#47 — Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)
Sometimes stories from the heyday of Roger Corman’s low-budget productions–when he was regularly able to attract highly skilled filmmakers who needed a break and didn’t have the option of cheapo homemade digital production to get it–sound like inspired challenges from some fictional competition reality show designed to cull out the individual most deserving of the title “America’s Next Top Director.” For example, when Corman hired respected film writer Peter Bogdanovich for his very first directorial effort, the famously frugal producer told the twentysomething upstart he could do whatever he wanted with the film, as long as he followed two necessary instructions: the film had to come in under budget, and Bogdanovich needed to cast Boris Karloff, who was contractually obligated to work two more days for Corman. The latter condition surely was no burden for Bogdanovich, who had an abiding love for bygone American film. In fact, drawing on the weight of his assigned star’s history helped inspire a film that was an ideal expression of Bogdanovich’s preferences, with Old Hollywood essentially rescuing a terrorized movie audience from the carnage inflicted by modern cinema.
The film Bogdanovich made was entitled Targets. Written with his creative partner Polly Platt (with vital but uncredited punching up by Samuel Fuller), the film casts Karloff as aging film star Byron Orlock. The actor is openly pondering retirement, over the protests of various members of his inner circle, all of whom count on him as a dwindling but still significant meal ticket. As Orlock tries to extricate himself from the treacherous territory of Hollywood need and expectation, the film splits its focus to find a young man with the all-American name Bobby Thompson, played by Tim O’Kelly. In a carefully unhurried narrative progression, Bobby secures a rifle, the film filling with a dread that culminates in the expected nightmare. He kills his family and then proceeds to start taking out strangers, shooting onto a highway to kill random motorists. As the police pursue him, Bobby slips away to a local drive-in movie theater, positioning himself behind the screen, his gun barrel pointed through a slit in the fabric, ready to fire away during a showing of one of Orlock’s films. The film stories of both Orlock and Thompson come to an end together, joined by a marvelous, inspired visual joke.
Karloff was in obvious agony while making the film, afflicted with arthritis and emphysema. His mobility was severely impaired as he had braces on both legs and was down to one half of one lung. He only lived for about another year after completing his work in Targets, and the struggles he was enduring show up in the work, particularly in the general weariness of his character. But there’s also a clear pride radiating through the work, a sense of an old pro being properly valued, perhaps for the first time in years. On the surface, the material is the height of exploitation, but Karloff takes it seriously, and Bogdanovich properly honors that through his notably controlled and nuanced direction. The film is marked by very different tones in its two distinct sides, making it all the more impressive that a first-time director was able to keep it perfectly balanced, even as he cuts between the harshness of one plot to the sly satire of the other.