Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)
Peter Bogdanovich is one of those directors who, it always seemed to me, generally flew under the radar where the public was concerned—you don’t often hear his name brought up in conversation about great directors, or at least I don’t—but is quite beloved of the critics. Six of Bogdanovich’s pictures appear in my collection of top-thousand lists (I currently have eleven on my spreadsheet), including Targets (which appears on three, including the one I consider canonical, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s. Interesting note: two of the other six also, and only, appear on Rosenbaum’s list: 1990’s Texasville and 2002’s The Cat’s Meow). I finally got round to watching it a few days ago, and I found it quite enjoyable; I’m not sure it belongs on a thousand-best list (though I have rated it such that that option remains open to me, at least until I stumble upon another 250 or so four-star-and-above movies), but it is definitely the kind of slow-burn thriller that fans of the subgenre will be well-rewarded for seeking out.
Two parallel storylines play out here. In one, Byron Orlok (the mighty Boris Karloff), an aging B-movie actor, has just completed a movie he loathes. (I found it very amusing that the footage of the film in question was all lifted from Roger Corman’s The Terror, which also starred a young Jack Nicholson, and really is kind of a silly thing.) At the screening, the studio head (hammed up wonderfully by Yours, Mine, and Ours‘ Arthur Peterson) pushes Orlok to stick with writer/director Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich himself) for one more picture—at which point Orlok announces his retirement, much to Sammy’s dismay; not only did he write the lead specifically for Orlok, but he’s also romantically involved with Orlok’s personal assistant, Jenny (House Calls‘ Nancy Hsueh), and fears Orlok will haul her back to England with him. The studio has already committed Orlok to appear live at a drive-in theatre where the new movie is premiering a couple of nights hence, and they pressure him to make the appearance, hoping it will be a gateway into convincing him to stay. Meanwhile, Bobby Thompson (The Grasshopper‘s Tim O’Kelly in one of only three big-screen appearances he would ever make), a sociopathic sort who is kind and happy outwardly but seething with misplaced rage inside, is scouting out places around Los Angeles to shoot random people from while bulking out his gun collection on his father’s tab.
It’s possible that some of my misgivings about the film have to do with the various summaries of it I’ve read, which give away much more of the second half than does that synopsis—and, more importantly, telegraph the idea that these two storylines are going to intersect much more directly than they do. Don’t go into it expecting some sort of apocalyptic clash and you’ll probably be more satisfied with the ending, which is anticlimactic and thoughtful and leaves you with a number of questions you will need to think about and answer for yourself. To me, that is one of the hallmarks of a strong thriller, and I appreciated it more than I would have that big apocalyptic clash, to be honest. But since I was expecting it, well, you know. Still, a decently-paced movie with solid performances from its principles, lensed by a director who knew what he was doing better than most? Certainly worth an hour and a half or so of your time. *** ½