Thompson.

Modeled on the Whitman Texas killings, the ‘mad sniper’ half of the movie is done in an impressive montage style that mixes silent masters with odd details. The introduction of the wholesome-looking Bobby Thompson is clean and precise, and the excellent creative touches include a powerful reveal of Thompson’s suicide note in his final scene at home. Actor Tim O’Kelly was clearly chosen for his sincere, down-home smile. He looks like every American’s favorite son, clean-cut and fresh faced.

 

Bogdanovich and Platt make sure their sniper never has a motivation, that his actions are never explained. After barely mentioning a problem to his young wife, he just flips and goes about his lethal, premeditated business. For all we know, the ‘modern’ streets of the San Fernando Valley and the drone of surf music on the radio are what have driven Bobby Thompson mad. The young man appears to purchase his high-powered rifle at a gun store located on the Sunset Strip (?), across from a screening room where Sammy and Byron talk on the sidewalk. Paramount’s ads  directly called for greater gun control.

Bogdanovich out-does Corman at his own guerrilla-filmmaking game. Before his massacre at the drive-in, Bobby Thompson throws a number of shots at cars on the 405 Freeway near the Sherman Way exit — a real location we take note of on every trip through The Valley. Those ‘stolen’ scenes are extraordinary, risky in the extreme.

That part of Los Angeles was then fully developed, yet much less dense than it is now. The action shenanigans involve skidding cars off the shoulder of the Freeway. Daring actors pretended to be shot in clear view of passing motorists. A real motorcycle officer arrived to investigate the disturbance — we’re told that he wasn’t part of the shoot. The actors ran for cover while the film crew atop the water tower ducked their heads. How many laws did Bogdanovich’s rogue film crew break that day?  Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs must have been an expert shot-grabber, performing under extenuating circumstances.

 

Polly Platt did terrific work in Bogdanovich’s later ’70s pictures, but here she must cope with several sets that are barely adequate. The hotel suite and Bobby’s house seem oddly insubstantial, which in the case of the house adds to the overall weirdness. Laszlo Kovacs’ fluid camerawork obtains Bogdanovich’s desired shots, even when a close-up cruise across the Thompsons’ floor reveals the carpet to be poorly patched undercarpet padding. Ah, the same kind of frayed edges showed in old PRC and Monogram pictures . . .

Samuel Fuller advised Peter and Polly to scrimp throughout, so as to make the finale as strong as possible. Bogdanovich saves everything for his bravura climax, squeezing the most from Boris Karloff’s contractual obligation. The barely-mobile star’s impressive character ties up the story’s twin threads in a very satisfying way. Bogdanovich’s lean & clean shot choices cut together extremely well. By saving his camera resources for the finale, he’s able to make a convincing set piece of Bobby Thompson’s drive-in massacre, intercutting the confused theater manager, the projectionist and various drive-in patrons, some of whom understand that they’re under fire by a hidden sniper. All in all, Targets is that lucky kind of cheapie picture where even the padding seems part of the ‘good stuff.’

The clips from The Terror are part of this padding yet also an essential part of the film’s theme. A lot of Corman’s earlier feature is projected on the drive-in screen, which really isn’t padding at all. The screenwriting conceit pays off when alternating visions of Karloff close in on the killer.  Bobby Thompson’s attention is split between the figure on the screen and the ‘real’ actor hobbling forward on his cane. The reality vs. fantasy conflict works thanks to Karloff’s assured performance. Bogdanovich would later brand himself as a brilliant Hollywood talent, and in this show he justified the claim.

Bogdanovich doubles as his own editor. He begins his show with a screeching bird that comes out of nowhere, which might be an open nod to his mentor’s Citizen Kane. Curiously, although we see them clearly, the cast of The Terror do not make Targets’ credits list, not even on the IMDB: Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight, Dick Miller.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Targets is from a new 4K master, a transfer approved by Peter Bogdanovich. It really pops, giving us a great look at the San Fernando Valley in 1968, when huge sections were still undeveloped. The show was given a very good DVD release twenty years ago. Some online critics aren’t pleased by the color interpretation, saying that the DVD is more accurate, but I’m not offended. Is there really a teal cast to some of the blue values?

I don’t believe the film has a music score, save perhaps for Ronald Stein’s track on The Terror. But the picture features a complex sound mix with radios and TVs frequently intruding. Verna Fields fashioned many of the soundscapes out of whole cloth, as much of the film was shot without audio.

Criterion begins with two excellent extras taken from the 2003 DVD. Peter Bogdanovich’s feature commentary spreads the responsibility for Targets’ critical success far and wide. He also sits for a Laurent Bouzereau interview that covers all the bases on the unique little film, including most of the facts related above. Both Bogdanovich and Platt feel that the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations influenced the studio from giving the show a wide release. The director’s hindsight impressions of his other quasi-directing efforts (Women of the Prehistoric Planet, anyone?) make Targets even more satisfying.

Richard Linklater provides a new discussion of the picture, and the insert booklet starts with a strong essay by Adam Nayman. We’re pleased that disc producer Susan Arosteguy saw to it that Polly Platt was duly represented on the disc. An AFI audio interview is excerpted, letting us hear the writer-producer’s thoughts and opinions. Ms. Platt begins by saying that Roger made a 2-picture deal with she and Peter’s Saticoy Productions. The first was indeed Women of the Prehistoric Planet, concocted by augmenting a recut of a Russian pickup feature, Planeta Bur, with MOS footage of Mamie Van Doren and some other models at the beach. Polly says WOTPP was never released, which may be technically true if it was distributed only to TV — she identifies it as The Gill Women of Venus.

Jerry Jameson’s TV docu-drama about the Texas massacre  The Deadly Tower came out in 1975; it starred clean-cut Kurt Russell as the ‘inexplicable’ Whitman. Keith Maitland’s 2016 feature Tower dramatized the incident with a combination of documentary footage and animation. Both are excellent. Perhaps the best aspect of Targets is that it never lowers itself to the level of  ‘violence chic’ cheap thrills. Peter Bogdanovich, Polly Platt and Samuel Fuller pulled together something special. CineSavant contributor ‘B’ makes a good argument that Targets is one Bogdanovich’s best movies:

“It isn’t completely successful, but he is striving to do something different. Way too many of PB’s pictures feature scenes in which you can practically hear him thinking, “now, how would Ford do this?” Or, Hawks. Or, Walsh. This one — at least in part because it’s a movie that NONE of those filmmakers would have ever made — has a lot less of that.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Targets
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
from 2003:
Audio commentary with Peter Bogdanovich
Introduction by Bogdanovich (13 minutes)
New interview with filmmaker Richard Linklater (26 minutes)
Audio excerpts from a 1983 interview with production designer Polly Platt at the American Film Institute (30 minutes)
34-page insert booklet with an essay by Adam Nayman, plus interview excerpts with Bogdanovich from Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin’s 1969 book The Director’s Event: Interviews with Five American Film-Makers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 28, 2023
(6929targ)
CINESAVANT

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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

Here’s Joe Dante on Targets

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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