Peter Bogdanovich's first film and one of Boris Karloff's last, 1968's Targets was conceived as a quickie B-movie, but came to represent so much else: a changing of the guard, a street-level snapshot of America at the end of the Sixties/its collective tether, and a first-rank L.A. film, watching over deadly intersections on the fringes of the film business. Karloff's Byron Orlok is the horror-movie veteran planning one final public appearance before retirement at the drive-in premiere of his latest opus (footage recycled from Roger Corman's The Terror); Matt Damon lookalike Tim O'Kelly the gun nut with Orlok (and several other Angelenos) squarely in his sights. Sporting a lovely lemon sweater, Bogdanovich wafts suavely through the opening scene as a boy-wonder director keen to sign Orlok for his next project, but thereafter he's mostly busy offscreen; cutting between his antagonists as they go about their daily business, he defers the action while anticipating the subtly observed interactions of The Last Picture Show (which would work well as an alternate title). A film of two halves, then, and with its clever interpolation of other movies (Karloff watches his younger self in 1930's The Criminal Code), the light showbiz comedy - bolstered by superior turns from the doleful star and his boyishly exasperated director - does feel like an attempt to do something new: to acknowledge and re-evaluate a whole Hollywood history. Revisited a half-century on, this half positions Bogdanovich as a Tarantino avant l'heure - a movie buff who parlayed his enthusiasms into a career for himself.
Yet the other half may be even more revealing, suggestive as it is of what might have happened if Bogdanovich hadn't had the breaks he'd got. Like a West Coast premonition of whatever Scorsese and Schrader would get up to in the later Taxi Driver, this half introduces us to a sociopath - inspired by Texas Tower sniper Charles Whitman - who lives at home with his mum and ever-tired wife, and only finds release from sexual frustration whenever he puts his finger on the trigger. (The movie feels like an extended play on the multiple meanings of the word "shooting".) What Bogdanovich saw through his viewfinder - as clearly as the sniper does through his sight - isn't just a clash between old and new worlds, one generation of horrors and the next, but something even closer to home: a clash between two sides, creative and destructive, of the same obsessive personality. Certain limitations remain visible: a TV production budget, which leave the interiors looking no better or worse than the average episode of Columbo, and artless overdubbing, only more conspicuous on the version currently circulating on streaming platforms. Yet they're comprehensively transcended by the time of the superbly marshalled, still ultra-tense finale, a hall-of-fame setpiece where the editing, shot selection and spatial continuity put the bulk of this century's major American releases to shame. A B-picture that develops into a vision of something more complex and troubling besides: Larry McMurtry, Cybill Shepherd and several wilder swings yet were only a few years around the corner.
Targets is available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube.