The Osterman Weekend

January 16, 2013

ostermanweekendThe Osterman Weekend is a competent, professional double-cross movie. That sentence can stand as a lukewarm recommendation of the film, but it’s really sigh of disappointment.

The disappointment stems from the fact that The Osterman Weekend was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who, after studio battles and illness, hadn’t made a movie in five years. Peckinpah, despite the conventional wisdom of cocktail-party cognoscenti, is one of the best stylists of his generation of filmmakers, and the possibilities for this adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel seemed promising.

Rutger Hauer plays a Mike Wallace-type TV interviewer who, faced with evidence that his three closest friends (Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, and Chris Sarandon) may be Soviet agents, helps an American government agency spy on the group during an annual weekend get-together at Hauer’s place.

Every room in his house has been wired for videotaping by the strange government man (John Hurt) running the show, and Hauer feels the pressure of being caught between lying to his friends and lying to the camera. It isn’t long before the old college buddies start to guess that Hauer suspects something—especially with the kind of tricks that Hurt and his high-tech cohorts have cooked up for the weekend.

To tell any more would be unfair. The various twists and turns of the story are complicated, but Peckinpah and company have laid them out so that the viewer won’t get completely lost in the plot forest.

For all its professionalism, the film lacks a sharpness—that bite that Peckinpah gets into his movies, that cutting edge that does not necessarily have anything to do with the director’s much-publicized onscreen violence. There are taut sequences in The Osterman Weekend, but Peckinpah, at his greatest, uses action to reveal character, and that quality is sorely missed here.

When Hauer’s wife and son are kidnapped at the airport, it’s the occasion for a nicely-mounted chase, but that’s all. It turns out that this snatch is just another game staged for Hauer’s benefit; but we won’t fully understand that until much later.

Hauer, the Dutch star of Soldier of Orange and Blade Runner, seems a bit dislocated as the main character, but the supporting cast is odd and flavorful, and Meg Foster’s performance as Hauer’s wife helps turn her character into the most admirable person in the film.

Rumor has it that The Osterman Weekend was taken out of Peckinpah’s hands and recut for distribution; if that’s true, it might help explain the movie’s peculiar thinness. In particular, it would have been fascinating to have devoted more screen time to the John Hurt character—an agency man with a mission, a killer with a tortured soul.

As it stands, The Osterman Weekend is not the comeback vehicle for Sam Peckinpah’s cinematic gifts. And somehow, one of the most disappointing things about it is that it’s not a mad, extravagant failure. It’s just standard.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

I haven’t watched this since it came out and I’m nurturing the idea that it might be much, much better than it seemed to be then. Which I guess is one reason never to watch it again. Peckinpah died without completing another feature, so that adds to the letdown around this misbegotten title.

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Blade Runner

August 3, 2012

I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over my sense of disappointment upon walking out of the first screening of Blade Runner at the Cinerama theater in 1982. Expectations were high, of course, so maybe disappointment was understandable.

But a second viewing confirmed my feeling, and even a decade’s worth of growing cult appreciation hasn’t changed my mind. Among other things, I thought the movie was a comedown from a rather brilliant science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

To be fair, the Blade Runner released in 1982 was a compromised film. Over the objections of director Ridley Scott and star Harrison Ford, voiceover narration was added to the movie, as well as an absurd happy ending. Those were two of the worst elements of the film. In fact, Ford spoke the narration so poorly that I always wondered whether he was deliberately tanking it.

Now the film has been recut by Scott, who has subsequently made Thelma & Louise and Black Rain and the upcoming 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Scott persuaded Warner Bros. to let him yank the narration and lop off the happy ending, as well as perform some minor tinkering. (I believe there’s a brief dream shot of a white unicorn that’s been reinstated.)

It’s a better movie. The cutting of the stupid narration makes the film seem denser and more disorienting, which was probably why the studio wanted it inserted. And the nicely ambiguous ending is a huge improvement over the tacked-on finish of the 1982 release.

Scott shows a certain grand disdain for ordinary storytelling in Blade Runner. In simplest terms, the movie is about a hired gun (Ford) who goes out to exterminate some replicants—that is, humanoid robots—who are running loose. The replicants are trying to get to the head (Joe Turkel) of the megacompany that built them, to discover how they can extend their intentionally short life spans.

The replicants are beautifully played by Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James, and nonrenegade Sean Young. The movie teases around some basic ideas about what it is to be human, especially in Hauer’s climactic speech about the false “memories” he’s been programmed with, and how they are doomed to inevitably vanish—”like tears in the rain.”

Even in this fine new version, Blade Runner still doesn’t strike me as a masterpiece. There’s much to admire about the film’s eye-popping production design; its vision of Los Angeles circa 2019 has never been topped. And Scott’s druggy, slowed-down pacing is fascinating.

But the profound ideas that Scott is clearly searching for remain mostly untouched. Because the film aims high, it is glaringly obvious when it fails to reach. But what an intoxicating attempt.

First published in the Herald, September 18, 1992

I didn’t review Blade Runner the first time around, so it seems legit to reprint this ’92 reappraisal, even if this isn’t much as a piece of writing. See, I really don’t dislike the movie!


The Stepfather/Wanted Dead or Alive

October 13, 2011

The Stepfather is a genuinely creepy little suspense movie, with a very interesting villain at its center. In the film’s first scene, an ordinary-looking fellow in an ordinary suburban home shaves his beard off, cuts his hair and changes into classy clothing. Then he walks down the stairs of his cozy home, as the camera casually reveals the tableau of his wife and children lying dead in the living room—murdered at his hands.

It seems this fellow makes a habit of marrying widows with children, then killing the family. His psychopathology is particular, and bizarre: He kills them because they don’t measure up to his ideal of a perfect family.

A year after the opening scene, we find him (in an assumed identity) married to another widow (Shelley Hack) with a 16-year-old daughter (Jill Schoelen). It’s a happy home, except that the daughter catches the stepdad in one of his weird freak-out moods down in the cellar, and she starts catching on to his true colors.

The most interesting thing about the movie is the depiction of the stepfather. He’s a bland, milk-drinking All-American type, who spouts hokey clichés to end conversations (“Father knows best,” he smiles blandly), chuckles warmly when watching reruns of “Mr. Ed,” and uses such TV-commercial pieties as “Ah, this is as good as life gets.” He’s somewhat reminiscent of the protagonists in the ferocious pulp novels of Jim Thompson, whose people are often dull on the outside, insane on the inside.

He’s played by Terry O’Quinn, who does an impressive job of catching the character’s terrifying banality, as well as his suppressed violence (there are some echoes of the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining). O’Quinn is particularly good at avoiding the temptation to mug; he keeps the man a hale and hearty, backyard-barbecue guy, and doesn’t tip his hat with too much eyebrow-wiggling.

Director Joseph Ruben and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake deserve credit for this cool, almost analytical character study; and for keeping it suspenseful and crisp. This is a chilling little movie.

Not so chilling is Wanted Dead or Alive, an action flick featuring Dutch star Rutger Hauer. Hauer, a fine actor (he was the hero of Soldier of Orange and Harrison Ford’s snow-haired adversary in Blade Runner), has stated his desire to become a big American movie star. He seems to think that appearing in an Eastwood-style shoot-’em-up will further that end.

He plays a bounty hunter, irrelevantly the great-grandson of the character Steve McQueen played in the old TV series “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” who goes after an Arab terrorist (Gene Simmons). The terrorist blew up a theater playing Rambo, so it’s absolutely imperative he be stopped before he further damages our culture.

