Tasha: Looked at one way, Targets has many signs of a low-budget, penny-pinching Roger Corman/American International Pictures production: cheap, simple interior sets that get a lot of use; long, quiet stretches where not much happens, as the camera just follows an actor around; footage from other films cut in at length to stretch out the runtime. But writer-director Peter Bogdanovich makes each of these elements into a storytelling advantage. The plainness of the anonymous hotel room where faded film star Byron Orlock (Boris Karloff) hangs out says a lot about his personal fortunes and the anonymous, depressing side of stardom. The plainness of the family home where murderous Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) lives makes it easier to focus on the details that matter: the guns hanging on the walls, the picture of Bobby in his Army uniform. Those long, oddly peaceful stretches where Bogdanovich follows Bobby through the minutia of corpse-disposal, or setting up in various snipers’ nests, emphasizes the banality of evil, and Bobby’s curious calm composure when he’s about his work. And the characters’ various pauses to watch other movies sets up a well-realized, thought-through separation between reality and cinema, and between ages of cinema.
The film’s bifurcated structure is also unusual. Apart from a moment where Bobby spies Orlok in his sights while buying a sniper rifle, the two men don’t interact until the last few minutes of the movie, and each has his own half of the movie to contend with: Orlok dreaming of retirement and arguing with his associates about it, and Bobby planning and enacting his murder spree. Targets often feels like a double feature rather than a single film, and the full measure of the connection between the two stories doesn’t become clear until it’s over.
Keith: Tasha, I think you nail it when you suggest it’s one of those films where the big picture isn’t clear until the last moments. Bogdanovich could have set up a lot of rhyming ironies between the two protagonists. Instead, he just lets them play out on their own until crashing them together. Orlock sees the fresh-scrubbed face of evil—or maybe the face of a generation cracked by the state of the world—and isn’t sure what he’s seeing. Bobby is taken down by a spookshow bad guy he grew up watching on the late show. And the film lets us puzzle out what it all means, a matter made no less mysterious by the time we’ve spent with each man. Cheap films pad out their running time with “shoe-leather” footage, scenes of characters walking or driving from one place to another. It’s a device that stretches what might otherwise be a short film to feature length. Bobby’s story is almost all shoe-leather footage, but Bogdanovich makes the getting from one place to the next, and what he does at each stop, into a story all its own. The quiet stretches and mundane details just heighten the tension and deepen the horror. How can a man who’s just murdered his family unfold the lunch he’s packed for himself so calmly?
“Targets represents Bogdanovich's almost reluctant attempt to come out as a director responsive to the times, even if he feels greater love and nostalgia for a bygone era in cinema.”
Scott: Bogdanovich’s boldness in keeping Orlock and Bobby’s stories completely separate until the final act is really astonishing to me, and remains a testament to the freedom Corman gave his filmmakers as long as they provided the requisite commercial elements. As Keith said, there aren’t many rhymes between the two story threads, even though they combine elegantly in the third act, when the screen horror represented by Orlock crashes into the real horror represented by Bobby. Targets is about a lot of things—Vietnam and PTSD, the destabilized state of the American family and the country at large—but it’s also about the movies, and whether they adequately reflect a changing world. That conversation takes place on one end between Orlock and Bogdanovich’s Sammy, but we don’t see that Bobby’s actions are part of the same conversation until later. Making the audience wonder for so long what these stories have to do with each other is a remarkable (and remarkably effective) tack.
Noel: Tasha, I like your observation that Targets is a double-feature in disguise—like an integrated, intercut Grindhouse, with one half showing how movie-world affects the real world and one half showing the real world behind the movie-world. But while Bogdanovich and co-writer Polly Platt don’t directly “rhyme” the two halves (if anything, they keep them distinct), Orlock and Bobby are linked by something throughout the film: They both watch television, filling their idle hours with old movies and TV shows. Given Bogdanovich’s cinephilia, I’m sure all the audio and video from classic Hollywood pictures was just his way of paying homage to his influences. But it also illustrates how the images and ideas advanced by the mass media become as much a part of the atmosphere as smog.
THE ALL-AMERICAN KILLER
Scott: If you didn’t know Targets took place in the present-day, the image of the Thompson home before Bobby goes on a rampage would read more like the glossiest vision of the Eisenhower 1950s, rather than 1968. There’s something odd about Bobby and his wife still living at home with Bobby’s parents—maybe a statement about the lack of options for him after coming home, though his service is never made explicit—but otherwise, when the four sit down for dinner, the scene is as wholesome as can be. Bogdanovich suggests two things at once about the Thompsons: That a killer like Bobby can come from the most “normal” of American families, and that families like the Thompsons are straining to preserve the illusion of normalcy when, in fact, there are some very troubling issues they’re failing to address.
