TARGETS (1968) [9/10]

What Roger Corman said was, “I want you to take twenty minutes of Boris Karloff footage from The Terror, then I want you to shoot twenty more minutes with Boris… and then I want you to shoot another forty minutes with some other actors over ten days. I can take the twenty and the twenty and the forty and Ive got a whole new eighty-minute Karloff film. What do you say?”
— Peter Bogdanovich

More than three and a half decades after its initial (unsuccessful) release, Targets remains a cracking, entertaining and thoroughly original thriller. And, if that wasn’t enough, it also stands as a terrific inspiration to any aspiring film-maker – especially one lucky enough, like Bogdanovich, to work underneath a producer like Roger Corman.

Except there never really has been anyone in Hollywood – or anywhere else – like Corman, whose ad-hoc ‘film-school’ nurtured the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, Sayles and Jonathan Demme. While each of those auteurs came up with promising work for Corman, Targets remains the one masterpiece to have emerged under the producer’s direct auspices. Because while severe budgetary and time limitations almost always compromised even the most talented directors’ artistic visions, Bogdanovich managed to turn these ‘restrictions’ into strengths.

Working with a Fassbinderish speed and intensity, he wrote and shot the whole thing in less than three weeks for a reported $125,000. His use of Karloff is especially ingenious – resulting in arguably the horror veteran’s most powerful screen performance in what may be his finest ever film. The eighty-year-old Karloff plays himself in all but name as ‘Byron Orlok,’ an eighty-year-old horror veteran who stuns his producer by announcing his retirement: what use, he asks, are the old-style celluloid shockers in a world so full of actual horrors? This comes as especially bad news to Sammy (Bogdanovich), the hotshot young director who’d hoped to provide Orlok with fresher material via a script set in a recognisably real world.

As Orlok mulls over Sammy’s proposal, he agrees to one last personal appearance – at a drive-in cinema where his latest release is to be premiered. It’s here that Orlok comes face to face with real-life bloodshed in the form of Bobby (Tim O’Kelly), a psychotic sniper who lurks behind the screen, picking off audience members with his rifle…

One of the first American films to tackle the problem of gun violence head-on – made when Michael Moore was still in short trousers – Targets is also way ahead of its time in terms of narrative: it soon becomes clear that the (untitled) script Sammy wants Orlok to appear in is Targets, the film we’re watching unfold. Foreshadowing the likes of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Being John Malkovich, Targets could be cited as one of the first serious post-modern films in the American cinema – just as the Karloff-Bogdanovich collaboration represents a passing of the torch from the ‘old’ Hollywood to the ‘new.’

And it’s entirely appropriate that Bogdanovich (although only a so-so actor here) should be the one on the receiving end of the transaction: out of all the directors of his era, he was the one most knowledgeable and admiring of, and in direct touch with, his ‘golden-age’ predecessors. Targets pays overt tribute to (among others) Hawks, Fuller and Hitchcock, but does so with a verve and economy that transcend mere pastiche. “All the great movies have been made,” Sammy sighs – a statement which Targets goes on to emphatically disprove.

By concentrating his camera on the more humdrum corners of Hollywood, meanwhile, Bogdanovich’s film stands alongside the likes of Point Blank, Memento and Punch-Drunk Love as incidental time-capsules charting the fascinating geography of backwater Los Angeles. Several scenes at the climactic drive-in have the rough edge of documentary, all the more poignant and affecting if you know that no trace of this particular (Reseda) drive-in now exists. Then again, perhaps this is appropriate in a film in which death and obsolescence are continual presences, hovering just around the next corner…

Neil Young
23rd April, 2004
(seen 21st March : CineSide, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : public show)

TARGETS : 9/10 : USA 1968 (copyright-dated 1967) : Peter BOGDANOVICH : 90 mins

* quoted in How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime (1990) by Roger Corman and Jim Jerome.

NB – if you can’t see Targets on the big-screen, the 2003 DVD edition is strongly recommended. This features a very entertaining and informative director’s commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, in which he pays moving tribute to Karloff and acknowledges the advice he received while making the film from luminaries like Hitchcock, Hawks and, most of all, Sam Fuller.

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