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Targets: The Bogdanovich-Corman connection

It’s impossible to ignore the amount of thought and resourcefulness enmeshed in every frame

Targets: Peter Bogdanovich’s first film was also one of Boris Karloff’s last.
Targets: Peter Bogdanovich’s first film was also one of Boris Karloff’s last.

It was a marriage made in single-screen heaven, the night Peter Bogdanovich made the acquaintance of Roger Corman in a Los Angeles movie theater. Bogdanovich was quick to pick the low-budget producer-director out of the crowd and in no time, the alchemist of schlock was waxing admiratively over the young critic’s essays on film for Esquire.

Targets (1968)

An internship on The Wild Angels led to Bogdanovich’s directorial debut, Targets, a Boris Karloff thriller in need of a little creative Frankenstein stitchwork. Looking for a finished product that clocked in at around 90 minutes, Corman assigned Bogdanovich free artistic reign so long as the following three requirements were met: 20 minutes of new footage featuring Karloff — he owed Corman 2 days of work — mixed with 40 minutes of fresh material, plus a 20-minute hunk from an earlier Corman/Karloff collaboration, The Terror. The result: one of the most audacious directorial debuts since Bogdanovich’s friend and mentor Orson Welles reclaimed cinema the day he introduced the world to Charles Foster Kane. And it couldn’t have been done without the help of Jerry Lewis and Sam Fuller.

Bogdanovich, who died earlier this month at the age of 82, named horror and science fiction as his two least favorite genres. Set during the Napoleonic wars, The Terror was a horror thriller that the budding director had no intention of prolonging. He cast Karloff as a faded horror icon — “I couldn’t even play a straight part decently anymore. I’ve been doing the other thing too long” — and used the recycled footage to bookend Targets. Karloff plays Karloff, but with one exception: his character walks away from showbiz in mid-dailies. In reality, the word “retirement” wasn’t in the actor’s vocabulary. Nor did “vampire” make his lexicography — that was Bela’s bag. It was with perverse delight that his character was named Byron Orlock, in part due to its similar cadence as well as an asynchronous nod to Nosferatu’s “Count Orlock,” the cinema’s first bloodsucker.

Orlock’s final days are parallelled with those of a mass murderer loosely modeled after Charles Whitman, an all-American family man dubbed the “Texas Tower Sniper.” After spending the final moments of his life in a college clock tower picking off civilians with a high-powered rifle, the clean-cut NRA poster child kills himself. We’ve seen it done before — two parallel storylines building to an inevitable climactic convergence — but seldom with such historically connotative reverberations. Polly Platt, production designer and the first Mrs. Bogdanovich, contributed to the story. Peter took sole screenplay credit, but not without first running it past his friend and America’s foremost cinematic maverick, a man who has taight me more about picture-making than Martin Scorsese: Sam Fuller. In just three hours, Fuller gave the film a rigorous rewrite, including the impetus behind the capper, the startling moment when classical horror and modern horror collide head-on in one shot.

Bogdanovich wanted very much to bypass American International Pictures, the schlock-peddling studio responsible for many Corman releases, and aim for theatrical distribution through a Hollywood major. One of Jerry Lewis’s former secretaries who was working at Paramount arranged for the film to be screened for then-studio head Robert Evans. In the time it took for the film to make it to Paramount, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and studios started shying away from violent subject matter. The film received a limited release and was written off.

Watching Targets, it’s impossible to ignore the amount of thought and resourcefulness enmeshed in every frame. In line with Fritz Lang’s treatment of the banality of evil, there’s no musical score to guide audience emotions. Borrowing another page from Lang, Bogdanovich proves a firm believer in the notion that “the sound and the picture should do different things.” Varying color schemes were applied to each of the stories: the Orlock segments are autumn hued, while the sniper’s life plays out in cool tones. It was against the law to film without a permit, so all of the freeway scenes were shot guerilla-style. To further cut corners, the freeway killings were filmed silent, with audio later dubbed by the film’s sound editor (and future envy of the cutting room), Verna Fields. Corman alumni and yet another future superstar, László Kovács (Shampoo, New York, New York, My Best Friend’s Wedding) added to the ambition with a pair of five-minute unbroken takes.

Orlock notes, “All the good movies have been made.” It’s a sentiment Bogdanovich echoed and spent the greater portion of his career as a filmmaker trying his best to dispel. When it came to his passion, he was the man who knew too much, a point of arrogance that didn’t sit well with either critics and audiences. But at some point or another, everybody that ever worked for him, whoever loved him, whoever hated his guts, envied Peter Bogdanovich. And contrary to popular belief, Bogdanovich’s career didn’t cease to exist after Paper Moon. The back-to-back release of Saint Jack and They All Laughed moved the director to an even higher realm of cinematic enlightenment. In a perfect world, Bogdanovich’s output would have doubled, but all the bad press caused the audience to lose interest. If you only recognize the name from his work before the camera on The Sopranos, I can’t urge you enough to take a look at Targets and work your way through his filmography. Only then can you get a sense of what we the viewers lost.

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Targets: Peter Bogdanovich’s first film was also one of Boris Karloff’s last.
Targets: Peter Bogdanovich’s first film was also one of Boris Karloff’s last.

It was a marriage made in single-screen heaven, the night Peter Bogdanovich made the acquaintance of Roger Corman in a Los Angeles movie theater. Bogdanovich was quick to pick the low-budget producer-director out of the crowd and in no time, the alchemist of schlock was waxing admiratively over the young critic’s essays on film for Esquire.

Targets (1968)

An internship on The Wild Angels led to Bogdanovich’s directorial debut, Targets, a Boris Karloff thriller in need of a little creative Frankenstein stitchwork. Looking for a finished product that clocked in at around 90 minutes, Corman assigned Bogdanovich free artistic reign so long as the following three requirements were met: 20 minutes of new footage featuring Karloff — he owed Corman 2 days of work — mixed with 40 minutes of fresh material, plus a 20-minute hunk from an earlier Corman/Karloff collaboration, The Terror. The result: one of the most audacious directorial debuts since Bogdanovich’s friend and mentor Orson Welles reclaimed cinema the day he introduced the world to Charles Foster Kane. And it couldn’t have been done without the help of Jerry Lewis and Sam Fuller.

Bogdanovich, who died earlier this month at the age of 82, named horror and science fiction as his two least favorite genres. Set during the Napoleonic wars, The Terror was a horror thriller that the budding director had no intention of prolonging. He cast Karloff as a faded horror icon — “I couldn’t even play a straight part decently anymore. I’ve been doing the other thing too long” — and used the recycled footage to bookend Targets. Karloff plays Karloff, but with one exception: his character walks away from showbiz in mid-dailies. In reality, the word “retirement” wasn’t in the actor’s vocabulary. Nor did “vampire” make his lexicography — that was Bela’s bag. It was with perverse delight that his character was named Byron Orlock, in part due to its similar cadence as well as an asynchronous nod to Nosferatu’s “Count Orlock,” the cinema’s first bloodsucker.

Orlock’s final days are parallelled with those of a mass murderer loosely modeled after Charles Whitman, an all-American family man dubbed the “Texas Tower Sniper.” After spending the final moments of his life in a college clock tower picking off civilians with a high-powered rifle, the clean-cut NRA poster child kills himself. We’ve seen it done before — two parallel storylines building to an inevitable climactic convergence — but seldom with such historically connotative reverberations. Polly Platt, production designer and the first Mrs. Bogdanovich, contributed to the story. Peter took sole screenplay credit, but not without first running it past his friend and America’s foremost cinematic maverick, a man who has taight me more about picture-making than Martin Scorsese: Sam Fuller. In just three hours, Fuller gave the film a rigorous rewrite, including the impetus behind the capper, the startling moment when classical horror and modern horror collide head-on in one shot.

Bogdanovich wanted very much to bypass American International Pictures, the schlock-peddling studio responsible for many Corman releases, and aim for theatrical distribution through a Hollywood major. One of Jerry Lewis’s former secretaries who was working at Paramount arranged for the film to be screened for then-studio head Robert Evans. In the time it took for the film to make it to Paramount, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and studios started shying away from violent subject matter. The film received a limited release and was written off.

Watching Targets, it’s impossible to ignore the amount of thought and resourcefulness enmeshed in every frame. In line with Fritz Lang’s treatment of the banality of evil, there’s no musical score to guide audience emotions. Borrowing another page from Lang, Bogdanovich proves a firm believer in the notion that “the sound and the picture should do different things.” Varying color schemes were applied to each of the stories: the Orlock segments are autumn hued, while the sniper’s life plays out in cool tones. It was against the law to film without a permit, so all of the freeway scenes were shot guerilla-style. To further cut corners, the freeway killings were filmed silent, with audio later dubbed by the film’s sound editor (and future envy of the cutting room), Verna Fields. Corman alumni and yet another future superstar, László Kovács (Shampoo, New York, New York, My Best Friend’s Wedding) added to the ambition with a pair of five-minute unbroken takes.

Orlock notes, “All the good movies have been made.” It’s a sentiment Bogdanovich echoed and spent the greater portion of his career as a filmmaker trying his best to dispel. When it came to his passion, he was the man who knew too much, a point of arrogance that didn’t sit well with either critics and audiences. But at some point or another, everybody that ever worked for him, whoever loved him, whoever hated his guts, envied Peter Bogdanovich. And contrary to popular belief, Bogdanovich’s career didn’t cease to exist after Paper Moon. The back-to-back release of Saint Jack and They All Laughed moved the director to an even higher realm of cinematic enlightenment. In a perfect world, Bogdanovich’s output would have doubled, but all the bad press caused the audience to lose interest. If you only recognize the name from his work before the camera on The Sopranos, I can’t urge you enough to take a look at Targets and work your way through his filmography. Only then can you get a sense of what we the viewers lost.

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Comments
5

I was still in middle school when Targets played our local drive-in, but there had been a big feature about it in Famous Monsters magazine and I was dying to see it - my folks weren't interested in taking me, so I somehow talked my older brother and his friend into sneaking me into the drive-in with them. It's been one of my favorite movies ever since, and it's a thrill to have on DVD, with a Bogdanovich commentary and everything - but nothing will ever top how "meta" it was to see Karloff as Orloff, at the drive in, on a drive-in screen!

Jan. 20, 2022

It was one of those rare moments where converging storylines collided with such force that it lifted me out of my seat. And we have Sam Fuller to thank for it.

Jan. 20, 2022

I also saw "Targets" when it came out, and liked it. But the Bognanovich movie which I fully enjoyed was one that didn't do well at the BO: "The Cat's Meow" (2001). Definitely worth seeing.

Jan. 20, 2022

Saw it when it played the Hillcrest. Welles deserved a writing credit.

Jan. 22, 2022

Yes, and if the story is mostly true, then Hearst should have been indicted.

Jan. 22, 2022

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