Orson Welles

Is The Third Man the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

What’s your favorite movie? Think about it for a second, not just what it is but why it occupies that space for you. Is it a comedy you love or a love story you identify with or a drama that shocked you so much that it stuck with you forever? I have found it’s a difficult question that gets marginally easier if you give people multiple answers. If you have room for a few you can cover all kinds of bases, but what if you have to pick just one?

If you’d asked me five years ago I’d have said The Killing, but today my answer is The Third Man. It’s a big thing to say something is your favorite movie. Maybe it isn’t to everyone, but when I started this I asked a dozen people to tell me their absolute favorite one. Most people can’t really do it, they need to tell you a few. I am going to spend five minutes of your day to make the case for Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Carol Reed is perhaps best known for Oliver!, which won him an Oscar, but The Third Man is hardly unknown. It’s frequently listed among the greatest films of all time, which I of course take no issue with. What makes it astounding is hard to pinpoint. Most people call out Orson Welles, because it’s very hard to ignore him no matter what his involvement looks like, but you really do have to start with Reed. History remembers Welles, the director, and thus it’s easy to assume that a movie he acted in was “his,” but the style is so important here. There’s so much more going on here.

The film opens with a monologue from Reed himself, explaining the state of the world and the centrality of counterfeit as a reality of post-war Europe. “I never knew the old Vienna before the war,” Reed tells us casually, but he also says of the world “a situation like that does tempt amateurs, but you know they can’t stay the course like a professional.” This gives way to a straightforward lead in for Holly Martins, Joseph Cotten’s bumbling American who has been invited to Vienna on pretense of a job but finds his friend Harry Lime (Welles) has recently died.

It is not really a spoiler to say that Harry Lime is not really dead, but watching Joseph Cotten loudly, absurdly wander his way through an unfamiliar world as he tries to discover the truth is an astounding thing to behold. Cotten plays Martins as an idiot, but not in the way you’d expect. He does not know this world and isn’t really interested in learning it, insisting on his native tongue and barging his way through even government or military controlled areas. It’s undeniably a statement about the American disposition, but we don’t have enough time to focus on that as we wonder the same thing he does: What happened to Harry Lime?

Welles gives the performance of a lifetime when he finally appears. It’s shockingly late in the film, of course, but the ghost of Harry Lime is all through the narrative. Martins keeps finding people who tell him versions of the story, including his girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli, haunting and distant, always unclear about her true motives even as more is revealed) and his associates. On rewatches, these characters really pop, especially the “Baron” Kurtz and the Romanian Popescu. What do these people want? What do they stand to gain? Why do they want to help Holly Martins, even obliquely?

This is why I love The Third Man. The story itself is fairly simple, but the complicating elements make it so worthy of further thought. If that’s all it was, it would be a marvel, but it also has so much damn style. The score is done on a zither, which makes it hyper-specific but undeniable. The cinematography is disorienting to match Martins’ confusing journey. The supporting cast again and again reinforces that there is a world to figure out here, but Martins just is unwilling and unable to do so. The more you watch it the further it gets away from feeling like a mystery. The real picture here is always available, but Martins as a force changes the alchemy of how people work and what they try to accomplish. It’s an incredible statement about America without feeling preachy or obvious.

The most famous bit of The Third Man comes during a speech Welles gives to Cotten as their characters finally reunite on a Ferris wheel. The scene deserves to be seen, but in summary it is a discussion of morality and how much of your personal faith you’d be willing to put aside to get ahead. It recalls Reed’s original monologue and takes it drastically further. It’s unlikely you’ll agree with Harry Lime here and you’re not intended to, but the choice to give him space to make his case is a fascinating one. The choice to have it steal the show, well, that’s what makes it a masterpiece.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Titane has soured even more with distance for me, and while I am still in awe of the risk, I just didn’t like the result.

Is it the best movie of all time? Yes, I think so. It feels a little like cheating to pick my favorite film, but a reproduction played at the theater near our house and I was struck by it once again. Welles steals the show and typically gets (maybe too much) credit for The Third Man, but I really loved Cotten’s performance this time. It only works if he feels like a buffoon but also oddly capable, which comes through when you’ve seen the film enough to really pay attention. This is a true masterpiece, worthy not only of your time but also of deeper consideration. Persona is excellent and I’m glad to have seen it and considered it so many weeks in a row, but now I want something to really change my mind and surprise me. What do you suggest?

You can watch The Third Man on Amazon Prime (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Touch of Evil the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

If there is a through line for this project, it is that I was surprised how many movies on the Sight & Sound list of the greatest movies ever made I had not seen. There are a few that I’d never heard of, but mostly I thought it was as good as any other list to serve as a checklist for movies to watch. I’ve come to find that most people seem to agree, though it is interesting the deeper you go into people’s opinions on opinions. The snakes eats the tail quickly, with discussions of merit for some of the more out there stuff and the rankings within it.

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Third Man, which comes in at #73 on the most recent version of that list. Persona, our current best movie of all time holder for the list we’re building, is tied with Seven Samurai at #17. It’s the nature of lists like this that you have to question some of it. Are there really 80+ movies better than Casablanca? I love Stanley Kubrick as much as the next person, but is 2001: A Space Odyssey one of the ten best movies ever? If you get lost in the minutia and the specifics you lose the beauty of these exercises. The point is, similar to the Oscars but with much more care, to offer an attempt at a list of things worth your time.

When I saw Touch of Evil on this list (#57) I was surprised. I like Touch of Evil, but it’s a little messy, even for an Orson Welles movie and even for the genre, and to see it ahead of Sunset Blvd. is hard to defend. I’m a pretty fervent defender of Welles the actor even beyond Welles the director, but I knew I had to revisit it to see if I still felt like that ranking was wrong.

Touch of Evil is the first movie I’ve seen in a movie theater in just under a year and a half. I’m fortunate to live near the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, where I was able to revisit this 1958 noir with a bunch of other folks who wanted to experience a very strange story about morality in policing. There’s a lot to unpack in how Touch of Evil reads in 2021. Primarily, Welles’ police captain Hank Quinlan was an undeniable villain at the time but now really challenges the viewer with the idea of “one bad apple” as a criminal in the police force. The structure around him backs him at every turn and his subordinates who are clearly less evil still support him, even when they can tell they shouldn’t. This was probably something contemporary viewers would pick up on, but it screams much louder in today’s world.

Welles played the villain as often as he did the hero. That distinction can get complicated at times, but Welles wasn’t necessarily interested in complex characters in that way. Hank Quinlan is huge, physically and metaphorically, and the only complexity we get for him is that he used to drink and that his wife passed away. There is a world where these elements, plus the decades on the job in a border town trying to keep a tentative peace, make us feel for Quinlan and at least understand how he got in this state, if not outright agree with his methods. Another director might lead the audience down that path, but it’s enough for Welles to just tilt at it. Quinlan “runs this town” as so many crooked cops do, but he doesn’t do it to further his own success or to grab power. He does it out of a compulsion and a misguided idea that putting away “bad guys” is the right move, even if they didn’t do this specific thing or you can’t pin it on them successfully.

You can’t feel bad for Quinlan, which gives Welles the space to mumble menacingly and to really command the screen even from a position of supposed weakness. Quinlan uses a cane and is drastically overweight, which serves to contrast him with Charlton Heston’s Miguel Vargas. This detail is hard to get past and I don’t want to handwave it away by saying this was 1958, but casting Charlton Heston as a Mexican cop is truly strange. Welles was originally just supposed to play Quinlan, but Heston suggested he direct as well. This led to him rewriting the script to change the hero into a Mexican character, but this all happened after Heston had signed on. I can’t find much about the choice to not recast the role, but this is just the reality of Hollywood at the time. There’s a true critique to lay on Touch of Evil that the only unquestionable hero of the film is a white guy playing a Mexican character. I think the reason this doesn’t get discussed more in the legacy of the film is that the only reason it exists at all is that Welles wanted to make a statement about the difficulty of relations between America and Mexico. It’s reaching to call this progressive, but it’s interesting. Heston’s legacy is also so muddled with how he spent the last decades of his life elevating monstrous beliefs and positions that unpacking this choice and how he must have felt about it would take us more time than we have here.

I love Welles’ performance here, but I ultimately don’t think some elements of Touch of Evil hold up as well under multiple viewings. Janet Leigh plays Susan Vargas, the new bride to Heston’s Vargas, and doesn’t really get anything to do except scream and fret. She plays the role well, especially shining in a conversation where she gets cornered by the remaining members of the crime family that her husband is prosecuting. Marlene Dietrich has the more interesting female role as Tanya, the fortune teller who knew Quinlan before much of what would lead to the sad state he’s in by the events of Touch of Evil. There’s a lot said by what’s not said in the scenes Dietrich and Welles share.

I still like Touch of Evil, but it is undeniably messy. The climactic scene where Vargas tries to get Quinlan to admit to planting evidence is thrilling but the twists and turns are a little harder to endure than other contemporary noir. Welles is the standout performer here, but much of what you’ll read about Touch of Evil focuses on his filmmaking. The film opens with a famous “tracking shot” that’s an extended zoom out of the opening car bomb that sets the plot in motion. The pacing suffers for modern viewings, but you will still find a lot to marvel at in how it’s all shot. It’s a marvel in many ways but also a product of when it was made. Where it goes beyond the time is why it is on so many lists of tremendous achievements, but you need to set your expectations correctly and your ability to love it completely with depend on your feelings about Welles and Heston, to some degree.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think it’s better than The Seventh Seal, which is probably blasphemy. Heston as a Mexican character is pretty ridiculous, especially knowing what you know about Heston as a political figure, but I really am amazed with Welles’ choices and his personal performance. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hated this one and I think there’s enough in here to turn off a lot of people, but I think it’s one of the better Welles productions. And that’s saying something.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I will keep Persona in this spot this week. If you like Orson Welles or noir at all, you should check this out. I feel like I’m waffling a little bit on this one even though I really enjoyed it and I think it’s worth your time. There are people out there who can’t stand Orson Welles as a performer, especially when he goes for it to this degree, but I’m on the record as a huge fan. The choice to have him talk over anyone he deems unnecessary and to bluster around but also act performatively confused when it suits him all constructs such a fully realized character. To do that for the villain that you’ll hate and grow to hate even more is what sets Welles apart.

You can watch Touch of Evil on Amazon Prime ($3.99) or YouTube ($3.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Lady from Shanghai the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Orson Welles was in almost every movie he directed, but his performing career extended far beyond that. His most notable performance, or at least I think it should be, is as the evil Harry Lime in The Third Man. Welles brings a sinister, yet aloof, quality to his villains, almost without fail. When he does go for the full serious treatment I think it tends to get away from him, but when he’s playing someone closer to the Bogart style of lead, it really works.

People didn’t know what to do with his performance in The Lady from Shanghai in 1947 and 1948. Welles produced, directed, and starred in it. He wrote the screenplay, at least in part, and narrated it as the very Irish Michael O’Hara. Welles as a one-man show was not uncommon, but this was one of the films that cemented why that might not always be a great idea. The studio was apparently baffled by Welles’ cut and asked for reshoots and further editing. The finished product wasn’t exactly what he wanted to make, but it is a masterpiece of crime drama and film noir.

Welles wanted it to be longer, but he always wanted it to be longer. The final confrontation in a hall of mirrors has become one of the most iconic scenes of the era and Welles designed it to be long and sprawling, but it is an abrupt climax in the finished product. Welles was already doing almost everything and it’s for the best that he didn’t have the final say here, but that raises questions that we don’t have the space to answer. Welles was a genius but maybe tried to do too much, and we’re all the better off that in this case, and maybe only this case, someone had the sense to keep the gold and dial some of it back.

Michael O’Hara (Welles) is a sailor who saves Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in the park late one night. It turns out she was armed with a gun but didn’t use it, which O’Hara only discovers after they ride around in her carriage and flirt about their separate times spent abroad. We get the sense that they’re both fascinating characters with mysterious histories, but the gun and the discovery that Elsa is married is enough to send Michael home without even keeping her card. She asks to hire him on for a cruise on a yacht but he refuses, going so far as to tear up the card in front of her to remove all doubt.

The Lady from Shanghai is full of moments like this. It’s a beautiful moment because it tells us even more about Michael while keeping Elsa hidden. When her husband, in extensive leg braces, comes to find Michael the next day, we still don’t understand why there’s so much importance on this one Irish sailor. Against his instincts, Michael signs on to the yacht, but only after answering a question about what he drinks with “doesn’t have to be wholesome, just so as long as it’s strong.”

We only get backstory from Michael O’Hara in pieces. Mostly, we see Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), rich and famous defense attorney, and his business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) taunt O’Hara and offer confusing propositions as they get drunk at sea. No one here seems very happy, but what’s extra notable is the slow, almost nonexistent pacing of the love story. Elsa and Michael are young and beautiful and it becomes clear she was coerced into marrying Arthur, though it takes time to figure out what’s actually happening with this foursome.

This frustrated audiences and the studio and the movie was a failure. It’s been rethought, but that probably was cold comfort for Welles. The cuts robbed him of his exact vision and audiences didn’t like the finished product, though they wouldn’t have liked his version better, based on what was cut. The Lady from Shanghai can be tough to follow, especially once the actual mystery gets going, but that’s the point.

This is not a love story. This is the story of Michael O’Hara, a man who got roped into a very weird situation and never really got the whole story. If you were in his shoes, this is how you’d experience it. The narration helps, especially to set the tone but also to keep the ending on track. Welles mostly pulls off the accent, at least so far as it doesn’t get distracting, but he absolutely pulls off the character itself. This is one of my favorite performances of his and it’s almost entirely in how he rides out what other leading men of the time would have sold as confused or scared. Welles gives a tight performance, even during the extreme ending, and the result only makes us more interested in what Michael O’Hara was doing in Spain before he met this woman in the park.

The actual plot is only complicated in the moment, but in the end it’s all clear and directly explained. It’s the deeper elements, trying to figure out who is siding with who and at which moments, that makes it such a great story. Welles put his signature style on it and they let him keep a lot of it, but they couldn’t take anything out of his performance. Welles and Hayworth were on the brink of divorce while filming this and one imagines that helped sell what is a fire-and-ice love story to begin with, though that may be reading in too far. Whatever the case, the things people found tricky or frustrating about The Lady from Shanghai are what make it so great today. It’s a mystery and a love story but really it’s a character study, but it never goes too deep in any direction. The result is a breezy 88 minutes that holds your attention and makes you wonder about everything you aren’t seeing and the secret lives of these very strange people on this very strange ship.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? This is a lot better than I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Both could be called “confounding” and both are only wrapped up with meaning in the last five minutes, but this journey is more worthy of your time.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, still will go with Persona, though this is a tough call. I’ve seen this movie a few times and every time I rewatch it I find something new to love. This time it was the very big, overstated performance by Glenn Anders, who plays George Grisby. It’s an almost silly role, but that only lends to the difference between him and O’Hara. Welles is so tight, especially in scenes with Anders, that it reflects back on lines like “just tell them you were doing a little target practice” as an explanation, somehow, for why someone would be firing a gun in a public place. It’s all part of the tone and it really, really works.

You can watch The Lady from Shanghai on Amazon Prime (free with a subscription). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Mank the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

People clown on the Oscars for a number of valid reasons, but I’ve always been most fascinated by the Best Actor category. The Academy needs to become more inclusive and it seems to want to become more relevant, but attempts on both fronts feel clunky. There’s a lot of room to improve for America’s supposed arbiters of what makes great cinema great and I do hope they figure it out. I don’t think the answer is a “Popular Film” category or whatever that was, but I do think any move to fix the larger representation problem is a good one.

All that said, I pick Best Actor because I feel like, especially recently, there’s been a streak of wrong choices. In 2017 Gary Oldman won for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, which may be one of the ten worst movies nominated for any award in the last ten years. Oldman does strong work, but it’s a heightened performance because it needs to be to survive in a ridiculous movie. Rami Malek won in 2018 as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Malek was obviously great and really nailed what had to be a difficult challenge, but that movie is even worse than Darkest Hour, with distracting, breakneck edits for no real reason and cliched dialogue even in the most important moments of Mercury’s life. Joaquin Phoenix won as Joker in Joker last year and I feel like that completes the three-peat. Joker is full of capital-c Choices but at a basic level, it’s a remake of King of Comedy that didn’t seem to understand the message of King of Comedy. It’s a weird mess.

All three of those movies are bad, arguably among the worst if not the worst of the nominees in their respective years. Very often the award seems to go to whoever did the Most Acting rather than any other metric of quality. I definitely think all three of those roles are defensible as great performances, but shouldn’t it matter if you did your great work in a bomb or not?

I don’t know if Oldman will win for Mank this year or not, but it’s the most nominated film at this year’s Oscars. This is typical of the Academy, to the point where wasting breath on jokes about the movie with the Oscars as a central plot point being heavily nominated at the Oscars is not necessary. Of course they did, because of course they did. It’s the story of the writing of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz split credit for it, but for decades Hollywood elites argued about who actually was the man behind Kane. Welles directed and starred in it, so he’s the name you know, but “Mank” is the man director David Fincher wants to sell you as the genius.

There’s a few things to know before we move on. This story might have happened the way Fincher tells it, but it almost certainly didn’t and most people agree this version has been discredited over the years. Mank and Welles both created Citizen Kane and you are welcome to argue that one was more important than the other, but Fincher’s version paints Welles as someone out to steal Mank’s hard work. You don’t always lose points for twisting the facts to make a good story, but this is extreme.

Fincher seems to think it’s necessary that Mank be a sole genius with Welles in dark shadows for most of the film. The actor playing Welles does his best, but it comes off as a parody of the director and I assume that’s in Fincher’s directing. Welles isn’t the hero here and he’s arguably the villain, though one of many in the larger story about how Herman J. Mankiewicz couldn’t get out of his own way.

The story goes that Mank was the funniest guy in the room but also the drunkest, both traits most people in his social circle had some of, but never more than him. He worked on a dozen things you love and he’s an icon of this era of Hollywood. That’s apparently not enough, which is why Fincher hangs sole credit for Kane on him. Interestingly, Fincher says the finished product of Mank is a revision from earlier “anti-Welles” versions. I can’t imagine what happened in the first cuts; Welles must have tried to kill him.

Oldman is working extremely hard here, which is why I think he’s a safe bet for the Oscar. This is ten times the movie Darkest Hour was and it’s at least a better performance, though with a smaller gap. You want Mank to “win” every time you see him, but you start to realize early on that won’t happen. He shows up drunk to important meetings and charms his way through parties, but mostly because people have an attitude of “oh, that’s just Mank.” He’s a jester, which mogul Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard, Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones and a million other things) tell him directly.

For as bad as the Welles role is, Mayer and Hearst are terrific. The movie is only partially about the actual construction of a screenplay, it’s also about exploring Mank’s life to see how he got his ideas. Mayer’s worldview and political dealings provide the acid and Hearst’s power provides the central character for Citizen Kane. None of these are secrets or inventions for Mank, but they’re explored well and the personalities live up to what they need to get done. Dance especially is impressive and gives an incredible final speech about how we see ourselves in the world and what it amounts to in the end. Amanda Seyfried does a fine job as Marion Davies, but Oldman is the center of even their scenes, so it’s hard to really get into her character. I can’t imagine she’ll win for Best Supporting Actress, but that field is always hard to predict.

If you really love old Hollywood or you really love Citizen Kane or you really love black and white cinema, you’ll probably like Mank. It’s not completely a true story and some of the side stories don’t really go anywhere and it bloats a little bit as it moves into act three, but none of that is really the point. Fincher said he made this because he thinks the idea of Mank writing a brilliant script under the terms that he wouldn’t get credit for it, but then that he did want credit for it, is an interesting enough idea to carry a movie. This is his attempt to prove that as true and we should judge Mank by whether it is or isn’t.

