Targets (1968) BFI – Blu Ray
Although Peter Bogdanovich’s film Targets is usually categorised as a crime thriller I feel more comfortable calling it a suburban horror film. This is a chilling story of sniper Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) who goes on a killing spree: a motiveless Vietnam veteran turned psychopathic: a young, clean cut modern monster. Targets’ parallel narrative is lighter in tone. The old actor Byron Orlock (Boris Karloff playing himself) is tired of portraying movie monsters. His spree being one of continual complaints directed at Hollywood and himself. Orlock’s brand of horror now feels anachronistic for younger audiences. Eventually the old horror-maker collides with a murderous new horror-maker.
Targets bristles with fascinating ideas about generational conflict; domestic isolation; changing movie taste; reality bashing against film and how the violence of the natural world frightens us more disturbingly than the fictions of a dying supernatural one. Targets proposes that by the late sixties a horror show consciousness had distorted the American way of life. When the satisfied killer is finally caught he says “I hardly ever missed.” A stark claim that indirectly implicates a society whose gun laws make it far too easy to buy weapons and ammunition.
Targets has been seen as an anti-gun lobby protest. The film was shot in 1967 but only released in 1968 after the killing of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But today it works more as a tapping into the psyche of a country normalised by violence; contrasting depictions of 1960s paternalistic father figures and revealing the aesthetics of cineaste / writer /director Bogdanovich on what constitutes good cinema.
The scenes with Bobby’s family watching TV and sitting down to dinner have a European feel to them. This might be Claude Chabrol until the actual killings when we see how Orson Welles, trailing Hitchcock, influenced the young Bogdanovich. There are extended scenes where the bodies of mother and wife and dragged across the carpet and laid in their beds. We don’t get a cleaning up, in the manner of Psycho, but the intercutting of tracking shots, with those of Byron Orlock moving about his hotel room, is indebted to Touch of Evil. So is the overlapping of sound in the drive in movie sequence where Roger Corman’s B movie The Terror is screening while patrons are being fired at by the sniper. These twenty minutes of mayhem are an astonishing achievement and brilliantly edited despite some aural shortcomings (The director has admitted you couldn’t always hear what was being said).
What disturbs and pleases me in Targets is the survival of the two father figures. Bobby doesn’t kill his mother, wife and a delivery boy until his father (James Brown) has left the house that morning for work. We never see his dad again. The scene in which he most figures is at the shooting range. Son aims his loaded rifle at father who shouts at him to never point your gun at anyone. That backing off from an authority figure is cleverly planted in the story. Another father figure in the form of Orlock returns to chastise Bobby. With walking stick in hand he beats the young man, stops and says, “Is that what I was afraid of.” And behind the monster movie actor is the looming on screen image of Orlock in The Terror: real and imaginary paternalistic forces, standing in for Bobby’s dad, to momentarily punish a wicked child. The killer is amazed by the encounter. It’s as if unconsciously his real father had tragically arrived too late and repeated his tough warning about the handling of guns. Bogdanovich is on record as having said director Samuel Fuller worked (uncredited) on the script. It’s fascinating to speculate if Fuller suggested that the killer’s father be spared?
Not only The Terror but TV clips of Howard Hawks’s The Criminal Code, with Boris Karloff, lace the story of Targets. Sammy, the film’s fictional director, as played by Peter Bogdanovich, says that all the good films have already been made. That’s patently not true. The old Hollywood masters are a hard act to follow. Yet Peter Bogdanovich achieved wonders in Targets. A seriously good and complex achievement: reflective, gripping, occasionally funny and strangely sad: all superbly photographed by Laszlo Kovacs, who made possible much American New Wave cinema of the late sixties and early seventies.
Maybe the film’s dramatically a little too short as Bogdanovich had to adhere to producer Roger Corman’s allotted minutes for shooting. But a self confidence, conviction and sheer love of filmmaking shine through. Bogdanovich made some really excellent, if very different films, afterwards which equalled the quality of Targets but have never quite bettered his remarkable debut.
Alan Price © 2023.