By Scott Ross
Remembered chiefly, if at all, as one of the last appearances of Boris Karloff, and the writing and directing debut of Peter Bogdanovich, Targets is one of those movies—Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s Avanti! is a good example of the type—whose reputations have slowly grown more burnished but which deserve to soar far, far higher. (While made for just under $130,000, the picture earned no money to speak of on its rather nervous original Paramount release.)
The circumstances that led to the movie were hardly propitious: Karloff owed Roger Corman two days’ work; Corman wanted to give Bogdanovich (who had served as A.D. on The Wild Angels) a chance to direct, and made the offer of $125,000 to the young tyro contingent on the actor’s time and the use of 20 minutes from the Corman/Karloff 1963 collaboration The Terror. Bogdanovich, who was fascinated by the 1966 Charles Whitman University of Texas murder spree, eventually hit on the notion of weaving a Whitman-like scenario with that of an aging horror star’s decision to retire from a business to which he feels increasingly irrelevant. Bogdanovich concocted the story in the collaboration of his then wife Polly Platt, and—in an act of exceptional largesse—was essentially given a re-write of the screenplay by Sam Fuller, who refused credit on the grounds that the movie would cease to belong to the filmmaker if Fuller’s name became associated with it. Shot in late 1967 in 23 days—of which five were set aside for Karloff’s scenes—and with a combination of extraordinary economy, remarkable intelligence, and startlingly creative style, the resulting movie was (on the recommendation of Robert Evans) eventually picked up for distribution by Paramount. Unfortunately, the 1968 murders of Marin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy spooked the studio, which unceremoniously dumped Targets on the market, where, despite extremely good press, it languished. It did lead, indirectly, to Bogdanovich receiving an offer from Bert Schneider and BBS for a follow-up, which the filmmaker delivered three years later with his adaptation of the Larry McMurtry novel The Last Picture Show.
All of this is, in a sense, by the way. One need know nothing about the movie’s background to appreciate its keen perception about what was in the late-‘60s American air. Targets carries with in a sense of mounting dread that quite literally explodes in its young anti-hero’s sniping of the L.A. Freeway and a local drive-in theatre where, in a coincidence that both stretches credulity and fulfills Aristotle’s unities, Karloff’s Byron Orlok is to make a personal appearance—his last public hurrah before drifting gracefully into retirement. In a scene that strongly recalls Orson Welles’ recitation of the parable of the scorpion and the frog in Mr. Arkadin, Orlok relates the Somerset Maugham version of the fable “Appointment in Samarra” for a clueless disc-jockey (effectively limned by Sandy Barron in a truly awful wig) but, despite Bogdanovich’s penchant for drawing on his obsession with American movies, nothing else in Targets remotely resembles the work of anyone else. The direction, beautifully abetted by László Kovács’ effective deep-focus cinematography, is astonishingly assured; cool, documentarian in its observation, crisply and intelligently edited by the filmmaker: PB’s work on this movie gives the lie to those who claimed, a few years later, that he was capable only of hommage and imitation. It was never a fair assessment, and on the evidence of Targets, is patently absurd. It was chic to knock Bogdanovich as much because of his success as his predilection for the work of Ford, Hawks, Welles and Fuller and, unfortunately, his arrogance in the face of success contributed to the glee at his eventual, perhaps inevitable, downfall as any particular quality—or lack of it—in his pictures.
Because his direction does not call attention to itself in overt, ostentatious ways, it’s possible to miss just how ballsy some of Bogdanovich’s work in Targets really is. This is especially notable in a long, sustained sequence, done in a single set-up, in the home of the serial killer on the night before his emotionally detached acts of madness. Tim O’Kelly’s Bobby Thompson lives, with his wife, in the home of his parents, a stifling suburban purgatory of whites and blues as oppressively hideous as the world of warm earth-tones Orlok floats in and with which the filmmaker subtly contrasts it. Dad (James Brown) is an undemonstrative martinet whom Bobby always calls “Sir,” Mom (Mary Jackson) a quiet, complacent nag and wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan) a pretty, vacuous nonentity. This is not to suggest they deserve what happens, and Bobby’s own smiling, outward pleasantness allows no one into whatever secrets roil in the brain beneath his neat, boy-next-door haircut. Bogdanovich begins the sequence with Bobby wandering into the living room where the family sits, enraptured by the bleating inanities of Joey Bishop and Regis Philbin; follows as the elder Thompsons go off to bed and as Bobby and Ilene drift into their bedroom for a softly desultory, plaintively non-communicative talk while she prepares for her night-shift with Pacific Bell; and concludes as Bobby walks back into the den where he sits, bathed once more in the blue phosphor-dot narcotic of the tube and enveloped in his own, unreadable thoughts before moving outside to his car, where he selects a pistol from the terrifying mobile arsenal carried in the trunk. It’s a strikingly sustained piece of filmmaking, and acting, but, while it is a virtuoso gamble marred only by the subtle edit Bogdanovich was forced to interject near the end (and which is only noticeable if one knows it’s there) it is never grandiose. It does not call attention to itself, as even the most celebrated such sequences—including those in Welles’ own work—routinely do. It contains a wealth of detail, and portent, its sense of futility and of the unknowable as chilling as they are heartbreaking.
Similarly, the guerilla-style sequences on the Freeway (where Bogdanovich, like every other filmmaker of the time, was denied permission to film) are astonishing in their fulsomeness and detail. There is, inevitably, a certain sense of cinematic déjà vu in Bobby’s choice of elevation for his immersion into sharp-shooting; those high, white Chevron tanks instantly recall the quite literally inflammatory climax of White Heat and Cagney’s Cody Jarrett shouting, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” But Bobby is no shouter; his trigger finger, and that sharp intake of breath he habitually engages in just before a shot, speak far more effectively, and volubly, than his mild voice ever could. If one wished to, one might argue vociferously with the fact that Targets never attempts to explicate this amiable young madman’s actions. Yet his daily existence—and, perhaps, that photo of him in full military regalia on the wall of his home—suggest that such easy, didactic psychoanalysis would be beside the point, if not indeed facile, or even slightly obscene. I would argue that it is in this avoidance of any neat anatomizing of Bobby Thompson’s madness that Bogdanovich succeeds better than nearly anyone else of his time in depicting an America falling apart at the seams; the style of filmmaking feels, despite the 45 years that separate our time from this movie’s, eerily contemporary, and prescient. Had Targets been released, say, in 1973, it might have been hailed for its lack of exploitation, its aesthetic barrenness and its excoriating depiction of literally senseless violence. (The movie’s “R” rating now seems not merely harsh, but an ironic joke; you’ll see more blood and gore on an average evening’s half-hour of network mayhem than in the entire 90 minutes of Target’s running time.)
O’Kelly is so exceptional an actor as Bobby that one is left stunned at his inability to parlay his terrifyingly normal performance into a career. (He was, briefly, Dano on Hawaii 5-0 before being replaced by James McArthur.) Slim, boyishly attractive in a bland, All-American way, thrifty with his effects, and remarkably graceful of movement, O’Kelly could have been Gidget’s boyfriend, or the young married professional on the other side of your backyard fence. His very non-threatening demeanor is, in context, terrifying in its ingratiating normality. This, you feel as you watch, is where mass murderers come from; not the streets, or the world of gangland, or in the form of scruffy, shifty-eyed crazies mumbling to themselves as they pass you on the sidewalk, but the abstract ticky-tacky of affluent stratification. His smiling comment, when he is finally handcuffed by the police: “Hardly ever missed, did I?”
Bogdanovich is quite good in his own role, as Orlok’s young writer-director Sammy Michaels (the name itself is a tribute to Fuller.) Despite his self-deprecating remarks about his own performance, he gives a nicely-judged portrayal, especially in his believable drunkenness in Karloff’s bungalow the night before Bobby’s spree. When he sighs, “All the good movies have been made,” it’s hard to disagree with his assessment, even as this movie is belying that statement. The attractive Nancy Hsueh gives a good account of Orlok’s exasperated secretary, and there is nice support from Arthur Peterson and Monte Landis as contemporary studio types. Karloff, of course, is everything you could ask: Gentle yet edgy, eloquently bitter, witty, and exhausted. His confrontation with Bobby at the climax has a hypnotic inevitability about it, even as his action, and its consequence, is in its way as shocking as the acts of murders Bobby commits.
A word of praise has to be extended to Bogdanovich for serving as his own, un-credited editor, and to Verna Fields, Targets’ sound editor, for the exceptional work she did layering onto the movie’s soundtrack all the sounds of the external world excluded when the filmmakers shot so much of it silent. There is a Wellesian fullness to her work here, and you’d never guess, unless you knew, that the rich, expressive panoply of street noises, highway clamor, alternately tinny and reverberant drive-in movie speaker replication and high-powered rifle shots would, but for Fields’ artistry, not have otherwise existed.
Like Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent in Fright Night 20 years later, Orlok knows his time has passed, that he has become a living anachronism. “Oh, Sammy,” he sighs. “What’s the use? Mr. Boogey Man, King of Blood they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream.” Or did, once. Now he’s “high camp.” He goes on: “My kind of horror isn’t horror anymore… No one’s afraid of a painted monster.” No, the monsters of 1967—the monsters now—were, and are, seldom outré. Our rough beasts do not reside in castles, or lumber out of swamps, or slouch toward Bethlehem. They walk among us, mowing the grass on Saturday morning, wearing what looks and feels and smells like human skin, pretending to be our neighbors.
In a moment of quite understandable ennui as his limousine is ferried to the drive-in, Orlok gazes forlornly out the window at the depressingly commercial streets of L.A. and murmurs, “Gosh, what an ugly town this has become.” He had no idea how much worse it would become, locally and nationwide. The horror was only in its infant stage.
Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross