[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 20 Number 2, March-April 1984]
Mandeville Canyon is a quiet, curvy stretch of road a good ten miles from Hollywood, lined with well-appointed homes generously separated by shrub and woodland. Where the grade begins to increase, as if the road aspired to eventually climbing out of the surrounding high hills, one’s eyes cast leftward toward a graciously imposing bluff. Ranks of white fence dominate the near horizon and reappear brokenly through the trees on the hillside beyond. From the road they’re the only visible sign of “Robert Taylor’s little cabin where he used to ride horses—in point of fact, a sprawling ranch house replete with baronial dining rooms, parlors, studies, bedrooms, and enough bars to keep the clientele of a metropolitan watering hole happy.
This particular late-afternoon in December 1982, the peace of Mandeville Canyon is not secure. As we park along the roadside and climb out for the walk up the long lane, an abrupt burst of light-machine-gun fire rips the twilight. We are undismayed; indeed, the effect is reassuring, even charming. Someone is tuning up for another night’s shooting on The Osterman Weekend, the first theatrical-movie version of a Robert Ludlum bestseller and the first film Sam Peckinpah has directed in five years.
EI Jefe himself has been living in the guest cottage on this, the cinemagenically apt principal location for the Osterman war games. A corner of the main house might conceivably have accommodated him, but every corridor is several layers deep with power cables and virtually every sector filled with crew members, paraphernalia, and props. The cottage is quiet, private, a place where a fellow can stay in his own good hole between forays onto the working set. Besides, it lies a third of the way between ranch house and road, and hence is well out of reach of the mudslides that have been known to eventuate whenever the “happy clay” of the hillside seeks a more congenial gradient.
Peckinpah at 56 looks ten years older than he did when we last saw him, four years previous—not so surprising when you consider that in the interim he survived what had every right to be a terminal heart attack in the middle of a western Montana nowhere. He’s obviously husbanding his strength, especially on the present schedule of night shoots that sometimes run right up till dawn. But the production, entering its third and final month, is on schedule and, for all intents and purposes, moving crisply.
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Neither he nor his admirers have any illusions about The Osterman Weekend as a comeback vehicle. The book, as the director himself politely put it, “is not among Ludlum’s best”; and although its feverish tale of a ritzy suburban home under siege in a double-treble-quadruple-cross CIA operation contains the material for a Straw Dogs Meets the Killer Elite, the project is not one Peckinpah originated, or would have chosen to. It was, however, the least despicable option available after Peckinpah’s own latest properties (The Texans, Hang Tough) failed to find backing, and it represents a chance to ply his trade again.
On the upside, the casting is provocative, even auspicious. In addition to Burt Lancaster as CIA chief and Presidential aspirant Maxwell Danforth, and rising Dutch star Rutger Hauer as John Tanner, the network-news glamour boy whose home becomes the focus of a lethal war of nerves, Peckinpah had managed to assemble a provocative collection of offbeat players variously coming on strong or overdue to break out of career holding-patterns: John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson, Meg Foster, Dennis Hopper, Helen Shaver, Chris Sarandon, Cassie Yates. Irresistible to flash back to the Sixties and recall how much of the initial Peckinpah magic had to do with a taste and talent for cajoling volatile performances from such eccentric un- and little-knowns as Warren Oates, Mariette Hartley, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, Bo Hopkins, and James Coburn.
The downside is formidable. Peckinpah’s producers, Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer, are already well on the way to earning their niche in the hall of ill-fame memorializing a career’s worth of producer-compromised Peckinpah films. They have denied him the chance to work with his editor of choice, Lou Lombardo, and forbidden him to revise the Alan Sharp screenplay (though word on the set has it that they are more receptive to changes proposed by star Hauer). Peckinpah says he got to do only “a twenty-minute polish” before the final script was locked in. He concedes that the screenplay constitutes a vast improvement over the novel, but snarls that it concentrates on “not characters but situations“—the obverse of the formula for a true Peckinpah film, wherein action and character are inseparable. The former, however spectacularly engineered, is mere setting-up exercise unless infused with, and consecrated to illuminating, the latter.
The situations in the script oblige Peckinpah to deal in more gimmickry than he is comfortable with. Sharp has extrapolated a whole new layer of action in keeping with the omnipresent paranoia of the novel: Virtually everything that happens, everywhere, to everybody, is being covered by multiple—and often wildly improbable—video cameras. (An entire separate crew is employed to get this video coverage, at 24 rather than the standard 30 frames per second, for eventual merging with the celluloid footage.) Then too, there is the Space Age weaponry wielded by the outlaw CIA types. Much is being made of red laser beams needling through the brownish-blue fog in the night chases outside the Tanner homestead, and Panzer—in costume and grooming the perfect preppie—keeps dropping in to propose new technological atrocities: maybe a man could be shot with a rifle grenade, and the grenade explodes as it comes out his back…. At such moments, Peckinpah puts on his I’m-trying-to-figure-out,-because-I’d-sincerely-like-to-know,-just-what-species-of-insect-you-are look, and waits for the conversation to be over. One dreads to think what neat inserts may find their way into the final version of the film, and how many reviewers will reach for their cliches about “Peckinpowism” to account for their presence.
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Still, the work is good. John Hurt (“He’s just brilliant,” Peckinpah says fervently; ”I’m so lucky to have him”) plays Fassett, the secretly tormented super-agent behind the mindfuck games running roughshod over the sociable Osterman weekend. We watch him shoot a couple of silent takes, ducking into a closet in the Tanner pool house and then re-emerging to stare intently offscreen. There’s a gun in his hand and a bar of vivid light across his eyes in an otherwise shadow gray environment. It’s astonishing. The pool house is jammed with crew and equipment, there’s the V of a support beam between me and Hurt, but over there in his corner of the room, the actor seems to be part of not only another plane but another order of reality. He’s already a movie image, lucid, unnerving, more absolute than the rest of us.
Other images do not come so readily. Peckinpah is having a plate of eggs in the cottage when his John Tanner comes in, dressed in the camouflage jacket he will wear through the climax of the Osterman weekend, and otherwise ready for confrontation. “Can we talk?” Hauer asks softly, and takes a stool on Peckinpah’s left. Only an occasional phrase is audible a few feet away: “It’s showtime…. If you’ll let me, I can sell it….” The scene is coming up in which Tanner must rise from the bottom of the swimming pool and fire, with a toy crossbow, at a professional assassin toting a machine gun. Hauer is uneasy with Peckinpah’s concept for the scene. “Ideally I’d like to have a long bow, but I’m afraid the action of the water. .. [He mimes a grandiose archery move spoiled by the weight of the water] … This is my rebirth….” Peckinpah finally speaks: “It’s a good effect. A big man; a little weapon. I like it.” Hauer lingers, hunched over, peering up from under blond forelock. He says, “I don’t think we ought to lose this movie over a little disagreement.” Peckinpah says nothing more. After a moment, Hauer gets up and leaves.
Up at the main house, it’s time for a man’s castle, already infiltrated by fear and suspicion, to be breached by physical threat. Walter Kelley, longtime member of the Peckinpah company, small-part player, dialogue director, and past master at supplying offscreen imitation-gunfire cues (followed by a graceful flamenco bow to the appreciative onlookers), is going to get to fire a machine gun for real. Framed malevolently in a bedroom doorway, he delights in improvising a deadpan “Die, you scum!” before releasing a burst into the camera. The sound man squatting right under the weapon is taken by surprise, and visibly recoils from the shock wave; taking the earphones off his head, he remarks, “Well, I guess he’s going to fire now!” Peckinpah sits quietly on the edge of the bed and says, “Fine.”
Kelley must charge through another door and straight into a fireplace poker wielded by Bernie Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), the one weekend guest together enough and straight enough to throw in his lot with Tanner in defending against the marauders. Peckinpah will take great pains with this bit of action: it shouldn’t be easy for a Beverly Hills TV writer, even one who works out with an Oriental martial-arts trainer, to kill a man face to face. Nelson knocks Kelley down and then grinds the poker into his groin, grunting equally from physical and emotional agony. The director steps in to demonstrate the grinding motion he wants. “You got a fucking real poker and a real human being here,” mutters Kelley from the floor. “I want to get the dying quiver,” says Peckinpah. An effects man asks, “How about blood trickling from the nostril?” “No, no blood-trickling-from-the-nostril shit.” One more pass by Nelson and Kelley is satisfactorily deceased.
Next another member of Fassett’s kill team must charge through a second door, startle Tanner and Osterman into fleeing, and lunge after them, pausing an instant to take note of the fallen Kelley. The stunt player in the role manages to muff the various stages of his action again and again, so that multiple retakes are necessary. Win Phelps, Peckinpah’s excellent first assistant, stands in for the now-absent Hauer. Craig T. Nelson, sweating like a pig from the exertions of the previous setup, nevertheless remains on set, continuing to supply the (entirely offscreen) presence for the second killer’s eyes to focus on.
By and large, cast and crew seem to be responding with a similar degree of loyalty and commitment to Peckinpah’s enterprise. In addition to effortlessly covering the thousand-and-one responsibilities of the first assistant, Phelps supplies Peckinpah with the kind of teasing, mutually testing badinage the director relishes in his closest companions. A distinguished art director who collaborated on earlier Peckinpah masterpieces is on hand—if officially not there at all—to replace the non-union production designer who proved unsatisfactory. John Coquillon, cinematographer of Straw Dogs, Cross of Iron, and the hurtfully beautiful Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, presides over his team looking for all the world like a twinkling reincarnation of Clarence Oddbody, AS2: “It’s a goodie, Jimbo! Thank you…. We can use a wee fill back in here…. Das ist besser. Add a little shower curtain, young Jim….” And again and again, trundling amid the cables, stepping around the mounts and boxes, hoisting dauntingly complex and rich-looking lenses from one hand to the other, crew members meet one another’s eyes and ask, with great gravity and circumspection, “But what does it all mean?”
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That line, a bit of insiderish drollery about the complicatedness of the moviemaking process, would echo frequently in another key as The Osterman Weekend moved onto semipublic and then public screens almost a year later. Industry types attending the one contractually guaranteed preview of Peckinpah’s cut complained that the film was “confusing,” and there was much tut-tutting over a credit sequence of Merete Van Kamp, as Mrs. Fassett, masturbating in closeup before being brutally murdered by KGB men. Leaving aside the lamentable habit of supposedly sharp observers for saying “it was confusing” when they mean “I was confused,” one wonders how any movie faithful to the constantly shifty nature of truth and illusion in Ludlumland could fail to be “confusing” without erring on the side of infidelity. As to the masturbation (a suggestion of which persists in the release cut), it’s a logical extension of the lovemaking that immediately precedes it, and seems an evocative index of the theme of violated privacy so pervasive in screenplay and film. Had anyone save Peckinpah shot it, it would undoubtedly have been hailed as a radical gesture of liberation.
Needless to add, the Osterman Weekend on view in theaters as of October 1983 was not Peckinpah’s cut. Playing it cagey, the director agreed to give x number of interviews on behalf of the promotional effort, and assured the press that, whereas he was disappointed at losing “some bits of humor and character that I had injected into the picture,” he hadn’t been so badly screwed over by the producers this time. “I had the option of either having the credit as ‘A Sam Peckinpah Film’ or removing it, so I removed it. But I’m glad to see ‘Directed by …’.”
Without such (scripted and shot) scenes as John Tanner discussing the ethics of television with his TV director, or Joe Cardone (Chris Sarandon) making love to one of his investment clients and subsequently discussing the incident with his wife, The Osterman Weekend is resolutely drawn farther away from the realm of quirky, inhabited character and deeper into mechanically contrived situation, as Peckinpah had resisted. Given the intransigently unsympathetic presence of Rutger Hauer (as John Tanner, he looks at his eleven-year-old son in much the way Blade Runner‘s android Roy Batty looked at the denizens of Earthside), and the now-piecey glimpses of the other old friends falling out during the Osterman weekend, there is little reason for caring much about who does or doesn’t get chewed up in the plot-counterplot machinery, and why.
What remains? Enough for a professional filmmaker to take pride in. The gaunted, private frenzy of John Hurt’s Fassett, a family man (there was once a stronger parallel to Tanner) taking revenge against a soul-killing system. Craig T. Nelson’s beleaguered equanimity as a self-described “nihilistic anarchist who lives on residuals.” A not very essential but lovingly elaborated intersection of truck, taxicab, motorcycle, and a long length of pipe punching its way through a car windshield, then rear window, as the dreamy montage anticipates the next element of mayhem: a train thundering toward a railway crossing. And finally, out of the video gimmickry he loathed having to indulge, a characteristic, bitterly comic Peckinpah indictment of a modernity wherein everything is screened and mediated, where life is television and the audience, perhaps, deserves no better. Ludlum’s book, Sharp’s screenplay, and the producers’ yen for cheap thrills all dictated that the head of the Tanner family’s pooch should be sacrificed to a horrific turn of the plot. Peckinpah insisted that the dog’s head in the refrigerator turn out be a fake. He spares the real pooch for a devastating penultimate image: the stand-in for the TV (and Osterman Weekend?) audience, mouth bound shut, staring at the TV screen from which his master’s voice issues.
He may not have written the line and he wouldn’t endorse the character who delivers it, but one suspects Sam Peckinpah smiled wryly at Maxwell Danforth’s words in roping John Tanner into the CIA conspiracy: “Comfort yourself with the notion that you never did have a choice. It’s usually the case.”
© 1984 Richard T. Jameson