Targets October 11, 2018
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
In the fourth episode of the first season of The Twilight Zone (1959-’64), The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine (1959), the actress and director Ida Lupino portrays an aging movie star. Destitute and unwanted by film studios, she spends most of her time alone in a private screening room in her home, watching old starring vehicles and reminiscing about the old days. She yearns for the times where she was young and beautiful and a fawned-over public figure.
Byron (Boris Karloff), the protagonist of Peter Bogdanovich’s sophomore film, Targets (1968), is also an aging movie star. He too misses the days of decades past, when he was a still-hot icon of the horror genre. (Not unlike the performer playing him.) Lately, though, he finds himself itching to quit the business and retreat to his native England, where he can fade away contently. In his 70s, filmmaking and rigorous production schedules have become fatiguing. He can feel himself turning into a relic. His campy brand of horror looks outmoded in comparison to the real-life terrors seen on the daily.
Byron announces his retirement as Targets opens. His end-of-life crisis coincides with another descent into existential turmoil in the film, however, and it’s being experienced by someone who’s only a quarter of his age. Bobby (Tim O’Kelly), a kempt insurance salesman and Vietnam War veteran, is becoming increasingly stir-crazy with each passing day: tired of his monotonous professional life, tired of his marriage, tired of his family.
The bookends of Byron’s and Bobby’s crises are conflictingly cathartic. Byron is persuaded, by a young director (portrayed by Bogdanovich), to make a final appearance at a drive-in showing of his final film; Bobby, exasperated, decides the only way his troubles can be relieved is to embark on a shooting spree — first victimized will be his wife and family, then random passers-by in the greater Hollywood area.
It is easy to see what Bogdanovich is trying to do here: explore the Sartre-like facets of the Byron’s character’s decline not by going with the standard star-spiraling story à la Norma Desmond, but by pitting it against an octaves more dramatic, harshly antithetical storyline that, at its nucleus, matches in its notions of existential dire straights.
It’s subversive and intriguing. But Bogdanovich, plainly keen (something bolstered by his onscreen appearance), doesn’t notice that the Karloff-centric storyline is more interesting than the O’Kelly sidepiece, which is sensationalist and too rotely pulpy to complement the more sobered Karloff tale. The latter plot, though, is so gripping — in part because of Karloff own mortality — as a result of the way we ponder how much of the actor’s own career uncertainty factored into his portrayal. (He retired not long after Targets’ completion.)
Karloff would pass away, of emphysema-inflamed pneumonia, in 1969, at the age of 81. Bogdanovich, in the meantime, would rise to become one of the defining filmmakers of his generation with the release of his third fictional feature-length, 1971’s The Last Picture Show. In spite of its never quite meshing, then, Targets, original and effectively made, works as a fitting semi-denouement to an influential, illustrious career and an early indicator of a soon-to-be-great one. B-