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1968. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. With Boris Karloff, Tim O'Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich

This was one of the first American movies made by a member of the film critic generation, and it's far more than an exercise in hommage. Compared to something like Pulp Fiction, Peter Bogdanovich's movie looks earnestly, anachronistically engaged with the real world. It also looks more modern now than when it came out; it was taken for a cautionary tale about gun control and suburban anomie, but now we can focus on the movie's self-awareness and its collage-like use of disparate cinematic materials.

Roger Corman, whose influence on "the cinema of quotation" has yet to be evaluated, apparently produced this movie on the condition that it incorporate 10 minutes of outtakes from an earlier horror feature called The Terror, starring Boris Karloff. Bogdanovich also got a few shooting days with Karloff himself, and a relatively small budget for the rest.

The movie that emerged shows 36 hours in the life of an elderly horror star, Byron Orlock, played by Karloff. Orlock played Karloff's role in the 1931's The Criminal Code (Orlock watches one of Karloff's big scenes on TV and chuckles at "himself."), so they are pretty much the same person. Fed up with schlock and horrified at how ugly Los Angeles has become, Orlock has decided to retire from pictures and return to England. He wearily agrees to make a final guest appearance at a drive-in that's going to be showing his latest picture.

Simultaneously, we follow a clean-cut young man named Bobby who, though married, lives at home with his parents in their modern house in the San Fernando Valley. His car trunk is full of rifles, and he calls his father "Sir." Eventually, he blandly kills his wife, his mother and a delivery boy, and then climbs to the top of a storage tank by a freeway and starts shooting motorists at random. As night falls the kid moves his base of operations to the drive-in. Once The Terror begins, he picks off moms and dads and necking teenagers as they sit in their cars. He kills the projectionist and injures Orlock's secretary. Finally, cornered and disarmed, Bobby ends up in front of the huge drive-in screen with an on-screen Orlock advancing on him from the right while the in-the-flesh Orlock, outraged and fearless, hobbles toward him from the left. Kid and actor stare at each other in horror, and kid crumples.

Bogdanovich deserves credit, first of all, for the elegant way he incorporates the various elements he'd been handed. There's a nice parallelism in the Orlock-kid stories, and the plot moves toward the final confrontation with an inevitability that looks positively classical. Second of all, the direction is not just conscientious, it's really intuitive. There are few of those shot-for-shot "references" that have become such cheap coin these days, but the whole mise-en-scene of the sniper sequences is just impeccable; in their pacing and clarity they serve as extended, non-specific tributes to the skills of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Raoul Walsh.

And finally there's the savy way that Bogdanovich mirrors many things about the movie within the movie. We see a movie deal that sounds very much like Targets being discussed. Bogdanovich himself plays the preening young screenwriter who has created for "Orlock" the valedictory role of his career. The footage from The Criminal Code and The Terror are there not just as props, but are engaging in themselves, reminding us that all movies are artifacts. And Karloff'ss presence provides many rich overtones of movie lore and nostalgia--for old-fashioned stardom, for the horror quickies of the 60s, for the Golden Age of Hollywood (when Sam finds Orlock watching that snippet of The Criminal Code, he announces, "That movie was directed by Howard Hawks!" Orlock looks up and says patiently, "I know.")

Perhaps among the many streams feeding Targets is Sunset Boulevard, but here the old star represents not delusion but a kind of old-fashioned moral centeredness, best summed up in Orlock's rueful, good-humored insistence that movies have nothing to do with real life. Bogdanovich makes a valiant attempt to show that this is, in fact, not true; his movie Targets tries to engage with modern society as intensively as it engages with Hollywood nostalgia, and I'm prepared to say that it succeeds.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein