The Osterman Weekend
One thing I’ll give Robert Ludlum is titles. As much as they’re resolutely formulaic, they’ve also innately memorable (at least, his first couple of decades’ worth). Titles – in rude contrast to titties – meant nothing to Sam Peckinpah, less still Ludlum’s novel, which he purportedly considered trash. Sam just wanted to get back in the moviemaking saddle, ailing and deemed an unsafe bet as he was by this point. So he willingly hitched his wagon to unsafe producers and (in his view) an unsafe script, and the results were promptly dismissed by critics, with a few notable exceptions. The Osterman Weekend was thus ripe for rediscovery, becoming a true cult item: The Peckinpah Legacy.
Bernard Osterman: No, no I’m not a revolutionary. What I am is a nihilistic anarchist who lives on residuals.
Something that was helped – to an extent, anyway – by Anchor Bay releasing an unearthed, low-res Betamax of the director’s preview cut. This showcased his vision for the movie, before it was taken away from him and cut by the producers. In fairness, it isn’t night-and-day different to the actual movie, barring some significant changes to the editing of the opening and closing, but it does serve to emphasise that Peckinpah, populist as his instincts were with regard to slow-mo eruptions of violence, was more than willing to be perversely, obstreperously uncommercial when it came to aesthetics or coherence.
I don’t know how much sense Ludlum’s novel made in the first place; by reputation, it would likely be of dubious causal integrity, so it would be understandable if the screenplay, penned by Alan Sharp following an initial draft by Ian Masters, followed suit (Sharp said he was surprised the producers went with his script, as he was dissatisfied with it). And if Peckinpah was less interested in the spycraft than the media commentary – to characteristically heavy-handed degrees at points – that was only grist to the mill. Roger Ebert denounced the picture. Others, such as Time Out’s Tom Milne and The Film Yearbook Volume 3’s Paul Taylor, trumpeted the apparent failures of coherence as a triumph of satirical comedy.
The plot finds TV journalist John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) approached by CIA agent Laurence Fassett (John Hurt) to help turn (one of) his old Berkley buddies – Bernard Osterman (Craig T Nelson), Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper) and Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) – to the cause. Fassett alleges they are Soviet spies belonging to a nefarious network known as Omega. Tanner will have to persuade his chosen target during their annual retreat, the Ostermans of the title, held at Tanner’s house. Tanner is persuaded by Fassett’s plan, in part due to the promise of CIA director Danforth (Burt Lancaster) appearing on his show.
The guests duly arrive, Tanner’s house now set up as a high-tech surveillance state, and various altercations and accusations ensue. It’s eventually revealed via a TV confessional/exposé (though partly alluded in the opening sequence) that Fassett is out for revenge on Danforth, who fancies himself as a strong new leader against the Soviet menace, for sanctioning the KGB’s murder of his wife (Merete Can Kamp). It’s this act that we see at the outset, replayed by Danforth on monitors, but also – in the preview cut – shown in a subjective, distorted, ghosting fashion, so as to intimate the bowdlerising impact of the event on Fassett’s psyche.
As Ebert suggested, as plans go, it’s wackadoodle. Doesn’t make a lick of sense in terms of logistics, unless we’re to believe that Fassett is the ultimate predictive programmer and each response of each party is sure to follow a pre-intended course leading to the TV show (assuming the latter was his intention, since he sends a goon to kill Tanner and Osterman at the pool). I can see no reason for Danforth fulfilling his side of the bargain and appearing on the show either. As for Tanner using pre-recorded questions: again, it requires absolute certainty that events will unfold as planned. In other words: don’t inspect the motivation or coherence with a critical eye or it will be found wanting.
Which is doubtless why those critics who did come out in the movie’s favour focussed on more explicable aspects. Although, Milne argued Peckinpah “shows scant interest in the convolutions of the plot neatly enough set out in Alan Sharp’s script”, which is very generous to said script. Milne suggested “Instead, he toys with the agent’s name (Fassett) as an excuse to explore facts of reality, fascinatingly turning the screen into a multi-purpose surveillance device”. It’s this that also found favour with Taylor, clearly a paid-up member of the cult of Sam in his rave over the “audaciously absurdist black satire”.
