There are some incredible what-if’s when it comes to projects that were almost directed by someone else. Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen. Stanley Kubrick’s Perfume. David Cronenberg’s Total Recall. Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man. Tim Burton and/or Joe Dante's Jurassic Park. Orson Welles’ Hearts of Darkness. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune (well-detailed in Jodorowsky’s Dune). The list goes on and on.
In the early 1970’s, there was arguably no director hotter than Peter Bogdanovich. Sure, Coppola was practically untouchable in the 70’s but his screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974) was considered a slog. Even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas technically can’t claim to have made three huge box office/critical hits in a row. It was the 1-2-3 punch of The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973), along with his frequent appearances on television, that endeared Bogdanovich to the film-going public. Watch the vintage trailers for his films. They’re unlike any other trailer. Instead of highlighting the stars or the story, the trailer highlights the director, showing him at work behind the scenes. He’d become a brand much like Hitchcock or Carpenter. It would be inaccurate to call Bogdanovich a journeyman director, but his films are varied enough that he can be regarded as versatile. Sure, his filmography may be a little lopsided with light comedies, but there are still works exploring serious themes scattered throughout. Works like the aforementioned masterpiece The Last Picture Show (1971), the tragic Mask (1985), the biographical mystery The Cat’s Meow (2001), and one of his best and most underrated films, Saint Jack (1979). Saint Jack represents a down-and-dirty Bogdanovich, not to mention a humbled one, reportedly telling Roger Corman he could shoot the film for peanuts in an attempt to salvage his career. Saint Jack is a dark film, but it’s not Bogdanovich’s darkest. As an A-list director, he was immediately at the top of everyone’s list for any project around Hollywood. And I mean, ANY. Imagine. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Godfather. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Exorcist. Peter Bogdanovich’s Chinatown. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Way We Were, which actually might have worked. He’s stated in interviews that these were simply not properties that interested him. His first feature may not have been his dream project, but it was his chance to direct, and he was determined not to blow it.
Targets (1968) was once called the closest thing to an “A” picture Corman ever produced, and I can see why. Corman’s output as “King of the B’s” numbers in the hundreds. Often schlock, but with enough taste and brains to elevate them above the smut peddlers and other exploitation producers. The story of how the film came to be is legendary and well-documented. Simply put, Corman had been working with Boris Karloff and still had two days left on his contract. Bogdanovich had paid his dues and was ready to direct his first feature. He was given ridiculous stipulations like being required to insert footage from The Terror (1963), a literally incomprehensible mess of a horror movie, and come up with a way to use Karloff for the brief time he had with the star. Drawing inspiration from Charles Whitman’s killing spree and Michael Andrew Clark’s highway sniper attacks, Bogdanovich, along with co-writer and production designer Polly Platt, and an uncredited Samuel Fuller, one of the greatest “tough guy” writer-directors who ever lived, came up with a brilliant parallel story to run concurrently with Karloff’s plot.
The most amazing revelation for anyone unfamiliar with the history behind this film is the fact that the machinations of the plot weren’t even intentional. Seeing this film for the first time, it would be understandable to assume this was a carefully constructed plan. Targets moves along at such a confident pace and concludes with a genuinely perfect merging of two seemingly separate plots, it’s a wonder of clever plotting. It’s difficult to decide which is the “A” plot and which is the “B” plot.
Plot one, based off of the actors involved, concerns the budding relationship with faded horror star Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) and up-and-coming director Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich, taking a vacated role at the last minute). Having just directed Orlok in the drab The Terror (or whatever it is in Targets), Michaels is eager to cast Byron in a more challenging and respectable role. Orlok refuses, citing the news and real-life horrors reported on a daily basis. He believes his types of films are irrelevant and wishes to retire, even though Michaels assures him that this would be a different film. Bogdanovich has never been an exciting actor and his scenes with Karloff have a nice amiable quality, but they pale in comparison to the scenes from the B-plot. In a case of art imitating life, this would be Karloff’s final feature film, a stunningly appropriate swansong for one of the most iconic horror actors the world has ever known. Karloff is somewhat frail in the film, but not nearly as much as he was in real life, spending time between takes in a wheelchair and suffering from emphysema, rheumatoid arthritis, and severely weak legs. Smart staging and the sheer force of Karloff’s performance mask these facts quite well. He appears to only be “playing” a weak old man. He brings a dignity and elegance, as well as a hard-earned truth to his role here. In one of the best scenes, shot in a gorgeous single take, Orlok, being pressed to say some ridiculous dialogue provided by a “hip” radio DJ for an event that will figure into the plot later on, suggests a short but ominous tale of terror. It’s a testament to Karloff’s acting prowess and proof that he was more than just the lumbering monster of Frankenstein’s creation. He performs much of his dialogue with a delicious relish, particularly the line: “The Marx Brothers make you laugh. Garbo makes you weep. Orlok makes you scream.”
As stated above, the two plots do not appear to be connected beyond taking place in the same area, Los Angeles, a town full of pretenders and fakes. The camera’s POV switches to a sniper’s scope, zeroing in on Orlok’s head, an image adorning my refrigerator as a magnet I won as a door prize at a screening of this film (thanks, Cinema Overdrive). Across the street from the screening room, we meet Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), briefly distracted by the salesman’s remark about seeing Byron Orlok, getting back to the task at hand: buying a sniper rifle. The film, having the unfortunate bad luck of being released after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, had a gun control message tacked onto the beginning of the film. This is admirable and certainly appreciated, but the movie would work fine without it as a subtle but much more incendiary look at the state of weapon availability in the United States. Tim O’Kelly is perfection in this film. His career never took off, but film is forever and his work here is extraordinary. His casual, even happy-go-lucky attitude belies deep psychological issues only hinted at in scenes with his family or his seemingly innocuous response to the store owner when asked what he is hunting. “Gonna go shoot some pigs,” he replies. As the embodiment of the American ideal, he's practically a stereotype. Blonde, blue-eyed, handsome, straight, and with a penchant for guns, he resembles a remark comedian Daniel Tosh once made about a similar looking young man: “You’re just what Hitler intended.”
What makes the film all the more powerful is the randomness of Thompson’s crime. If his family had been depicted as terrible people, perhaps there could be some understanding of his actions. Save for a bit of smothering from his mother, some gentle ribbing from his wife, and a stern but proud father’s influence, Thompson’s family seem like very nice people. The film was shot by Laszlo Kovacs, beginning a long and fruitful collaboration with Bogdanovich. Even when the films were outright bad, as in the case of At Long Last Love, Kovacs’ images would shine. His work with Bogdanovich, as well as classics like Five Easy Pieces, Shampoo, Freebie and the Bean, Frances, Ghostbusters, Say Anything…, has always been that of a master, although some films, like The Last Movie or The Toy, have bigger problems than their cinematography. Bogdanovich often staged scenes as long takes and this film is no exception. Although shaky, likely due to the budgetary restraints, there is an ominous tracking shot through the Thompson home the night before Bobby’s killing spree.
The first kills are presented in a cold, abrupt manner. Cutting from an on-the-nose close-up of the word “DIE” to a static shot of the bedroom door, Bobby’s wife enters and the film cross-cuts between her approach and the gun being picked up. The actual depiction of the kills is forgivable. I will be the first the admit that the deaths of his wife, mother, and the delivery boy are not particularly realistic-looking, but it’s more about the idea of the deaths. This is the late 60’s after all and the kind of graphic violence that would become acceptable and common place further on in the decades to come hadn’t quite arrived yet. Except for extreme work of filmmakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis, bloodshed was relatively tame around that time. Violence was there, but makeup effects hadn’t progressed to the levels we know today. Hollywood didn’t seem to quite understand the effect a bullet can have on a victim. His wife flies back as if blown away by a shotgun. His mother, in an odd shot, stumbles into the wall in very brief slow-motion, then distractingly reverts to 24 frames again. The delivery boy falls back and dies immediately, bloodless. The smartest choice and what lends to the realism of the scene is the aftermath, where Bobby calmly and with no remorse tidies up the bodies. Most of this scene plays out in mesmerizing long takes, including a tracking shot of the floor, towels laid over bloody pools, and finally ending with his confession, typed in red ink.
His spree takes him atop an oil storage tank, giving him a bird’s eye view of a busy highway, where he calmly shoots random drivers. It’s in this scene that we see the true depths of Bobby’s sickness. He is driven to kill and no one is safe. His preparation for the killings could be misconstrued as comic if it weren’t performed with such unhysterical calm by O’Kelly. He lays out a huge amount of weaponry, five handguns, 4 rifles and his new sniper rifle in all. He even enjoys a sandwich and a soda before adjusting his rifle’s settings. I’ve always enjoyed seeing people eat in films. It’s something that's difficult to fake and his earlier scenes eating candy add to the realism of his character. He’s discovered by an employee, who promptly gets shot, and then escapes in an exciting car chase scene, ending up at the location of the film’s finale, a drive-in movie theatre.
The finale has a horrible timeless quality because of the real-life shootings in movie theatres that have taken place even now in the new millennium. Bobby makes his way behind the screen and waits for his targets to arrive. They're sitting ducks, immobile in their cars. Meanwhile, Orlok and co. are on their way to the screening. The scene unfolds realistically as it’s not apparent what is going on. Thompson is shooting people through the screen, with the bullets being economically conveyed by a zoom lens, but the situation only starts to dawn on a few members of the audience. Peter Bogdanovich could do dark material, but this is his most raw depiction of graphic violence, particularly the blood-covered victims discovering their loved ones slumped over in the drivers/passenger seats. The shot of a confused child is particularly upsetting.
The final moment, which is done as well as it possibly could and probably plays a bit better on paper, is still amazing. Thompson has come down from his hiding place and Byron, whose assistant Jenny has also been gunned down, marches toward Bobby. Bobby, disoriented from seeing Byron Orlok on the screen and in real life, turns back and forth, firing wildly. Orlok slaps him repeatedly, taking him down. The film concludes with a great time lapse shot where all of the cars have disappeared from the lot, save for Bobby’s.
Targets is often overshadowed by Bogdanovich’s subsequent work and is not even very well known. I’ll often see online reviews by critics pleading ignorance to this movie’s existence. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this film twice on the big screen. There are some minor qualities and moments that are dated, but the actions and motivations of the killer remain devastatingly relevant today. Targets introduced a new filmmaker with undeniable talent who would have his own brushes with tragedy and controversy over the course of a singular and never-to-be repeated career.