The word “Vietnam” is not uttered here, just as it isn’t in Taxi Driver, but it’s safe to say that Bobby served in the war and that nobody in his family wants to talk to him about it, including his wife, who knows something’s bothering him but doesn’t carve out time for him. Targets isn’t an indictment of gun culture, exactly, but Bobby’s stockpiling of weapons and ammunition causes no one to bat an eye, because he has a trusting face (white, blond, clean-cut) and goes out to the target range with his father. Bogdanovich is smart to not try to get inside Bobby’s head and give us specific reasons for his actions. He’s the All-American Killer, in capital letters, representing a family institution that’s beginning to unravel.
Tasha: One of the things that struck me most about Bobby’s gee-whiz Norman Rockwell characterization is his very visible association with familiar, American-identified brands. Keith noted that Bogdanovich shows him getting ready to shoot people on the highway by taking the time to eat lunch—and that lunch is a homemade white-bread sandwich and a Coca-Cola. Earlier, buying the ammo he’ll use in his murders, he spends the whole scene cheerfully chomping on a Baby Ruth bar. Before that, when he’s smoking in bed at home, the camera lingers on his pack of Kools. All three brands are prominently presented to a degree that would mean sponsorships and money today—if they weren’t being used to specifically associate a mass murderer as a good American consumer, and one who isn’t far off from being a kid who still likes soda pop and candy.
Nathan: What makes Targets so haunting is its willful, purposeful, and very affecting refusal to provide an easy psychological rationale for Bobby’s actions. A flashback explaining that Bobby had been molested as a child, or was a tormented homosexual who couldn’t come out to his parents would have ruined the film for me. It would have reduced the vast, terrifying, unexplainable horror at the film’s center to something cheap, reductive, and familiar, situated within the comforting realm of dime-store psychology rather than brutal reality. Instead, we’re left with the impression that Bobby’s madness and his massacre are the product of something broken and diseased within the mainstream of American culture, whether we acknowledge it or not. He looks like the boy next door, and if he’s capable of this level of bloodshed, then seemingly anyone is.
Tasha: Something else underlining that sense of potential universality, Nathan: As Bobby starts to break down, he tries to warn his wife, not by saying he’s going crazy, or contemplating murder, but with a mild, wistful line that sounds like a kid contemplating philosophy above his peer level: “I don’t know what’s happening to me. I get funny ideas.” Everybody gets “funny ideas” from time to time, and Targets implies that Bobby actually acting on them isn’t that much of a leap. Anyone who’s ever had a stray, weird impulse or a black thought should find that pretty chilling.
Noel: Scott, that first scene at the gun shop was more chilling to me this time than it ever has been before, because after so many massacres lately, Bobby’s cheery “Can I write you a check?” speaks to the strange normalcy of Americans buying their own personal arsenals. Also chilling: After Bobby’s first murders, he cleans up the crime-scene while the sound of kids playing in their yards on a sunny day can be heard just outside the window; and during the final massacre at the drive-in, Bogdanovich takes a beat to show a young boy in the front seat of his family sedan, looking over at his now-dead Dad. Both those moments really get across how wholesome Americana has been upended.
Tasha: That boy is not just looking at his dad, either. We see the kid in the lit car, sobbing, too traumatized to realize that the dome light overhead is making him another potential target. Then we slowly pan over to his dead dad. Then we hear a shot… and the sobbing abruptly stops. Brutal.
Keith: To bring it full circle, even though Vietnam never gets mentioned and it’s never completely clear that Bobby served overseas, this feels very much a movie about Vietnam and about the rift it was tearing in the country, mostly along generational lines, at the time. Bobby looks right at home in the all-American setting of his home. He even sounds right at home. (His gee-whiz-pa voice reminds me of Tony Dow from Leave It To Beaver.) But behind his eyes, he’s gone somewhere else.
THE DIRECTOR’S STAMP
Noel: Targets belongs on the list of best-ever debut films, but if the average Joe or Jane Cinephile watched Targets as his or her first Bogdanovich, I don’t think he or she would come away with any idea of what to expect from The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, Saint Jack, Mask, or anything else in the Bogdanovich filmography. But that may also be true of any Bogdanovich film. There was a time in the early 1970s, post-Doc?, when Bogdanovich was developing a style based around long takes and fast patter (which led to his tone-deaf 1974 adaptation of Henry James’ Daisy Miller), but when he stopped making hits, he backed off that approach. Instead, about all that unifies his movies is that they’re well-made, with efficient storytelling informed by a lifetime of cinephilia.
Which isn’t to say that Targets—or any other Bogdanovich picture—is impersonal. Targets in particular is about the power of movies, and expresses a faith in its iconography. That terrific mirror-image of Orlock in The Terror and Orlock at the drive-in, both lumbering toward the confused killer, is a fine visual comment on how reality and fantasy collide. And the many references to (and clips from) old movies strewn throughout Targets is like Bogdanovich’s way of announcing what he represents. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, for example, that he opens Targets the way that Orson Welles opened his first movie, Citizen Kane: with a scene of people sitting in a screening room, obscured by the light from a projector. He’s setting the bar.
Scott: You’re right, Noel, in placing Targets on the list of all-time-great debut features, and part of what’s so audacious about it is Bogdanovich’s willingness to put himself in front of the camera and reveal so much about his own passions as a cinephile. When he says, “The great movies have already been made,” that’s about the most Bogdanovich-y line imaginable, given his famed passion for directors like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and John Ford. But there’s a great wistfulness to that sentiment, too, as he sits in a room with a legendary actor whose career is passing into obsolescence. Targets represents Bogdanovich’s almost reluctant attempt to come out as a director responsive to the times, even if he feels greater love and nostalgia for a bygone era in cinema. No wonder his character gets so loaded.
Nathan: One of my favorite moments in the film, and in Bogdanovich’s work as a whole, is the scene where Byron and Sammy watch The Criminal Code and Sammy keeps shushing Byron. Byron, or rather Karloff, the actor who plays him, is actually in The Criminal Code, but Sammy nevertheless adorably, and a little obnoxiously, informs him that it was directed by Howard Hawks. Having, you know, actually starred in The Criminal Code, Byron is no doubt aware of that fact, but he humors Sammy’s obsessive cinephilia because he knows that Sammy is devoted to carrying on his legacy. Targets depicts Bogdanovich as he saw himself and how the culture would come to see him: as the dashing, droll, but reverent student of cinema, prostrating himself before the giants of Old Hollywood and patiently soaking up the wisdom of his elders.
Keith: I’ll just add that it’s important to remember that the Bogdanovich who made Targets is the same guy who used to keep a file of index cards to keep track of every movie he saw. He stopped updating the cards in 1970, presumably because he didn’t have time, what with directing his own movies. That date seems symbolic, too, since the birth of New Hollywood pretty much coincided with the death of the old. By 1970, John Ford was done, Howard Hawks had just released his last film, Hitchcock had two more movies in him, and so on. Bogdanovich kept one foot in the old world, but the new one was calling him. (Rather awesomely, Bogdanovich’s blog for Indiewire brings him full circle, back to his old movie obsessive days.)
THE CHANGING FACE OF CINEMA
Nathan: Targets provides a link between the Old Hollywood represented by Boris Karloff, the living manifestation of show business past, and the new Hollywood of director Peter Bogdanovich. The kids were taking over, and one of the fun surprises of revisiting Targets is how young and fresh Bogdanovich seems. The Peter Bogdanovich of the public imagination is an ascot-sporting middle-aged man marked by tragedy and sadness, but Targets captures him as a fresh-faced kid and semi-convincing leading man intent on making his mark. As was established in the Structure section, part of the way Bogdanovich links New and Old Hollywood is through style: raw and documentary-like for the Bobby sections, and stylized and stagebound for the Orlok sequences.
With the Bobby half of the narrative, Bogdanovich set out to capture real life in all of its complexity, randomness, and mundanity, to give a ﬁction ﬁlm the verisimilitude of the everyday as opposed to the campy, theatrical, stylized horror of Orlok’s ﬁlmography. Even more than his ﬁlm-brat peers, Bogdanovich was a student and a disciple of Old Hollywood. In Targets, Bogdanovich and Karloff make for an unbeatable team, onscreen and off, but New Hollywood would have its own stars, jittery, offbeat types like Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino, and had little use for the ancient likes of Karloff and his peers. Targets announced the arrival of a bold new talent and sensibility, but New Hollywood wouldn’t truly kick off until the release of Easy Rider, a ﬁlm made by recent graduates of Roger Corman’s makeshift ﬁlm school. Ever the good student, Bogdanovich tried to use his power and influence to get dream projects by his heroes made and released, like Orson Welles’ The Other Side Of The Wind, and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, without success. By the late 1970s, Hollywood had as little use for the egomaniacal Bogdanovich as it did for old movie stars. When The Big Red One got made, it was produced by Gene Corman, Roger’s brother.
Noel: In the featurette on the Targets DVD, Bogdanovich talks about how Sam Fuller essentially rewrote the entire script for Targets but refused to take any credit, and gave Bogdanovich a lot of advice, like telling him to put his biggest setpieces in the third act. (”Save your money for the finish, kid.”)
As you point out, Nathan, Bogdanovich has nearly always seemed like an Old Hollywood guy, even though he was right there in the mix with the New Hollywood. Maybe that’s because his commercial peak came and went so quickly. Or maybe it’s because he didn’t have the collegial relationship with his peers that Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma, and Scorsese all did. (He did form a collective of sorts with Coppola, but that didn’t go so well.) But I think the main reason why Bogdanovich still seems like an Old Hollywood guy stuck in a New Hollywood era is that he talks so much about “Sammy” and “Orson” and “making pictures.” It’s another reason why Targets seems like an anomaly in his filmography: It’s so edgy and young.
Tasha: Well, one more reason you might consider Bogdanovich an “Old Hollywood guy,” Noel, is because he emphasizes the old school so strongly in Targets. As Scott noted in the Director’s Stamp section, he puts himself onscreen in the ﬁlm, as screenwriter Sammy Michaels, grousing, “All the great ﬁlms have already been made.” His characters keep pausing throughout the feature to wistfully watch old ﬁlms. Orlok is retiring from acting out of a sense that his industry has changed and his work isn’t relevant anymore; driving through Hollywood, he looks around him and sighs, “God, what an ugly town this has become.” Every part of Targets groans over modern Hollywood and yearns for yesteryear, right up to the ending, when Orlok faces the present in the form of Bobby, and ﬁnds it pathetic and wanting—nothing to be scared of, but nothing to be impressed by, either.
Scott: Nathan and Noel made good points about Targets being partly about the changing of the guard, of the Old Hollywood represented by Boris Karloff yielding to a New Hollywood just taking shape, and Bogdanovich, with his heart in Old Hollywood and his emergent youth in New Hollywood, is looking plainly morose about it as Sammy. But ultimately, the ﬁlm strongly acknowledges that cinema must change to reﬂect the new realities seeping into the country. With Vietnam, a slew of assassinations, and dramatic shifts in the culture, for movies to pretend that they could retreat into old Karloff features would be to accept its obsolescence. Could there be any blunter statement about the need for ﬁlms to address real violence than having Bobby literally gun down audience members from the screen? A new age is coming, Targets implies, and it’s discourteously bumping aside the old one.
Nathan: As others have noted, Targets represents an atypical entry in Bogdanovich’s oeuvre, even as it displays a number of his pet themes and literally puts him front and center in the action onscreen. For me, Bogdanovich has always been something of a chameleon of a director, able to faithfully replicate the style, tone, and subject matter of his heroes, whether that meant channeling Howard Hawks at his machine-gun quickest with What’s Up, Doc? or delivering his version of a John Cassavetes film with Saint Jack. With Targets, Bogdanovich doesn’t seem to be channeling a particular filmmaker. Rather, he’s plugging into the spirit of the times and the raw, naturalistic realism that would soon come to define New Hollywood, thanks less to folks like Bogdanovich (always more of a teacher’s pet than a troublemaker) than Jack Nicholson, who unwittingly puts in an appearance here in the archival footage of The Terror.
“Targets often feels like a double feature rather than a single film, and the full measure of the connection between the two stories doesn't become clear until it's over.”
Tasha: One of the things that most struck me about Bobby that has nothing to do with the topics we’ve discussed so far is the way he handles violence. When he’s actually setting up to kill people, or cleaning up his carnage, he’s cool as a cucumber, picking people off with relaxed ease. When things get in the way of his murder spree—when someone discovers his hideout, or the cops approach, or he drops his bullets—he goes into a sweaty, panting panic. It’s as though nothing settles his anxiety anymore except murder, and the prospect of being blocked from that is terrifying. Cinema is full of casual killers, but I don’t remember one that gets this immediately rattled by any circumstance that stops him from killing, and that detail makes him feel particularly monstrous.
Noel: Then there’s the moment when Bobby’s finally caught, and he crumples into a ball like a little kid who’s just been scolded. And something else that struck me from that final scene: The way the noise and light from The Terror keeps Bobby’s potential victims from immediately recognizing the danger they’re in. That’s another way that Targets subtly comments on the way movies are always just sort of there, serving as a distraction and an unrecognized influence. It’s also another way that Bogdanovich uses The Terror cleverly, integrating the footage as Corman asked him to without just running long clips. On the whole, Targets is a great example of how to make a complex movie on the cheap, using sound design and editing to give a few weeks of shooting in limited locations a fuller feel.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion began yesterday with the keynote essay on how Targets utilizes old-fashioned horror in service of a new terror, and concludes tomorrow with an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich.