Polly Platt

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.