Thursday, April 27, 2017

nature of the enemy

TARGETS (1968; d: Peter Bogdanovich)

Bobby Thompson has a problem.  A recent veteran of the escalating conflict in Vietnam, the clean-cut young husband (Tim O'Kelly) seems to have much on the ball, with a lovely wife and burgeoning career in insurance belying a future full of promise.  Outwardly, he displays all the attributes Thompson men have been known for.  He’s a friendly enough, tradition-minded fella, and every bit as hard-working, capable, and reliable as his antecedents.  But much like his father, Bobby keeps his true feelings at hand, just below the surface.

He looks too young to be a veteran, too fresh…too unaffected.  To see him in his parent’s living room, mom and dad still quite active and years from retirement, it’d be easy to guess him still in high school.  And that smile, boy—this kid’s got all the earmarks of an Eagle Scout, first in class.  You know, the kind who volunteers to raise the flag every morning in school and takes his hall monitor duties seriously but usually just lets you off with a warning. 

Affable, mannerly, and handsome, Bobby Thompson looks on the surface to be the all-American boy, but something hard and unmanageable swells beneath this veneer, casting shadows and envisaging actions beyond simple imagining.

We initially meet him in a gun shop near Los Angeles.  Nothing but crosshairs at first, ominous and trained on the unmistakable profile of waning horror legend, Boris Karloff (who stands near a car across the street), the camera pulls back to reveal the man behind the gun’s scope, stoically considering his target a few moments before arriving at a decision.

“I’ll take it.  I’ve always wanted a gun like this.  It’s a beauty.”

“Yeah, sure is.  Hey, you see, that’s Byron Orlock over there.”

“I thought he looked familiar.”

Fresh-faced, wholesome, and wholly inscrutable, Tim O'Kelly, a seemingly novice and unlikely actor, is somehow perfect as Bobby Thompson.

Orlock, introduced in the opening moments (a role in which Karloff is essentially playing himself), once struck fear into the hearts of millions.  Now, of course, people know what to expect after forty-odd years of Byron Orlock pictures.  It appears the once-great star has been permanently reduced to Tinseltown's go-to spooky old man—kept around as a living shrine to Hollywood's golden age, but clearly outmoded. The gothic horrors and dark mysteries for which he became famous are now old hat and the fodder of late-night television—and can hardly compete with the very real nightmares playing out on the day-to-day evening news.

The significance of his character and storyline are unclear at first, seemingly hinged to the distinctly separate (if parallel) plight of Bobby Thompson in what feels like two different movies on a collision course.  This is partly due to producer, Roger Corman, who agreed to let Peter Bogdanovich make whatever film he wanted, just so long as it included Boris Karloff, who owed Corman 2 days of work (and stayed on for 5).  The resulting script, which Bogdanovich wrote with then-wife Polly Platt (with significant input from writer/filmmaker Sam Fuller), juggles and balances the unique dichotomy admirably.

Orlock, fresh out of bed and hung over, gets a taste of his own medicine.
As for Karloff, the still quite formidable performer found a role he could sink his teeth into, playing off his frustrations with Hollywood and the modern world, playing himself.  He would speak very highly of his work on TARGETS in his remaining days, which were sadly numbered (passing away less than 6 months after its release).

As Orlock, his story begins as a small group finishes watching his latest movie for the first time, just prior to its scheduled release (THE TERROR, another Karloff vehicle which Corman required Bogdanovich to use scenes from)His young director, Sammy (played by Bogdanoich himself), has written a new script specifically for Orlock, a unique modern thriller he thinks will revitalize the aging star’s career (and the few vague lines concerning this script might well be referring to TARGETS itself).  But Orlock, fed up with it all, has yet to read it and abruptly decides to move back to England, causing quite a stir when he goes a step further and cancels a planned appearance at a local drive-in the following evening, where his new movie is premiering. 

All points converge at the Reseda Drive-In.

Meanwhile, nestled away in a nearby suburb, Bobby Thompson returns home—his parents’ home—where he and his wife, Iliene (Tanya Morgan) have been living and saving for their own place.

Entering the house casually, unannounced, Bobby silently appraises the living room in which he grew up, taking his time with every photo and detail as though a stranger.  A faint yet buoyant chorus drifts in from down the hall, setting the table for supper, unaware of the curious movements of this familiar intruder. 

He repeats the peculiar ritual in his bedroom, vacantly accounting for his own interests and achievements, mystified. 

During dinner with the family, Bobby tells them of today's excitement, of seeing Byron Orlock out on the street.

"Hey, guess who I saw coming home?"


"Byron Orlock."



"Did he scare you?"

"Yeah!  No.  I was driving towards the freeway and I saw him on the sidewalk talking."

The next morning, the Thompson men are up early and doing what they're best at, shooting targets out at the range.  It's clear both father and son take their marksmanship very seriously.

“Deer season opens next week.  Huh, whad-d’ya say?”


“Yeah, it’ll be good for us.  Get away from the girls for a couple of days.  Getting flabby…Hey, maybe we’ll ask Pete and Tim along.  Just four guys?”

“Sounds great, sir.”

“Okay, we’ll do it.”



“First one misses sets ‘em up.”

And when dad finally misses, Bobby quickly takes aim, besting his father—and is unable to hide the smirk lining his features.

“Damn it.”

As dad takes the aggrieved stroll out to the row of cansthis particular walk sticking in his craw more than mostBobby reloads.  Perhaps mulling over the lasting sting of that smirk, the older man starts setting them back up on their perch, never imagining his boy would be lining him up for a clean kill.

“Hey!  What are you doing?!  You know better that.  That’s just how accidents happen!  Never point a gun at anyone!”

“Sorry…I wasn’t thinking.”

That night as Ilene gets ready for her shift at work, Bobby asks her to call in sick, getting as close as he will to a plea for help.

 “I want to talk to you.”

“Hmmm, what about?”

“I don’t know what’s happening to me.”


“Well, I get funny ideas…”

“Like what?  Oh, you mean like I shouldn’t go to work tonight.”

“You don’t think I can anything, do you?”

When Ilene returns home later that night, she finds Bobby awake, the bright burn of a cigarette drag startling her in the dark room.  

"Leave the light off."

"Bobby...what's going on?"

"Please leave the light off."

TARGETS, Peter Bogdanovich's first film (produced 3 years before his masterpiece, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW), was loosely based on the 1966 shooting rampage in which former marine Charles Whitman killed 16 people and injured 31, most of them from a sniper's nest high above the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. While it wasn't the first ever such case, it was modern America's introduction to the phenomenon of the mass shooting. TARGETS would be its first representation in the movies.

"What are you typing?"

In one of the most astonishing set pieces ever witnessed by 1968 audiences, Bobby's fantasies become reality.

And so the violence begins, a cold, methodical massacre (told from the perspective of the killer) that leaves audiences absolutely stunned and in awe of the prodigious talents of its young filmmaker.  

With TARGETS, Bogdanovich wisely avoids attempting to explain the inexplicable, opting instead to simply capture it as it would happen, framing itmuch like his friend and mentor, Alfred Hitchcock, might—in a manner intended to catch its audience flat-footed.  

"Ilene!  Bobby!"
Of course, what had once shocked the nation to its core has now become all but routine, even tedious, often eliciting a perfunctory, "oh, here we go again", because what else is there to say at this point?   

And after all the names and faces and stories become knownand we learn our monster had been a good neighbor and loving husband and son all alongwe wind up right back where we began, with the same unanswerable question.