Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Written by Peter Bogdanovich (and probably Samuel Fuller, uncredited), based on a story by Bogdanovich and Polly Platt
Produced by Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Corman
Cinematography by László Kovács
Edited by Peter Bogdanovich
(Some SPOILERS throughout)
I’d like to do a closer study of Peter Bogdanovich’s career in the near future, so with that in mind, I’m going to table most of my thoughts about him as both a director and a cinema personality for another time. Regardless of what you think of Bogdanovich’s body of work, his first film Targets (1968) never fails to bring out lively discussions from both sides: those who think the film is a typical problem-laden first directorial effort and those who consider it Bogdanovich’s finest film. Both sides are quite capable of making strong arguments.
Targets is certainly an ambitious film. First we have a clean-cut Vietnam veteran named Bobby (Tim O’Kelly, second from left) who lives with his wife and parents in an equally clean-cut San Fernando Valley home, yet one lacking in any type of personality or taste. All well and good (if not aesthetically stimulating), but we soon learn that Bobby is a gun nut who’s about to go on a rampage. (And, of course, he’s an excellent shot.)
Our second plot involves an elderly horror movie actor named Byron Orlok (played by the great Boris Karloff in one of his final roles) who has reluctantly agreed to appear at a drive-in that’s showing one of his most famous films, The Terror (which is actually a Karloff film). Bogdanovich plays Sammy, a film director who tries to talk Orlok out of retirement so that Sammy can continue filming him.
We know these two plot lines are going to converge. In such a situation you might think, “Half the fun is seeing how the two stories are going to converge,” but there’s not much fun to be had here. We’ve seen enough characters like Bobby since 1968, far too many, and it unnerves us (as it should) to see an unbalanced person going off the rails, someone who has abandoned normal life to become a person compelled to randomly kill others. There’s nothing fun about this, even though the artistry in filming the highway scenes is impressive. I have no idea how Bogdanovich accomplished this, but those scenes are frighteningly effective.
Yet the scenes with Karloff are fun in a sad, reflective sort of way. We wonder how much Karloff is actually playing himself and if this was the first – and perhaps last – time he did so? Like Karloff, Orlok is an aging horror legend who’s tired of if all and just wants to relax and enjoy what’s left of his life without a director like Sammy trying to squeeze another movie or two out of him. One of the film’s best scenes involves Orlok trying to decide what to say to the drive-in audience that’s seeking to honor him. The story he rehearses here is worth the price of admission. In fact, I’d watch the film again just to see Karloff work his magic.
Targets is a film that also contrasts not only two seemingly unrelated stories, but also two eras of believability: 1968 believability vs. 2017 believability. We might think that a sniper picking off people along a busy highway and at a drive-in theater would be unthinkable in the minds of 1968 audiences, but consider the fact that when Targets was released, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated five months earlier and Robert F. Kennedy just two months earlier. (Plus the sniper story was based on true events, which I’ll get to in a moment.)
Had it happened during the modern era, the scene at the drive-in would’ve been recorded on smart phones and uploaded to YouTube immediately. Calls would’ve been made, texts would’ve been sent, maybe not in time to save potential victims, but the word would’ve gotten out quickly. What may not have been any different is the fact that people in both eras would have easy access to guns in their trunks or inside their cars. The only difference might be in how quickly they would’ve started to shoot back.
As Danny Peary states in his review of the film in Cult Movies (1981), “…as we can tell from this scene in the gun shop, the society that doesn’t care that lethal weapons are accessible to anybody is the target of Peter Bogdanovich’s picture.” (p. 339) Bobby is clearly disturbed but has just as easy an access to guns as do the guys at the drive-in. And who’s to say that they won’t be the next snipers? Will something in their lives lead them to become the next Bobby? And who’s to blame for Bobby’s crimes? His family? The culture?
One of the most powerful aspects of the film is in the idea that one monster is confronting another. It’s not entirely believable, but it is strangely satisfying. I’ll bet Karloff had a great time with the ending of this movie coming face to face with the killer. At one point Karloff (as Orlok), mentions that we don’t need “painted monsters” anymore, but clearly we do, if for no other reason than to help us deal with the real ones.
Speaking of Karloff, Bogdanovich made the best use of the actor in a brief amount of time. Karloff owed co-producer Roger Corman two days’ work from previous films, so Corman told Bogdanovich he could use Karloff any way he wanted in the film for two days. Wow, what could you do with Karloff for two days….
If you’re wondering what happened to Tim O’Kelly (who is quite good in the picture), the answer is not much. Although he looks more than a little like Charles Whitman, the actual “Texas Tower Sniper” upon which Bobby’s character is based, that “boy-next-door” look didn’t do much for his career. O’Kelly played Detective Danny “Danno” Williams in the pilot of Hawaii Five-O, but for some reason didn’t land the regular role that went to James MacArthur. O’Kelly made no more films or television episodes after 1970 and died in 1990.
Although I don’t really buy the ending of the film, it’s a bold idea. It’s also a film that deserves to be seen at least once, even if that viewing is a disturbing one. It should be. Ultimately I think I agree with Roger Ebert: “Targets isn’t a very good film, but it is an interesting one.” I also think I might change “interesting” to “frightening,” both in 1968 and in 2017.
Photos: Nerdist, Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies, Wikipedia, Horror News, The Movieola