I guess it is, but not by much. The performances are mostly good and sometimes great, and by the established metrics Oldman could certainly deserve his statue for this one, though one hopes we’re looking for something a little more ambitious than this in 2021. Mank is the story of a guy who had to ruin the dinner party or the birthday party to prove a point. Even if the point is sometimes worth making, it’s difficult to watch as a hero to root for, and that’s even before you factor in that he’s drunk to the point of throwing up.

I’m a big fan of Welles, though there are many reasons not to be. He was absurd, aggrandizing, and brash. Mankiewicz certainly had more to do with Citizen Kane than Welles would want you to believe and there is a story in that discussion that’s worth telling. I don’t think it’s this one and Mank feels like too many tales wrapped up in one story as a result. I enjoyed Mank, but I’m squarely in the target audience, and I think anyone who isn’t will struggle with this one. Oldman does the best he could possibly do, but it feels like another movie where the surrounding pieces can’t live up to the central performance. This is a much better movie than all three recent Best Actor films, but those same weird problems with those three are present again in Mank.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is tighter and more consistently makes the point it aims to make. These are very different movies, with Master and Commander focused on keeping complex, busy scenes of naval chaos easily understandable through clear cinematography and Mank almost entirely conversational and black-and-white. The difficulty in Master and Commander is all in the visuals and Mank is all about the central character and keeping us hooked on how he’ll navigate the politics of the big studios and the “great men” he deals with all the time. Both nail the “look” of what they’re doing, but Master and Commander succeeds to a greater degree with the story because it picks one lane and stays in it.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it’s not even the best David Fincher movie. The reviews are interesting, with most of them making the point that the politics behind the characters are the central argument and the screenplay production isn’t really the heart of the story. Fincher seems to believe that, but Mank can’t ever decide which story it wants to tell you. I think that’s why it ends up not really connecting with audiences and why people seem to want to praise the visuals and performances but struggle to talk about the story.

You can watch Mank on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Targets the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Peter Bogdanovich plays a director in The Other Side of the Wind, the famously incomplete but now released final work of Orson Welles. He’s paired with John Huston, who plays a legendary director that the entire world can’t stop praising and obsessing over. The Other Side of the Wind was never really finished when Welles was alive, but Bogdanovich helped fuel the production with incomplete footage and intended edits from Welles that resulted in a theatrical release of a “new” Orson Welles movie decades after Welles passed away.

It’s a mess, but in the way that great films can be a mess. If you’re a fan at all of Welles’ more “out there” stuff, it really can’t be missed. Huston holds court with his signature voice as partygoers crowd into a house in the desert to prepare to see his masterwork. It’s not-at-all-veiled commentary on Welles and his career, with characters representing many figures throughout his life in ways a audience with familiarity of his larger circle couldn’t miss. Bogdanovich picked up his role from Rich Little, the impressionist, but it’s still impossible to not see what it ended up being as a take on the director himself. The character and the man were young and brash and both were then and still are lumped in with Welles.

Huston’s performance is astounding in The Other Side of the Wind, but Bogdanovich is always there, keeping it all together. When I saw it I couldn’t see Bogdanovich as anything other than his character in his own film, Targets, but I didn’t know that both don’t just end in a drive-in theater, but the exact same theater. The similarities abound.

The movies aren’t all that similar beyond Bogdanovich’s presence and performance. Targets was his first major film. It was released in 1968, just a few years before The Other Side of the Wind started shooting. Bogdanovich became a legend in cinema, of course, but there’s always a story with the first one.

The horror icon Boris Karloff owed the studio some shooting time, so Bogdanovich made use of him in a movie that feels very patched together all the way to the end, where it attempts a very risky conclusion. Targets is a fictionalized version of a real string of murders committed in 1966 in Texas by a man named Charles Whitman. Whitman murdered 16 people and left notes that suggest he was losing touch with reality. He thought about violence all the time and found it difficult to understand his impulses. Bogdanovich borrows bits and pieces of Whitman’s story, but you have to infer most of it.

