Released to theaters in the culture-quaking aftermath of two historic assassinations, Targets couldn't be expected to generate a substantial box office profit. Peter Bogdanovich's second theatrical feature is as much a seminal gem of New Hollywood as more successful productions such as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate - an exemplary crime drama and among the most engrossing motion pictures of the nineteen-sixties. However, Targets' knowing acknowledgment of the American New Wave's inchoate swell distinguishes it from other notable movies of its era. In the employ of Roger Corman, Wellesian prodigy Bogdanovich ably acceded the uncredited functions of collaborating screenwriter, editor, cinematographer, assistant director and extra throughout the shoot of The Wild Angels. In recognition of a nascent talent, the schlock titan agreed to finance his protégé's ambition on the stipulation that Bogdanovich would write a part in said project to be played by Boris Karloff (the aged star was contractually obligated to Corman for two days of labor), and subsume in its running time twenty-odd minutes of footage from The Terror, the AIP gothic horror flick (shot in piecemeal with Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and Jack Nicholson at helm) in which Karloff starred four years prior. Undaunted, Bogdanovich and his spouse (recently deceased Polly Platt) rewrote their screenplay to accommodate both a radical subtext and the presence of a great talent in the crepuscule of both his life and career.
Two plotlines are nimbly traced in the course of Targets' narrative, converging only at its culmination. Disgusted by his fading stardom as the lead in an opprobrious string of B-movies, Karloff's elderly star retires after digesting a private screening of his most recent film, The Terror. His patient secretary (Nancy Hsueh) urges him to attend the opening screening of the offending product while its director (Bogdanovich) is desperate to cast him in a role of his substantive new script.
Concurrently, a clean-cut Vietnam veteran (Tim O'Kelly) ventures out to commit an inexplicable spate of killings after murdering his wife, mother and a grocery deliveryman without any apparent motive. Evading the pursuit of local police, he elects Reseda Drive-In Theatre - where Karloff's celebrity is to introduce his final picture - as another shooting gallery.
A scant few years ere Bogdanovich's potential bloomed in fruition of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, those successes were prefigured here by an antecedent elicitation of superlative performances from a fine cast. In one of his last parts, British horror icon Karloff is absolutely magnetic in spite of his advanced age and failing health. His cleverly designated Byron Orlok reminisces on past glories with bittersweet humor, recites the macabre Appointment in Samarra with resonant aplomb in plain light and cannily trades barbed quips with his junior co-stars. Though Orlok's attenuated celebrity was similar to Karloff's, the latter was in reality never so disposed to acrimony, and both he and his collaborators wisely opted to portray the animosity of his fictional equivalent as dignified disdain rather than brooding resentment. Perhaps the least of those performers at his disposal, Bogdanovich himself is nonetheless aptly cast as the promising young screenwriter and director, playing an amalgam of both himself and Samuel Fuller, who extensively rewrote the script of Targets yet refused both payment and credit for his efforts. After viewing Howard Hawks' The Criminal Code with Karloff, Bogdanovich's aspiring auteur drunkenly mutters, "All the good movies have been made." Minutes later, he begs his senior to engage the role he's written for him to no avail, convinced that it'll revitalize the credibility of his career. Save Welles himself, perhaps no other upstart filmmaker was so boldly self-referential, so luxuriate in his art. Quiet grace and a comfortable self-assurance characterize Hsueh's understated function as a sober foil to both men. Comedian Sandy Baron provides broader comic relief as a goofy DJ scheduled to officiate Karloff's introduction at the drive-in.
Evidently based on infamous spree killer Charles Whitman, the relaxed, occasionally cheerful demeanor of O'Kelly's reserved sniper provides a stark counterpoint to his lunatic slaughter. That he treats a purchase of ammunition in supplement to his prodigious arsenal or wholesale murder with the concern of a minor occupational challenge only underscores his character's casual derangement.
Bogdanovich was always as much a student as a historian and practitioner of his beloved medium, and his punctilious exercise of stylistic devices is here exhibited in exhaustive array. During its most intense sequences, Targets boasts astonishingly dynamic composition, yet its momentum decelerates satisfactorily to provide its actors ample space in which to articulate, or to convey the zeitgeist of a fresh and vibrant Los Angeles now all but unrecognizable. Formal filmic atrocities of declining appeal are juxtaposed with popular depictions of postwar social turmoil: in a sublime, incisive denouement no less contrived than that of a customary thriller, a hobbling relic of vitiated thrills confronts an analog of Whitman and highway sniper Michael Clark. An homage to both modern cinematic convention and the artifice of romantic genre pictures that Bogdanovich and his ilk supplanted with temerarious realism, Targets celebrates the advent of New Hollywood whilst bidding reverential valediction to its evanescent golden age.
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