It’s the standard routine, with Hauer’s charisma slightly hampered by his uncomfortable American accent. The only unusual note is sounded at the end of the film, when, after Hauer has cleared out the bad guys, he avoids the clenched-fist heroics customary to these films. Instead, he settles down into melancholy, and seems even more existentially adrift than he was at the beginning.

First published in the Herald, January 22, 1987

The Stepfather remains a terrific one-off kind of picture, and O’Quinn’s performance is a gem. For some reason I have frequently missed the subsequent work of Joseph Ruben (never saw Money Train or The Good Son or The Forgotten), so I can’t really speak with authority about the work of the former director of Gorp. A lot of people liked Ruben’s Dreamscape, including Pauline Kael, who did a handstand or two about it, although it didn’t grab me. Surely the gifted Donald Westlake had something to do with the movie’s dry, even power. Wanted was directed by Gary Sherman, the guy who did Raw Meat and Dead & Buried; he’s still in the business. I really have no explanation about why I said so little about Gene Simmons as an Arab terrorist.


The Hitcher

June 1, 2011

A kid drives alone through the just-before-dawn darkness of Texas. Lightning crackles over the mountains, and rain begins to fall. Despite pumping coffee, the kid can’t keep his eyes open, so when he sees a hitchhiker on the side of the road, he lets the hitcher in.

“My mother told me never to do this,” the kid says. The hitcher proves mom right by coolly informing the driver that he just finished carving up his last chauffeur, and he wonders if the kid knows how far blood spurts when the jugular vein is cut. The hitcher’s grin chills the air: “Scared?”

You bet. This is the adrenaline-surging opening of The Hitcher, a promising first film from director Robert Harmon and screenwriter Eric Red.

Their conceit is that the hitcher (played by the magnetic Dutch actor Rutger Hauer) is malevolently inspired to ruin the life of this kid (C. Thomas Howell). He’s a mad killer—and yet, almost perversely, he doesn’t kill Howell. He wants something else from the hapless traveler.

This something else seems to do with self-destruction, although Red’s screenplay makes the reasons for this mysterious. The Hitcher, looks, in fact, like an existentialist horror film, with the hitcher (whose name is John Ryder—hmmm) as the kid’s own darker self, a maniacal ghostly double who need to be exterminated before the kid can go on with his journey; all of which is played out against the stark nothingness of the American Southwest.

As befits such an elemental premise, the first half-hour is appropriately stripped down. After Howell shakes his unwanted passenger, he spots him again the next morning—sharing the back seat of a passing station wagon with some bright-eyed toddlers. Howell freaks out, tries to flag down the other driver, but in vain. He comes across the wagon later, its riders murdered. Not only has the hitcher committed this foul act, he’s also managed to get Howell blamed for it.

The more Howell gets involved with the local police—and he is for the rest of the movie—the more he gets away from Hauer and the basic duel, and the less compelling the film is. The terror of those opening minutes is so fundamental, it’s hard for anything else in the film to match it.

But every time Hauer comes back, the movie lights up. This is not a revisionist villain, whose evil is explainable because he grew up without social advantages or mother love or proper hygiene. He’s just plain bad.

Hauer’s performance is chilling; Howell (Red Dawn, Secret Admirer) is fine. Jennifer Jason Leigh adds a nice bit of humanity as a sympathetic waitress.

Harmon’s direction is sometimes reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, a classic battle between a man and a demonic truck. Harmon might have taken a lesson in minimalism from that film and kept The Hitcher closer to is elemental struggle. But he still provides a pretty good ride.

And, for you people in the expensive seats who require such things, he also provides some socially redeeming value: No one who sees this movie will ever pick up a hitchhiker again.

First published in the Herald, February 27, 1986

Well, now I want to see it again. At this point in his career, it was still possible to anticipate Hauer’s next move with some excitement; he hadn’t yet committed to that strange road that would lead all the way to Hobo with a Shotgun. The movie does indeed fall short of Duel and the “Twilight Zone” episode called The Hitchhiker, but that opening hook is hard to beat.