Tim O’Kelly, who was in the pilot of Hawaii Five-O, this movie, and just about nothing else, plays a version of Whitman, but cleaned up as Bobby Thompson. The real Whitman was abusive and had gambling problems, but Thompson is cartoonishly polite. We see scenes where he tells his family he “gets funny thoughts” and nothing comes of it. He slinks around in darkness, smoking cigarettes and lying awake as his night-shift working wife tolerates his strange behavior and doesn’t ask questions. He buys tons of ammo, all on credit, and no one raises an eyebrow beyond making sure it’s okay that he charges it to his dad’s account. He even pulls a rifle on someone during target practice and gets what ends up being a very brief reminder about gun safety.

All of this is to show us how these things happen. We hear so often about the quiet kid next door or the friendly neighbor who always brought their trash cans in on time and are surprised after the shooting spree. In 2021 these ideas are growing outdated, as everyone is online and shouting beliefs they could have hidden in the world of Targets, but the point remains: You never know.

As he leaves the gun store for the first time, Thompson sees Byron Orlok across the street. Karloff plays Orlok as a version of himself, a former star from creepy genre films from old Hollywood who now has to figure out how to fit in as a star people know for a very specific, very outmoded thing. Karloff may not have felt the way his character Orlok did, but you can see how tired he is as he plays the role. Whether it’s a perfect representation of his feelings or not, it’s a role only Karloff could play. Well, him or Vincent Price, which Bogdanovich lampshades in the movie by mentioning Price as a possible fill in when Orlok says he won’t be in a new movie.

Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This is essential listening for anyone who cares about old Hollywood, but it’s especially true for this movie. Longworth goes deep on Bogdanovich and on Targets specifically in a season about Polly Platt, who was Bogdanovich’s wife at the time and who got a story credit for Targets. You should listen to all of it and there’s too much to get into here, but Platt’s relationship with Bogdanovich and the credit she received (and didn’t receive) is a fascinating saga that doesn’t paint a great picture of Peter Bogdanovich.

Bogdanovich plays himself in Targets. It’s probably not supposed to be exactly him, but I think anything you’d try to draw as a distinction is unimportant. He tries to get Orlok to be in a movie but when Orlok says he’s retiring because he’s a relic and the real world is scarier than men in masks, it all falls apart. Bogdanovich shows up drunk at Orlok’s hotel and they do some superb drunk acting before deciding it’s all worth doing, if only one more time.

The two stories converge at the drive-in and Orlok is a central part of the resolution. Targets came out at a very specific time in America, just after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. America wasn’t ready to see a movie about gun violence in 1968 and Targets wasn’t a huge success commercially. Critics liked it, though Roger Ebert suggested it would be better without the Orlok subplot. You wouldn’t be left with much of a movie then, but it is inescapable how divergent the two stories are until the very last moment.

I’ve always felt the ending to be too neat of a bow on the two stories, but I think Targets is really fascinating. The gunman plot is creepy, especially as you start to see it coming but no one else in the story does. Karloff gives a tremendous performance, especially as he tells a spooky story to a radio DJ in lieu of an answer to an interview question. The whole thing has been hailed as a powerful statement about gun control, but in a modern viewing it speaks more about mental health. There’s absolutely no gun regulation in place, but more than that no one in the gunman’s life takes a passing interest in what he’s saying, feeling, or doing. Everyone just operates based on what they’d expect him to do, regardless of if that happens or not. It feels weird on a first viewing, but it’s really clear why on future watches.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Targets and Starship Troopers both present a veneer of joyful “peace” through varied degrees of militaristic, “traditional” values. It’s not a stretch to say they both couch a darker reality in this shell, though Targets also wanders through a message about what it means to be alive in a society that’s changing and characters that don’t understand why. Starship Troopers deliberately doesn’t show us an Orlok figure. I think Starship Troopers probably made me think more than Targets, but I’m more partial to Targets, mess and all.

Is it the best movie of all time? I still give this to Badlands, so no, Bogdanovich’s debut doesn’t surpass it. Karloff’s performance really is outstanding, though, and it might tip the scale for me if not for what still feels like a rushed ending to me. Targets is really interesting, especially for a first film, though, and I can’t recommend the experience enough.

You can watch Targets on Amazon Prime or YouTube, both are $2.99 at the time of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.