Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Osterman Weekend

Note: This post is my contribution to the Sam Peckinpah Blog-a-Thon hosted by [This Savage Art].
"What you just saw, in a way, was a live video game." - Tanner (Rutger Hauer), The Osterman Weekend

The auteur theory - the idea that some great directors, through will and skill, can infuse an otherwise mediocre film with their personal vision and give it hidden, inside meaning - has no better proof than the oeuvre of Sam Peckinpah and is nowhere more evident than in The Osterman Weekend.

It's based on a Robert Ludlum potboiler - Ian Masters and Alan Sharp are credited with the adaptation - but Peckinpah fuses the twisty-turny, cross-and-double cross story with his own paranoid feelings about loyalty and betrayal, and his ambivalence about technology and progress in such a way that the resulting movie is as much a reflection of his personal vision as any he ever made - even those movies which he had much more control over.

The story involves a TV show host/Edward R. Murrow-style investigative journalist (played by Rutger Hauer), who is coerced into spying on a group of his friends who, according to a CIA agent (John Hurt), are, themselves, Communist spies.

The movie isn't that well-regarded, and, on first viewing, its easy to see why: the plot is convoluted and certain key plot points are either under emphasized or absent, the acting is (to be charitable) inconsistent (the best performances coming from the solid supporting cast), and the design looks cheap - much more like a made-for-TV movie than a theatrical feature by a major American filmmaker.

The purpose of this post is to push the idea that the movie deserves to be reassessed: I think it's one of the most interesting spy movies of its era and, while not nearly as fully-realized, it's a true companion to Brian De Palma's Blow Out. They'd make a great double feature on the themes of paranoia, surveillance, and the limits of technology to get at "the truth".

I'd like to suggest some things to look for in the movie that show what I think Peckinpah is up to.

Video Images: True and False

Video is everywhere in this movie: the character use it to spy on each other, their houses have TV sets in every room, CIA agents sit at banks of monitors in order to control things from a distance.

Take the opening:

Lalo Schifrin's soft jazz score plays underneath a grainy video image of John Hurt in bed with a woman. The cheesiness of the music and the "videoness" of the picture combine to give us the sense we're watching some kind of cheap porno.

But this turns out to be the reverse of Brian De Palma's trick from Blow Out. There, we start out thinking we're watching an "actual" stalking, but it's "really" just an exploitation slasher movie. Here, our expectations - some soft-core sex - get turned upside down when killers come out of the woodwork and (fatally) drug the woman.

The two openings serve the same purpose: the are warning from the director about how easily we can be manipulated by images and they are letting us know that what we see won't always be the truth.

The movie has another great illustration of the deceptiveness of video:

Rutger Hauer's investigative journalist is all about uncovering "the truth", but Peckinpah gives us a look at how he puts together his show, Face-to-Face.

First off: the title itself is a lie. Hauer doesn't actually face off against his guests: they're talking to each other via video hook-up. And though Hauer is supposed to be eliciting candid responses from the politicians he grills, Peckinpah shows us the behind-the-scenes manipulation that goes on to make sure that Hauer remains in complete control. Peckinpah gives us a news program is as managed as the production of the rigged Twenty-One in Quiz Show.

The deceptiveness of video plays an important part in almost every major twist-and-turn in the movie.

Video Cameras: Public and Private

There's another (related) theme that Peckinpah introduces in the opening scene: the video world has helped to blur the line between public and private.

In this movie the characters not only peep on each other's most intimate moments, but these moments get broadcast on TV.

And CIA agent Hurt runs his operation like a mirror image of the TV production - sitting in front of video monitors, directing the action from behind the scenes - but this production plays out in Hauer's actual house, not a studio, and the "performers" are Hauer's family and friends.

In The Osterman Weekend, privacy is always being violated, and the "authority" figures in the movie are always willing to justify this invasion as necessary for the public good.

This leads to another kind of public/private divide that Peckinpah brings out, namely that the government thinks it needs to keep secrets from the public, for its own good.

Burt Lancaster plays the government heavy who's trying to manage a huge cover-up - his signature quote: "Being wrong isn't nearly as important as not admitting it."

Remote Control

It's through Lancaster's character that Peckinpah bring up a theme from earlier films: that the lowest kind of man is one who has his killings done by proxy. Lancaster sets things in motion, orders hits over the phone, but always tries to keep his image clean. This is railroad man Pat Harrigan from The Wild Bunch, the Mexican gangster who puts the bounty on the head of Alfredo Garcia, the business-suited CIA operatives in The Killer Elite.

Trust, Betrayal, and Loyalty

Hopefully, I've at least shown that you can uncover literary evidence in the movie. But that's really academic. What galvanizes the movie is Peckinpah's sure sense of filmmaking - the deliberateness of the editing and staging and his (nearly) unmatched mastery of action sequences - and his obsession with the ideas of trust, betrayal, and loyalty. Peckinpah projects his own (nearly paranoid) feelings of having been betrayed onto the characters in this movie.

The climax of the movie brings everything together: Hauer uses TV production tricks to turn the tables on Hurt and Lancaster, both. At this point, Hauer becomes something like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs: his world has been violated and now he's going to make everything right. But, in a sense, The Osterman Weekend operates on a more sophisticated moral plane than Straw Dogs, where the "making everything right" really meant "use violence to set everything right".

Here, because the bad guys will always be better at violence, Hauer can't just fight them - he has to expose them and their lies. It's Peckinpah's ironic, somewhat bitter twist, that in order to get at the truth, Hauer must use deception, himself.

The Osterman Weekend isn't a masterpiece. The lead performances are perfunctory and, while some movies made on the cheap look great, this isn't one of them. But it is made with thought and passion. Watching it now, or rather, championing it now, a "problem" that comes up is that it was so prophetic in terms of how it saw televideo culture's invasion of private life that a lot of its insights seem a bit passe now. Still, when it comes to movies about paranoia and surveillance, The Osterman Weekend stands behind only a few - The Conversation and Blow Out - and is as worthy of some critical love and attention as better-received movies like The Parallax View.

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