Lawrence Russell

Targets (1968) dir. Peter Bogdanovich writ. Bogdanovich (from the story by Bogdanovich & Polly Platt) cine. Lazlo Kovacs edt. Bogdanovich score. generic

star. Boris Karloff (Orlock), Tim O'Kelly (Bobby), Peter Bogdanovich (Sammy), Nancy Hsueh, Arthur Peterson, Mary Jackson, Yanyan Morgan, Sandy Baron


Targets operates something like a frame narrative, using Roger Corman's The Terror (1963) to create a "movie-within-a-movie". The effect is much more than a conceit, insofar as the subject of art is art itself. The Terror is a ludicrous dressup fantasy, less regarded today for Karloff's generic appearance than as the vehicle for one of Jack Nicholson's first film roles. Yes, Jack's in it, a mere youth pretending to be a French lieutenant, lost on a lonely Baltic beach as he makes his way home from one of the Napoleonic wars. And there's Boris hanging out in his castle with his fake raven and coffins, lost in a parody of his former self, that is, the pedigreed psychopath of the Romantic revival.

But it's an excellent counterpoint for the grim, sophisticated story Peter Bogdanovich has to tell in this, his first film.

Thus Targets is a story about the B-movie business, which is often the exploitation of fear... and the irrelevance of this culture in mid-sixties America, then undergoing a new kind of fear, a societal subversion from within and without... mass killers like Charles Whitman in Texas... and Sergeant Medina in Vietnam. It was the beginning of something new, the loner with a gun, often with a motive less defined than his urge to kill.

Boris Karloff in Targets

When Orlock (Karloff) decides he's had enough of the movie business, it's not only the ennui of age that forms his decision, but also a measure of self-contempt. The sort of horror he represents is an anachronism, Victorian and fake. It doesn't help when his producer snarls, "If it wasn't for me the only place you'd be playing would be the wax museum." The closed world of live theatre with its painted sets and crazy aristocrats was never right for the modern dynamic of film with its realistic photography and documentary method. Yet this is what The Terror is -- a stage melodrama posing as a movie. The violence of The Terror is fraudulent and infantile in the era of Vietnam.

a new form of horror

As Orlock stands beside his limo outside the screening theatre, a young man draws a bead on him from a gunshop across the street. The view is through the cross-hairs of the telescopic sight. Does he recognize the horror movie star? Yes. Will he buy the rifle? Yes. Thus the two protagonists are introduced through a coincidence that turns out to be an instrument of fate. Eventually the stories of Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) and Byron Orlock will merge in a new form of horror.

When Bobby enters the family home for the first time, he does so as a stranger... or so it seems as his eyes travel slowly around the walls and pictures. His alienation is introduced as spacial, like someone who is moving in two dimensions, the third abandoned when he lost his sense of feeling and humanity. The cold blue walls with their empty spaces reduces perception to a geometric simplicity, where the door becomes an outline, an opening to madness. The evening before the murders, it swings in and out contrary to logic when Bobby enters his bedroom. Directorial touches like this and the use of ambient sound in real-time develop a strong atmosphere of menace and impending doom... perhaps even more than the trunk-load of weapons in Bobby's white Mustang.

film on film

Some will say Targets is just a film-school exercise made by a young man more interested in dropping names and playing montage games with old movies. Post-modern disease... or a natural milestone in the intellectual development of the Hollywood film? Bogdanovich says critics cite Targets as the first American film to have a quote regarding an earlier film. Hmm... what about Sunset Boulevard where the Swanson character Norma Desmond watches her early silent screen triumphs? A lot of Bogdanovich's sequences have a familiar feel about them, whether reminiscent of the sniper in the billboard in From Russia With Love or James Cagney on top of a gas silo in White Heat. Still, there's no disputing the genius of the story-line that allows him to do this.

Bogdanovich, who plays a young writer-director (Sammy), visits Karloff, who plays a horror actor (Orlock). Sammy is drunk and is hoping to coax Orlock into reconsidering his abrupt retirement announcement. Orlock just happens to be watching one of his old classics on TV [The Criminal Code, 1931, dir. Howard Hawks]. Semi-pissed, Sammy expresses his admiration:

Sammy: I saw this at the Museum of Modern Art.
Orlock: That's right, I am a museum piece.
Sammy: Howard Hawks directed this.
Orlock: I know. (hands him a drink) Thanks to him it was my really first important part.
Sammy: He really knows how to tell a story.
Orlock: Indeed he does.
Sammy: (gloomily) All the good movies have been made....

Film instructors and students just love this sort of thing, of course, as it plays directly to their obsession with film culture. It becomes an attractive part of the mythology and employs, some would say, a useful game-model for learning. Conceivably this sort of meta-criticism leads to the over-rating of such films -- one need only look at Pauline Kael's love-struck infatuation with the films of Brian De Palma which are jammed with rip-offs and sentimental genuflections to the films of the past. Yes, we groan when a playwright comes up with yet another play about the theatre... yet when it comes to film, such maneuvers are usually greeted as being extremely hip.

Now, instead of saying that drama is the imitation of an action, Aristotle would be forced to say that it's the imitation of an imitation. Is this the signature of the post-modern disease? The condition is now pandemic, the sociology full of intricacies and ironies. The same is true for the psychology of the typical hero, who is now so morally ambiguous even the term "anti-hero" is inappropriate. The stage has been set for lonely sociopaths and gregarious hookers... the fare of prime-time TV in the last stanza of the twentieth century.

What is the psychology of PB's character Bobby Thompson, for example? We recognize that he's imitating something even though the imitation seems rooted in the ageless criminal behaviour of the loser. Although background information is scarce and existential, there are clues. In the DVD director's commentary Bogdanovich tells us that Bobby Thompson was in Vietnam, this possibility set-up by an ambiguous photograph on the wall of the family home. He admits that not many people will notice this, and perhaps the understatement is to avoid comparisons to vet assassins such as the one Frank Sinatra plays in Suddenly. The 1966 campus sniper Charles Whitman is acknowledged as the primary model for Bobby's character, and you don't need PD's admission to spot that. However, it should be noted that Bobby himself doesn't see himself as another Whitman. His model is clearly his own authoritarian father, who comes close to being his first victim... yet, while he is allowed to live, he disappears from the action as if he's been edited out... replaced, appropriately enough, by Orlock. It's Orlock who corners Bobby below the screen at the Drive-In, cuffs him to the ground like an angry father disciplining a truant son.

dream, script, action

Sammy and Orlock get drunk and pass out on the same bed. When Sammy awakes to find himself beside Orlock, the bedside clock says 12:05 -- which is a transitional device for linking this action to the parallel story of Bobby Thompson, who has just murdered his wife and mother at noon in their modern Valley house -- and as he sits up, dazed and hungover, it's as if the murders are but a recalled scene from his script, written especially for Byron Orlock.

This forces us to consider the subsequent action from this point on as Orlock's enactment of Sammy's script... delivered to him by dream transfer. We don't know what the story-line of Sammy's script is, yet the fact that Bogdanovich plays Sammy and Karloff plays Orlock demands that we consider this mystical possibility. Impossible? Imagined events as blueprints for the future are the foundation of existence. Our actions often seem to follow the peculiar ordination of a script, albeit an unknown one.

This curious symbiosis is also represented in Bobby Thompson's [script] confessional note, typed in red:


It is now 11.40 am. My wife is still asleep but when she wakes up, I am going to kill her. Then I am going to kill my mother.

I know they will get me, but there will be more killing before I die.

As Bogdanovich freely acknowledges, all of this is lifted from the actions of Charles Whitman, who went on a killing spree in Austin the previous year, 1966. Whitman's parricide has been explained by the fact that he hated his father [his parents had separated some months previously] and that the autopsy revealed he had a brain tumor. Whitman killed his mother first, then his wife. He went to the University of Texas campus, ascended the observation tower, began shooting at 11:48 am.

Essentially Bogdanovich borrowed the actions and some of the psychology... although he chose to leave his character Bobby Thompson existential and elliptical in terms of motive, thereby making him more sinister and symptomatic of the "new" kind of horror. In one way his actions can be seen as a protest against the incomprehensible rat-race of contemporary living, symbolized by the automobile on the freeway and in the Drive-In. His frustration seems driven in part by the fact that he has no job, is drifting... although there is no sense that this is an issue with his family. We get the impression that he's a child-man, and is regarded as such. His familiarity with guns -- an often criticized American standard -- also suggests a familiarity with killing. This is easily explained if you assume he was in Vietnam. Whitman suffered from a brain tumor... but the disease that Bobby carries is societal and historical.

white heat

The fastidious way in which Bobby sets out his weapons on top of the giant gas tank is both anal and infantile, like a boy arranging his toys in a tree fort. He eats a twinkie and drinks a cola before starting to shoot the speeding autos and their occupants on the adjacent freeway. We recall White Heat because the symbolism of the madman on the gas tank is the same, although the dramatic style is utterly different. No music, no melodrama here... Bogdanovich's action is as impersonal as a surveillance camera. It's documentary rather than drama, film rather than theatre. This is the cinematic style that develops as the new voyeurism in the later part of the century.

The easy access to guns is still a feature of American life... and gun violence develops at an ugly pace. Bogdanovich says in his commentary that he thought perhaps Targets would have some influence in this regard, notes quietly that "it's still awful easy to get guns". Is he being disingenuous, concerned after-the-fact in a manner all too common with action directors rationalizing the endless Hollywood gun commercial? No. Targets is clearly a legitimate intellectual response to the growing phenomena of alienation and spectacular acts of mass violence by individuals using modern weapons. The new horror is upon us... and now, in 2003, we don't need a catalogue of snipers and their targets to recognize this.

the convergence

It's amazing how Bogdanovich was able to rejuvenate cliches and transcend them. No doubt this is due in part to his work on Corman's Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1966), which used intercuts from some Russian outer-space footage. If you believe what he says, the script was written on-the-fly, montaging Karloff into the action in 5 days as a matter of economics. He acknowledges the ghost writing of the auteur Hollywood director Samuel Fuller, especially for the ending at the Reseda Drive-In. Fuller is off the radar these days, despite classics such as Fixed Bayonets, Pickup On South Street, Shock Corridor... The Big Red One... even though he died in France as an American icon, the darling of the nouvelle vague. Fuller knew a lot about guns and the behaviour of people around guns. He was also very good at conceptualizing the dramatic moment -- the idea of Karloff/Orlock "converging" with the killer sniper at the Drive-In was his, says PB. Strangely, Fuller makes no mention of his contribution to Targets in his recent autobiography A Third Face (2002)... no doubt a measure of his modesty.


There are many, many fine things about the ending of Targets, although "the convergence" is something special. Bobby emerges from the scaffolding behind the screen, spots Karloff/Orlock advancing towards him, dressed in a tuxedo. He shoots at him, misses. He looks up at the screen, sees Karloff, huge and sinister... again in a tuxedo. He shoots at the screen, reconciling the two faces of horror. By now Orlock is upon him.... The symmetry is marvellous, and of course it was all setup earlier in the Beverly Hills Hotel when Bogdanovich and Karloff discuss The Criminal Code while getting drunk.

[In The Criminal Code (1931), Karloff plays an incarcerated psychopath who kills a prison stoolie called Runch. The hero, who has been wrongfully imprisoned and is in love with the warden's daughter, is Karloff's cellmate but refuses to inform on him, upholding the criminal code of silence... and is thrown into solitary as a consequence. The sequence where Karloff takes care of Runch is used by Bogdanovich as foreshadowing for the ending of Targets]

But what can we make of all of this? When Bobby shoots the projectionist as he starts the second reel and The Terror continues running, the poetics are easy. When Orlock cuffs Bobby to the ground, the old horror stills the new horror... yet the poetics in this idea are not as easy as they seem. There's a moral here, yes... but illusion and reality are interchangeable, so the extensions are very ambiguous. This ambiguity is developed beautifully in the closing shot, which is introduced as a lap-dissolve of night into day, the POV from Bobby's shooting hole in the screen. We see the drive-in, the audio posts marking the empty parking stalls like grave stones. A shadow rolls over the gravel as the credits appear.

"Hardly ever missed, did I?"

Targets was Peter Bogdanovich's first film, and Boris Karloff's last. The Gothic romanticism of darkness and shadow is replaced by the breezy 60's California pastels of Pathe color. The simplicity of the cuts (usually on the move) and the canny use of ambient [or source] sound moves the action and delivers a lot of information without a lot being said. Sometimes the acting is a bit shaky, although this can be rationalized as part of the B-movie refit. In all, there are few mistakes, if any.

As Bobby Thompson says as he's been led away by the cops, "Hardly ever missed, did I?"

© LR 07/03


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