Throughout the 1970’s, critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was celebrated among the notables of the “New Hollywood” movement, earning the distinction on the merits of a trio of wildly successful early films, The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc (1972), and Paper Moon (1973). One of his earliest efforts, the 1968 thriller Targets, is an overlooked gem in his oeuvre, a distinctive work examining distressing cultural and psychological factors coalescing to provoke mass murder. Many critics praised the film’s plentiful strengths, yet Targets carries a tarnished reputation due to poor reception from audiences in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy occurring that same year. Targets could be produced today, resonating soundly in the climate of proliferating mass shootings plaguing the U.S. Bogdanovich’s ambiguous handling of intense and timely subject matter makes a strong case for a reassessment of the film upon its fiftieth anniversary.
Bogdanovich’s vision is a fictionalized reworking of the 1966 mass shooting perpetrated by Charles Whitman, the “Texas Tower Sniper”, a sharpshooting ex-Marine who after murdering his wife Kathy Whitman and mother Margaret Whitman, opened fire on the campus of the University of Texas. Whitman killed seventeen people and wounded thirty-one more, firing at will from atop the fortified observation deck of the university tower. By many accounts, Whitman was highly intelligent, an avid outdoorsman, and a diligent family man. He was also a fragile man haunted by a traumatic history of family violence, drug dependence, and hostile impulses. His mind unraveled from the accumulated stresses of his life and a burning hatred of his father, possibly exacerbated by a brain tumor discovered during his autopsy. In his chilling book A Sniper in the Tower, a work detailing Whitman’s life and subsequent shocking crimes, author Gary Lavergne considers the psychological toll and lingering effects on the nation following the gunman’s horrendous acts. Lavernge writes in the prologue, “It took Charles Whitman an hour and a half to turn the symbol of a premiere university into a monument to madness and terror. With deadly efficiency he introduced America to public mass murder, and in the process forever changed our notions of safety in open spaces. Arguably, he introduced America to domestic terrorism, but it was terrorism without a cause. (Lavergne ix)
The story concocted for Targets concerns a disturbed young man called Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), modeled after Whitman. Over the course of the film, we witness Bobby plummet from mild-mannered everyman into a cold-blooded killer, shooting travelers indiscriminately along the highway from atop an oil tower and patrons from behind the screen at a drive-in movie theatre. Bogdanovich smartly eschews a definitive underlying cause provoking the violence on display, but provides the viewer enough intriguing pieces to help us evaluate America’s disturbing atmosphere of public mass violence within its intimate scope.
Targets was crafted amid the political tumult that fueled anti-establishment works like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). These titles exemplified the era, but Targets epitomizes most distinctly the line of demarcation between the fading attraction of fantasy horror upended by the realistic horrors ushered in by “new journalism,” modes of reporting influenced by Truman Capote’s immensely successful In Cold Blood, as well as images arriving from mobile documentarians covering atrocities abroad in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. A generation marked as having “lost its innocence” was now regularly confronted with intense visions of warfare, political assassinations, and racial clashes, and modern audiences were losing interest in works inspired by the Gothic frights of the Victorian era. These cultural upheavals provoked by the media are embodied in the character Byron Orlok, gracefully portrayed by Boris Karloff in one of his best and final film appearances. He takes on the semi-autobiographical role of an archetypal and embittered horror actor who acknowledges that he’s become an anachronism in the modern world. Orlok’s tale of professional and existential discontent unfolds adjacent to Bobby’s homicidal descent, and the two storylines eventually converge in the film’s explosive climax. Transplanting the drama from Austin to Los Angeles allows Bagdanovich to trace the idiosyncratic behavior and habits of the tormented Bobby, juxtaposing his uneventful life with the petty backroom politics of Hollywood vexing Orlok.
Targets opens with a clip from Roger Corman’s hastily made The Terror (1963), the inclusion of which being one of two conditions set by Corman to produce Bogdanovich’s picture. The other stipulation was Karloff’s appearance in the film, as the horror icon owed Corman two days of contract work. These elements were folded into a screenplay shaped by Bogdanovich and Polly Platt, with help from an uncredited Samuel Fuller. Bogdanovich incorporated Corman’s low-budget work at the start to accentuate the plight of Karloff’s character, whose disinterested visage as the lights come up is our initial connection to the story. To the dismay of the roomful of film executives watching the scene, the film’s listless star, whom they hope will appear in their next big production, announces his retirement. Orlok’s decision stuns everyone in the room, particularly his dedicated assistant Jenny (Nancy Hsueh) and burgeoning filmmaker Sammy Michaels (portrayed by Bogdanovich), threatening Sammy’s chance to direct his first serious screenplay with Orlok as the lead. The aging thespian’s seemingly abrupt decision has a pronounced effect on a microcosm of agents and producers who rely on his work for their livelihoods, and complicates the romantic relationship shared between Sammy and Jenny.
Meanwhile, Bobby purchases a rifle and ammo from a gun shop across the street, situated right on the Sunset Strip. “You have an honest face,” remarks the gun salesman as he rings up his amiable customer for a rifle and several boxes of ammo. He and Bobby spy Orlok and his cohorts arguing across the street, and both ruminate on casual sightings of celebrities in this section of West Hollywood. They finish the transaction, unbeknownst to both principals that Bobby and Byron will cross paths under dire circumstances. Bobby packs his purchases into the trunk of his new Ford Mustang, already filled with guns, and sets out on L.A.’s vast freeway.
What’s most frightening about Bogdanovich’s film is the banality surrounding Bobby’s daily life. He’s the very epitome of the clean-cut, all-American man, outfitted in bland white collar clothing, driving around the city in a convertible sports car while listening to rock-and-roll music and eating copious candy bars. He and his wife live with his parents in a comfortable suburban home, sharing meals at the dinner table, and ending their days in front of the television. Bobby interacts with his family in a pleasant enough manner, but appears locked in a state of arrested development, unsatisfied with his job as an insurance salesman, yet neither adventurous nor stable enough to leave the comforts of his parents’ home. Bogdanovich handles the family dynamics delicately, careful to avoid implicating anyone as influencing Bobby’s future crimes, making minor allusions to the autocratic parenting of Whitman’s real life abusive father and staunchly religious mother. This subtle handling of the Thompson family’s interrelationships helps Bogdanovich achieve the level of ambiguity integral to instilling sympathy for his characters.
Targets was photographed by superb cinematographer László Kovács, a frequent Bogdanovich collaborator and visionary in the “American New Wave” who lensed many films celebrating outsiders and the counterculture like Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), and The Rebel Rousers (1970). Kovács’ photography here is understated, painstakingly (often illegally) capturing Los Angeles topography from cityscapes to barren highways under natural lighting conditions, and without the requisite permits to do so. Kovács’ aesthetic choices reflect the ordinariness of the landscape, particularly in Bobby’s home, and on the expansive Los Angeles freeway, heightening the terror during Bobby’s bursts of violence. He and Bogdanovich utilize long takes to instill unease in the viewer, and orchestrate subtle panning moves to seamlessly intertwine the two stories. The visuals are enhanced by the fabulous sound design of pioneering editor Verna Fields, who won an Oscar for her work in Jaws (1975).
Narratives focusing on the killing sprees of highly disturbed men terrorizing public spaces have been explored in many forms in films like Two-Minute Warning (1976), The Park is Mine (1986), Falling Down (1993), Phone Booth (2002), and the recent Downrange (2017). The Deadly Tower (AKA Sniper), a 1975 television movie directed by Jerry Jamison, is based on the true story of the Texas University Tower shootings, and features Kurt Russell as a twitchy Whitman. Tower (2016), an animated documentary produced by Keith Maitland, combines archival footage with rotoscoping technique to tell its terrifying story of the Texas Tower Shootings. With the exception of Maitland’s documentary, many of these films focus heavily on the disastrous actions of their antagonists, while barely cultivating any psychological or cultural subtext that is the foundation of Bogdanovich’s approach. Bogdanovich abstains from sensationalistic indulgences, choosing to engage the audience with the minute actions of his character. The cumulative effect of these smaller details allows the viewer to consider a number of interpretations without the pretense of offering categorical explanations, or worse, justifications.
Bobby’s psychological lapses manifest in small but disturbing ways as his grip on self-control loosens. Early on, Bobby returns home from his work day at the usual dinner time, but rather than announce his presence, wanders around the house silently as if an intruder, eavesdropping on his mother’s and wife’s conversation as they prepare dinner. Bogdanovich slyly inserts offscreen audio excerpts from Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), a movie-of-the-week promotion blaring from the Thompson’s television set, covering up the sounds of Bobby’s movements. Preminger’s riveting courtroom classic – and the real murder case that inspired it – concerns a murder defendant named Manny Manion (Ben Gazzara) who is exonerated when his attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart) successfully argues an “irresistible impulse” defense against a charge of premeditated murder. The circumstances are vastly different in Manion’s case, but the inclusion of this sound excerpt is purposeful. Mannion’s haunting recount of a “dissociative reaction” to murdering his wife’s alleged rapist might ripple through Bobby’s own mind as Manion testifies, “I remember hearing shots, but they don’t seem connected with me. They seemed far away, like somebody else was doing the shooting.”
As we witness Bobby’s day-to-day behaviors, his urges are evoked in many disquieting moments. The most memorable occurs on a shooting range, when Bobby aims a rifle at his gun enthusiast father while his back is turned, restlessly fingering the trigger. His father catches him, and reprimands him for his carelessness. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” is Bobby’s response during the confrontation. Bobby’s compulsion extends to stashing an arsenal of firearms in the trunk of his car, procuring enormous amounts of ammo even though there’s already an alarming amount at his disposal. Shortly after packing a new gun away in the trunk of his car he drives past the oil tower, seemingly staking it out as a potential point of aggression, even though he may not be aware at the time. There is a highly organized, almost ritualistic quality to the way he lays out his firearms. These images filter through the lens to invite the viewer to consider the pre-meditative quality of Bobby’s urges, whose actions travel beyond that of person deemed temporarily insane— a man forming a plan.
Bogdanovich’s sympathetic touch is applied to a scene exposing Bobby’s raw vulnerability. He attempts to open up to his wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan), who is preoccupied with readying herself for a night shift as a switchboard operator. He tries to articulate his inner turmoil, but only awkwardly utters the sentiment, “I get funny ideas,” to his preoccupied wife. Ilene doesn’t take his words seriously, and shrugs off his attempts to get her to call in sick to work, leaving him to brood alone in the dark. Ilana’s relationship to Bobby in the story is naive when it comes to his mental anguish. Whitman’s own wife, however, was regularly exposed to her troubled husband’s debilitating bouts of depression.
Bogdanovich makes excellent use of foreshadowing, using dialogue to underscore the sobering aspects of the film. Preparing for his live appearance at a local drive-in, Orlok – bored with generic interview questions proposed by the radio disc jockey hosting the event – launches into a mesmerizing monologue, augmented by the haunting timbre of the stately Karloff’s voice. His spooky story, which he plans to share with the drive-in crowd, alludes to the inescapable fate of an appointment with death. As the camera closes in, we realize his prescient words will factor in the film’s finale. Bogdanovich also borrows small details from the real life Whitman – lifting quotes and behaviors and imbuing them into Bobby. For example, a salesman at a separate gun shop asks Bobby what he plans shooting with such a large quantity of ammo, to which he replies, “I’m going to shoot a bunch of pigs.”
In commentary from Warner Bros 2013 DVD edition of Targets, Bogdanovich confesses that he’s not a fan of horror films. It’s a shame, because the techniques he employs during the violent scenes are extremely effective and unsettling. The murders of Ilene and Bobby’s mother Charlotte (Mary Jackson) are masterfully orchestrated using a montage of images culminating in jarring displays. The lack of music cues and a traditional score (Bogdanovich opts for incidental music in the film) to manipulate the viewer’s emotions works exceptionally well in invoking authentic pathos. This extends to the scenes where Bobby shoots from atop the oil tower. Dissatisfied with the crosshair effect added by technicians, Bogdanovich hand-painted every frame to achieve a more realistic look as though through the genuine telescopic sight of a high-powered rifle. The speed and accuracy with which his victims are dispatched, as well as their stunned bewilderment viewed through the scope, is startlingly realistic and utterly terrifying.
The typewritten note left by Bobby after murdering his wife and mother is an abridged version of the one left by Whitman. Whitman, in fact, kept a journal and regularly recorded entries detailing his turmoil; his final handwritten suicide letter explains his reasoning for killing his wife and mother, but ends with illegible scrawl. For the purposes of the film, it reads succinctly: “To Whom it May Concern: It is now 11:40 A.M. My wife is still asleep, but when she wakes up I am going to kill her. Then I am going to kill my mother. I know they will get me, but there will be more killing before I die.” The power of these words echo throughout the remainder of the film as Bobby’s prediction comes to fruition.
After shooting several drivers on the highway, Bobby eludes police by hiding out in the Reseda Drive-In, the site of Orlok’s scheduled in-person appearance. The climax is a display of chaos and confusion as Bobby fires upon the patrons in a tightly-packed lot from behind the screen as The Terror looms over them. The sounds of the film cover up the gunfire, but a frenzy ensues when some of the victims are discovered shot to death in and around their automobiles, and the projectionist is found dead. Anyone who’s attended a drive-in screening can attest to the disarray associated with exiting under normal conditions, and it’s nearly impossible to escape the confines of the Reseda’s lot once the sniper begins unloading. Jenny, who has accompanied Orlok to the engagement, is critically wounded. Fed up with the ordeal, Orlok spots the source of the gunfire behind the screen. Orlok is ready to face death, and approaches as his own image is projected. The juxtaposition of these two versions of Orlok, the larger-than-life screen presence, and the declining older version, disorient Bobby long enough to confuse his marksmanship and he lowers his gun. Orlok is able to take advantage, and promptly smacks Bobby with his cane, sending him cowering into a corner. It is the oft-villainous Orlok’s chance to finally be the hero for his loyal audience, living his most important role as their savior. He scoffs at the notion of fearing such a pathetic creature as this cringing young man. As the authorities cart him off, Bobby casually remarks, “I hardly ever missed, “ signifying a lack of remorse that is a hallmark trait of sociopaths. Bogdanovich closes with a beautifully symbolic and somber image of the empty drive-in as a dark cloud moves across the face of the lot. The silence of the moment rings more loudly than any gunshot, a stunning visual epitaph for our public gathering spaces consumed by the terror of mass violence.
Helmer, William. “The Madman on the Tower.” Texas Monthly, Texas Monthly, 1 Aug. 1986, www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-madman-on-the-tower/.
Lavergne, Gary M. A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders. University of North Texas Press, 1997.
Sauer, Patrick. “The Story of the First Mass Murder in U.S. History.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 14 Oct. 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/story-first-mass-murder-us-history-180956927/.
Tayiabr. “Charles Whitman’s Suicide Note.” Library of Babel, 26 Aug. 2017, tayiabr.wordpress.com/2017/08/26/charles-whitmans-suicide-note/.