Retro-View: Targets (1968)
I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. – Texas sniper Charles Whitman, 1966
“Happiness is a warm gun” – John Lennon, 1968
Hard to believe that I finally saw Peter Bogdanovich’s acclaimed debut film after all these years. I’m happy — actually sad — to say it’s as effecting today as it might have been in the violent year of 1968. And timely, since our nation is still enthralled by NRA propaganda, still accepting of the 80 deaths a day by bullets and worse, favoring libertine gun laws that enable South Of The Border drug cartels to spread their own special form of terror through Mexico and beyond. The subject matter might seem unusual for Bogdanovich, who was in some ways the first proto-Quentin Tarantino, a film fanatic who worshipped Jerry Lewis, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Otto Preminger and Orson Welles. He started out as a journalist and a chronicler of “auteur” Hollywood directors during the explosion of film as a pop cultural force and college courses in the 1960’s; he eventually worked for Roger Corman on THE WILD ANGELS (1966), who gave him the chance to finally direct his own script, TARGETS (co-written by Polly Platt and an uncredited Samuel Fuller), a bleak, yet vibrant sniper-shot view of the intersection at Old Hollywood and New Cinema.
Two stories run simultaneously, the first dealing with the retirement of one Byron Orlock, the screen’s great boogeyman naturally assayed by Boris Karloff in one of his last roles. You have to give Bogdanovich major props for giving Karloff such a wonderful cinematic swan song. Orlock feels that the world has gotten so scary and violent that his films are “outmoded and old-fashioned.” Bogdanovich himself plays the eager director trying to get him to do one more picture. There’s a subtle, perceptive moment when Orlock’s fawning agent admits to him with a wistful smile, “Did you know that I graduated from Princeton suma cum laude? I majored in English Literature.” Karloff is always a joy to watch and this great typecast actor has the best role of his film career since THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. He even gets drunk, recants a spooky tale about Death, and startles himself in the mirror. Although he only owed two days to Corman, Karloff shot for five and refused any extra salary. He knew this part would be a keeper, and in this age, Karloff would have had a nice career respect and resurgence instead of shooting ISLE OF THE SNAKE PEOPLE. Still, he certainly remained a cultural icon all the way up to his death in 1969. Yet TARGETS sub-text is about this disposable urban society that reduces people to products and depersonalization (or anomie if you want to get all sociological) — which leads to the tragic and violent events in the second story weaving through the film.
That second arc follows a clean-cut, yet bland young man named Tommy (the excellent Tim O’Kelly) who can’t express himself in any way except through shooting rifles with his father. His home life is an anti-septic suburban nightmare world of neutral colors and “The Joey Bishop Show.” Like Travis Bickle, he’s got some funny ideas but can’t explicate and nobody is listening to him, especially his pretty vacant wife. Bogdanovich wisely avoids armchair psychology and simply presents Tommy in action as he slowly loses it and finds himself stocking his trunk with a myriad of weaponry, driving around Los Angeles aimlessly as he nibbles on a candy bar. That about says it all.
The film’s two stories cleverly twine together at the climax at the drove-in premiere of Orlock’s latest, THE TERROR — Corman also demanded footage be used from this incomprehensible 1963 AIP film, but it’s fascinating to see Jack Nicholson sharing scenes with Boris Karloff and Dick Miller within the film directed by Bogdanovich. This collusion of film generations is what makes TARGETS such an important cultural document of the era. There’s also the metaphoric implications as Tommy uses the drive-in screen as his shield and tower — the similarities to Texas sniper Charles Whitman are obvious and chilling. These shootings are random, disturbing, with moments such as a young boy crying silent next to his dead bullet-hit father in their car. The great Lazlo Kovacs did the eerie, impressive cinematography, which vacillates between the static compositions of Tommy’s plastic home and a gliding camera when he starts pulling the trigger. Ultimately, Tommy is pathetic not monstrous, and after Byron Orlock confronts him, the boogeyman actor wonders how he could have been afraid.
TARGETS received much critical praise upon release and it definitely launched Peter Bogdanovich into his own director’s chair; Paramount distributed due to Robert Evans being a fan, which led to THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971). I think this is Bogdanovich’s best movie, helmed with style and confidence, filled with a cine-lover’s passion, yet accurately reflecting the chaotic assassination year 1968, which took out Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy among others. If any movie could be used to rebutt the propaganda of second-amendment zealots, TARGETS is the one. Not surprisingly, these are the most startling gun shots I’ve ever heard in a film. America still hears them every day.