TARGETS (1968)

  • Director: Peter Bogdanovich
  • Writers: Screenplay by Peter Bogdanovich, Story by Polly Platt and Peter Bogdanovich
  • Starring: Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, Nancy Hsueh, James Brown, Sandy Baron, Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Peterson, Tanya Morgan, and Mary Jackson
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Showtime App, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Peter Bogdanovich, an acclaimed director, screenwriter, and producer, who later in his life became a prominent film historian as well, passed away a few weeks ago of complications from Parkinson’s Disease. He was probably at the more art house end of the “New Hollywood” directors who came to prominence in the 1970s, who also included Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, and Scorsese, among others. He was also a complicated guy who might not come off well, depending on the story we’re telling. The great movie-history podcast You Must Remember This did a full season on the life and career of Polly Platt, a long-time Hollywood jane-of-all-trades who was married to Bogdanovich from 1962 to 1971, when he left her on the set of The Last Picture Show for the much younger Cybill Shepherd, who ironically Platt herself had discovered and suggested he cast. He is sort of the villain of the piece in a lot of ways.

But in 1968, when Bogdanovich and Platt were still together, they collaborated on his directorial debut, Targets. This movie was directly inspired by current events (especially the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings) and came out late in the long, hot summer of 1968, when RFK and MLK were assassinated and riots broke out outside the Democratic National Convention. Perhaps it felt too much of its moment… the movie turned a profit for Bogdanovich and his producer, “Schlock King” Roger Corman (who told Bogdanovich he could make whatever movie he wanted as long as he stayed with the tiny budget), because they sold it to Paramount for decent money, but it was a box office disappointment despite positive reviews. Yet, if anything, Targets feels, unfortunately, even more timely today.

There are two primary plot-lines in the movie, which cross over with each other in the extended third act. Tim O’Kelly plays Bobby, a clean-cut insurance salesman who seems to live a quiet life with his wife (Tanya Morgan) and parents in the San Fernando Valley. He is also a gun nut who is amassing a small arsenal, but nobody seems to think this is anything but a hobby. Then one morning, for no particular reason that we see, he murders his wife and mother, then sits down at a typewriter. “I just murdered my wife and mother,” we see him type, “I know they’ll get me. But before that many more will die.” He stocks up on even more guns and ammunition, and then shoots at passing motorists for a while from the top of a freeway-side water tank, hitting several. When the police start to arrive, he flees again.

Meanwhile, aging actor Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff, in his last dramatic role, playing sort of a twisted version of himself), who specializes in cheesy Corman-style horror flicks, announces that he is retiring, much to the chagrin of everyone around him. The young director of his latest movie (Bogdanovich himself) tries to talk him out of it, but Orlok (named for the original name of the vampire in Nosferatu) insists, noting that the nightly news is more horrifying than his movies these days.. He does, however, eventually agree to make one final promotional appearance at a drive-in screening of his new movie. He wanders around a bit getting slightly drunk in the meantime, including an out-of-nowhere recitation of The Prisoner of Samarra in one unbroken three-minute take. He also trades barbs with his young assistant, Jenny. She is played by Nancy Hsueh, who fairly unusually for 1960s Hollywood is playing a character who just happens to be Asian, without that having any bearing on the plot. Hsueh was also the first Asian-American actress to play a lead role in an American TV show, on the 1967 CBS soap opera Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, until she was written off the show because the network got antsy about her character’s relationship with a white guy.

That drive-in screening descends into chaos in the movie’s final reel, as Bobby sets up behind the screen and uses it as the final stage of his killing spree. Bogdanovich cuts back and forth from the movie (scenes from the 1963 Corman-directed The Terror, which starred both Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson) to Bobby’s murders. After Orlok and Jenny arrive late, not realizing what’s happening, she is shot and wounded, and Orlok goes to confront the killer. Bobby is briefly disoriented by seeing Orlok both in front of him and giant on the screen behind him, which allows Orlok to disarm him with his cane. The police finally arrive and arrest Bobby, who looks proud of himself and comments that he “hardly ever missed.”

Targets is interesting partly because of what it isn’t, which is some sort of pulse-pounding thriller. It has us watchy as Bobby lays out all of his weapons at the top of the water tower, then eats a freakin’ sandwich, before getting around to shooting some people. Nor is it interested in giving us any kind of explanation for Bobby. We likely pick up early on that something’s wrong, but there is no big “explanation” of anything in particular that causes him to snap on that particular day. Quentin Tarantino, a big proponent of this movie over the years, has commented that it’s not so much a thriller with some social issues hidden inside than a social issues movie with a thriller hidden inside. Yet in still other ways, the whole thing somehow feels remarkably naïve. It takes the people at the drive-in seemingly forever to figure out that someone is shooting at them, and still longer for them to do anything about it. One nameless guy (played by a pre-M*A*S*H Mike Farrell) gets shot while standing in a phone booth and I swear nobody finds him for like twenty minutes of movie time.

Despite the “ripped from the headlines” nature of this movie, it doesn’t seem to think that the 1968 people in it would ever think that they might be victims of a mass shooting. It says a lot about society in 2022, maybe, that this all may feel very weird to us here. This is made more remarkable because, if this wasn’t something that was happening in society in 1968, this movie would have had no reason to be made. It feels far more like Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s super-slow, thinly-veiled character study of the Columbine killers, than it feels like, I don’t know, the sort of pulp action silliness that we usually think of Tarantino as being obsessed with.

I know I picked this movie because of Bogdanovich’s passing, but I do want to mention Polly Platt, and also recommend that You Must Remember This season about her. Platt somehow made her way into the movie business seemingly through sheer talent, despite it not being the sort of work that literally any woman was doing at the time and Platt having to take a year off college to basically hide in the attic of a friend’s house in 1960-ish Pittsburgh and have an out-of-wedlock baby. She received a wide variety of credits over the years, including writing and producing, and not only became the first ever woman admitted to the Art Director’s Guild, but eventually received her only Oscar nomination for art directing Terms of Endearment. She never directed a movie, despite numerous starts and stops, seemingly almost entirely due to sexism. 

The implosion of Platt’s marriage to Bogdanovich in the middle of shooting the movie that really put both her and him on the map, while she still kept doggedly doing her job on the movie he was directing, became the subject of such Hollywood infamy that it became the basis of the 1984 comedy Irreconcilable Differences, starring Ryan O’Neal, Shelley Long, and a young Drew Barrymore. Platt’s biggest legacy actually turned out to be her seemingly uncanny ability as a producer to discovery new talent, which spanned from Shepherd to Wes Anderson, whose debut, Bottle Rocket, she produced when nobody else would. She is also, very randomly, credited with insisting that Terms of Endearment director James L. Brooks meet with a young cartoonist whose stuff she liked, Matt Groening, leading directly to the creation of The Simpsons. Which is not where I bet you thought this review was going to end up.

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