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Friday, August 31, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1983)

14. The Osterman Weekend

After almost twenty years of pissing off every producer he worked with, along with his growing dependence on alcohol, Sam Peckinpah found himself out of work. He was truly an industry pariah. In the early eighties, his old friend and mentor Don Siegal gave him a second unit director job on comedy flop “Jinxed!” This showed Peckinpah was still capable of working. At the same time, B-movie producers Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer acquired the rights to Robert Ludlum's espionage thriller “The Osterman Weekend.” They hoped Peckinpah's name would lend the movie, their attempt to break out of B-pictures, an air of respectability. Predictably, the director began feuding with the producers immediately. Peckinpah's ailing health would make “The Osterman Weekend” his last feature but production was as embattled as always for ol' Sam.

John Tanner hosts a popular and especially incendiary political talk show. He's famous for bringing on major public figures and having them reveal state secrets. Knowing this, the CIA chooses Tanner as an operative. Agent Lawrence Fassett believes his wife was murdered by a secret Soviet spy ring known as Omega. Tanner's old college friends, he is told, are also associated with Omega. Under the orders of director Maxwell Danforth, Fassett fits Tanner's house with cameras and monitors. So a normal weekend with old friends – television producer Bernard Osterman, plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne, stock trader Joseph Cardone, and their wives – becomes a tense two days full of paranoia. However, as the night goes on, John discovers not everything is as it seems.

“The Osterman Weekend” is the first movie Sam Peckinpah really made about the Cold War era. Yes, “The Killer Elite” was set in that world but, with its ninjas and secret assassins, handled things on a more obviously fantastical level. “The Osterman Weekend,” however, comes very close to capturing an effective atmosphere of paranoia. There are few scenes in the movie where the characters aren't under surveillance. Once the cameras are installed in his home, Tanner is frequently either secretly watching people or secretly being watched himself. As effective as this can be, Peckinpah also undermines this with odd touches of humor. Like Fassett's monitor getting stuck and having to pretend to be a weather man when Osterman and the others enter the room.

In addition to his copious consumption of alcohol, by this point Sam Peckinpah had also added a serious cocaine addiction to his list of vices. Considering his poor health, I have no idea what Sam was using during the production of “The Osterman Weekend.” However, the movie has the kind of jittery, uneasy energy that you associate with the drug. (At least one character inhales the powdery substance several times on screen.) All the characters seem on edge, even when they're ostensibly suppose to be calm. Everyone is irritable. This fits in with a story where none of the characters know who to trust. Yet the oddly unsettling atmosphere seems like a deliberate choice in the film and not a reflection of the story.

Despite resembling “The Killer Elite” some in plot, the previous Peckinpah movie “The Osterman Weekend” most resembles is “Straw Dogs.” Both films concern fragile male egos coming to blows within a tight location. From the beginning, Osterman and the others suspect Tanner knows about their illegal activities. Compared to family man Tanner, all his friends are cock-swinging macho guys. Joseph seems ready to kill Tanner during a disagreement over a simple volley ball game. As the weekend goes on, the Tanner house seems smaller and smaller. This tension eventually boils over around the dinner table, the characters yelling at one another and trading fisticuffs. Yet the film frames all these arguments and combativeness as petty bullshit. If everyone calmly talked it out, things probably would've been okay. But everyone has to be hot-headed and idiotic. (As in “Straw Dogs,” Peckinpah also has a dead pet shoved into a hiding place. Luckily, the director ultimately spares the family dog this time.)

With everything “The Osterman Weekend” has going for it, the story remains a big distraction. I haven't read Robert Ludlam's source novel, or any of Ludlam's novel for that matter. However, I'm familiar with his reputation for convoluted espionage plots. That certainly holds true here. Once “The Osterman Weekend” is over, the motivations and master plans of the characters seem fairly straight forward. In execution, there's a number of plot twist, zig-zags, and story swerves. It quickly gets hard to follow. The nature of the climax is especially baffling. You really wonder if this convoluted series of events was really the easiest way for the villains to get what they wanted.

Throughout his career, Sam Peckinpah would direct some groundbreaking action sequences. His use of violence, slow motion, and quick editing was famous and renowned. However, something is seriously off in “The Osterman Weekend.” During a car chase, Tanner drives to drive around an impaling pipe. This moment is conveyed through alternating jump cuts and slow motion. It's also paired with a bizarrely drawn out sound effect. That unusual sound design continues in the second half. Melee attacks sound like thunder strikes. Firing machine guns are like nuclear explosions. The odd sound choices are paired with Peckinpah's trademark slow-mo but in a way that's more baffling and off-putting than powerful. Considering Sam didn't get to edit “The Osterman Weekend” how he wanted, it's hard to say if this is even his fault.

Peckinpah's final also, strangely enough, shows the director trying his hand at eroticism. While sex and nudity has cropped up in Sam's movies before, they were far from steamy. “The Osterman Weekend,” however, opens with a lengthy sex scene. Tremayne's cokehead wife is frequently topless, when she's not lounging around in a slinky bikini. Later, Cardone and his wife also have an intimate moment, which is caught on the spy cameras. The sex scenes are long enough to feel gratuitous.  They seem to contribute little to the film and just make Peckinpah look like a dirty old man.

For all its flaws, “The Osterman Weekend” does have a pretty stacked cast. It's led by Rutger Hauer as Tanner. On the surface, Hauer probably seems miscast. The famously blue-eyed Dutchman brings little of the intensity you associated with his various villain roles or performances in Paul Verhoeven films. As a loving family man, Hauer seems slightly disinterested. As a grilling television host, he's practically mechanical. As the film progresses, and the situation grows more dire, Hauer displays an effectively nervous, sweaty quality. He does a good job of conveying how out of his element John Tanner really is.

Essentially as the secondary lead is John Hurt as Lawrence Fassett. While Hauer is reserved, Hurt makes the pain his character is feeling all too obvious. Beneath his hardened face and gravelly voice, Hurt conveys the angst Fassett feels over his dead wife. As the character's true villainous colors are revealed, Hurt's performance becomes more and more unhinged. By the end, his eyes are wide and starring and his skin is sweaty. This dual approach, of conveying the villain's pain and his clear insanity, manages to make Fassett a sympathetic but dangerous villain. Even if his evil scheme ends up being needlessly complicated.

Playing the trio of Tanner's old college buddies are some familiar faces. Craig T. Nelson, sporting an incredibly bushy mustache, plays Osterman. Nelson, though better known for his fatherly roles, is effectively physical in the part. The character is a bruiser and Nelson's large frame conveys that. Dennis Hopper is underutilized as Tremayne, the character ending up as something of a red herring. However, Hopper's trademark intensity still adds something memorable to the part. Chris Sarandon plays Cardone, who is by far the biggest asshole in the movie. I mean, he kicks a dog for no reason at one point. Sarandon makes the character as deeply unlikable as possible, in an over-the-top and entertainingly hammy manner.

There's other notable names throughout the cast. Burt Lancaster appears as Danforth. Lancaster was familiar with roles like this, masking a cold and calculated villainy behind a mask of respectability and civility. Meg Foster plays Tanner's mouth. She has decent chemistry with Hauer in what's mostly an underwritten role. Foster does get an action scene to herself, taking out some mercenaries with a bow-and-arrow, an image cool enough to make the poster. She's by far the most stable of the film's actresses. Helen Shaver goes over-the-top as Virginia, Tremayne's drug addict wife. She shrieks much of her dialogue, never letting the audience forget the character is a slutty cokehead. Cassie Yates is more exaggerated in her bitchiness as Cardone's wife, though she at least seems to be a real human being.

As you'd come to expect by now, “The Osterman Weekend” had a difficult production. Peckinpah's director's cut reportedly feature more sex, an even less clear plot, and several comedic scenes openly mocking the material. Test audiences hated this version and the producers demanded the director re-cut it. When he refused, they re-edited the film without him. If Peckinpah's preferred cut would've been superior to what we got is hard to say. “The Osterman Weekend” is a bizarre, occasionally effective thriller that still makes many baffling decision. It is far from the director's best movie but it is a defiantly interesting one. [Grade: C+]

By the early eighties, Sam Peckinpah was not doing well. Supposedly, he was ill all throughout filming "The Osterman Weekend" and did post-production work on the film while bedridden. His professional life was faring just as poorly, as no film studio was interested in working with such a notoriously difficult director. Despite these circumstances, Peckinpah continued to work right up until the end of his life. A few months before he died, he directed two music videos for Julian Lennon. (Neither show much of his trademark style, primarily being simple performance pieces.) Around the same time, he was apparently prepping a new film, an action movie called "On the Rocks." It was not be. Bloody Sam died in December of 1984.

What else can be said about Peckinpah? By most accounts, he was a deeply principled man and also a drunk jerk. Few filmmakers sum up the legend of the self-destructive but brilliant director like him. Putting his turbulent life behind, he certainly left behind one hell of a legacy. Though deeply uneven, this Report Card sure had some high highs.

Long time Film Thoughts readers should know what's coming up next month. I'm hoping to get out some other short projects before You Know What starts. Until then, see ya soon.

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