According to Taylor, “Handed a characteristically unfilmable Robert Ludlum paper-bulk ‘property’ of CIA charades and cross-plotted convolutions, Peckinpah… turns in instead a subversive sitcom”. In his argument for a “defiantly aberrant entertainment”, Taylor overstates the director’s satiric control of every moment of minutiae, particularly since we know the film Taylor saw was messed with and that Peckinpah wasn’t in peak shape. Nevertheless, one can definitely see glimmers of sense in his argument that the substance represents “a mordant wake for cinema as he and we knew it”. The Osterman Weekend is a picture where “TV mediates all communication and action” and “Nobody… actually does anything unless it’s for a TV show, or in Pavlovian reaction to something seen on TV”.
I lean towards the view that Peckinpah overcooks this commentary somewhat, in a similar manner to Sidney Lumet and Network, when he’d have been better concentrating on the ground where the media satire and Ludlum’s more standard thriller aspects meet. Ludlum’s meat and potatoes was, after all, conspiracy fare, and failing to embrace the natural conclusion that, if media is pervasively controlling, then government (or arms thereof) is sure to be pervasively controlling media, is missing an opportunity. But then, the ’80s had more than dawned at this point, and for all the boost that Reaganism gave the Red Menace – currently being reinvigorated, proven tool that it is – Milne touched on the diminished currency of suspicion of the corridors of power: “It all raises the question: who needs another mess of espionage and post-Watergate paranoia?”
Osterman: Just kind of wondering how got in this mess.
Tanner: It’s called being programmed.
Not Sam. The Osterman Weekend begins with the sequence that leads to Fassett’s mental deterioration, and it’s rather awkwardly shoehorned into a media commentary: “All it took was to have my wife murdered while my employers watched on closed-circuit TV. It’s just another episode in this whole snuff soap opera we’re all in”. Snuff soap opera later shown on live TV as part of “a life-sized video game”. Fassett manipulates recordings and context to present his version of the truth, just like any network would, and even offers pre-Freddy Krueger quips (“That’s right. We’re in prime killing time”). He’s unselfconsciously victim to the same blight he indicts, distracted by the TV ball game while overseeing the events at the house. At one point, in a sustained gag, he pretends to be chairing a weather report when his state-of-the-art hardware goes on the fritz; none of the houseguests are aware of the TV howler in the kitchen. He taunts Osterman (a TV producer) and Tanner concerning the ethics of their business: “Both of you, addicting people so they can’t switch off”.
And yet, the rather prosaic assessment of this is less sinister than it ought to be. Tanner, wised up to the damaging influence of the medium he uses, ministers to his audience in the final moments: “As you all know, television programs are just the fillers between attempts to steal your money. So if you want to save some, switch off. It’s simple. It’s done with a hand and what is left of your free will. This is the moment. My bet is you can’t do it. Go ahead and try. Am I still on?”
That’s it? Attempts to steal your money? Where is the much more pertinent earlier exchange between Tanner and Danforth in his surmisal?
Danforth: Suppose I was to tell you that our enemies are capable of impairing rational thought. Of dismantling our willingness to defend ourselves. Of disassociating whole societies from their value system?
Tanner: You mean they’ve got television as well?
And that (exchange above), pretty much, is The Osterman Weekend’s real message in a nutshell. Even in an era of mass disembarkation from television, it makes an extraordinarily effective tool in impairing rational thought. Why, you can use it to sell a plandemic and all its accompanying aftereffects, including, when its narrative is faltering, the convenient distraction of a full-scale war. At one point, during his frustration at the turn Tanner’s broadcast is taking, Danforth demands “Get me network control right now” Would that be the controller of the network? Or the CIA’s own kill switch for the broadcast? Because you can bet they have one, just in case.
Tanner is being flippant in his “television as well” riposte, but Danforth is noncommittal as to quite what he is alluding (“We have such substances…” and the Soviet Union “have a list of agents whose task it is to release these substances on command”). In Ludlum’s conspirasphere, a CIA director can sanction a KGB killing – it isn’t very far from that to seeing the entire Cold War as a high-level manipulation (yes, we’re back into Hegelian dialectics). Danforth is, essentially, your common-or-garden Red-Menace totalitarian: “One thing our enemies fear is that someone who knows them for what they are might come to power in this country, And they’re right to be afraid”. But the tools of his trade speak much broader volumes.
Stennings: But why? Why did he try to make us believe Omega existed?
Danforth: Stennings, Stennings… The existence of Omega has not been disproved. Don’t you understand that Omega is as real as we need it to be! We have enough evidence to convince a Congressional Committee of that.
Danforth’s justification – not even that – isn’t very far at all from WMDs, and with them, concomitant terrorist menaces and factions arising from the War on Terror that threaten our very existences. And when they’re no longer functional, bringing in tiny, invisible menaces and factions (strains) thereof, whose “existence… has not been disproved” (and from thence, revert to the macro, stir and repeat). That, I think, is the most timely/timeless aspect of The Osterman Weekend, rather than the more vaunted media commentary (in which, it must be noted, the puppets on TV are as much in the dark about what’s going on as those they curry favour with). “Who’s pulling your strings?” asks Tanner of Fassett at one point; in the context of the movie, no one is, but in any other he’d be an MKUltra’d agent doing his job to take out Danforth at the behest of his masters.
Taylor calling The Osterman Weekend a “subversive sitcom” might be giving it too much credit, as the most curious aspect of the paranoid retreat is how little is done with the setting before Fassett sees fit to “make it clear” Tanner is playing a game with/threatening his friends. Nevertheless, there’s much to be gained simply from watching Peckinpah’s eclectic cast going through their paces, with the mix and match of styles they bring.
Hopper was one of the last to be cast, which may explain his uncharacteristically under-fuelled plastic surgeon, something of a doormat who must contend with his sexually rapacious, coke-addled wife Virginia (Helen Shaver, on fine, er, form). Chris Sarandon, in consort with wife Betty (Cassie Yates), is the badder seed of the bunch; this much is plain, since he kicks Tanner’s dog at one point. Craig T Nelson was only just beginning to make an impression (in the previous year’s Poltergeist), but he’s effectively the second-lead protagonist; his performance is charismatic and accomplished, equipped as he is with a fake moustache and martial-arts moves. Meg Foster, then recently let go from Cagney and Lacey, plays Ali as pissed off with hubby John for most of the movie, making it appropriate that she’s still pissed off at the climax, when she takes out several of the CIA assassins with a bow and arrows.
It’s an interesting Hauer lead, his first in an American movie and one he took at Nic Roeg’s urging (a chance to work with Peckinpah was not to be missed). It seems he wasn’t locked into any one role, but considered it might be interesting not to take a bad guy part (he’d already been in Hollywood’s Nighthawks and Blade Runner). Subsequently, he found himself struggling slightly with a character that wasn’t “sharp enough”. Or was it him, he asked himself? You don’t find many “straight” Hauer parts. He just isn’t that kind of actor, which is why, post Ladyhawke, you were more likely to find him in B-movies when it came to lead protagonist roles. At any rate, the simple fact of Rutger makes Tanner more interesting than he has any right to be. Taylor suggested “he and his fellow video-nasties represent mere simulations of humanity”. Both Hurt and Lancaster, meanwhile, are inevitably more commanding due to the nature of their roles; Hauer confessed his admiration for Hurt’s acting chops in particular.
Peckinpah’s contribution? Milne thought there was “Not a hell of a lot to come away with, except… it is directed with such dazzling skill” while Taylor noted “it is the absence of real action that the film emphasises”. This is true; most notable about The Osterman Weekend is that it’s a departure for the director, approaching his final curtain, one emphasising plot (as densely incomprehensible as it is) over action. There’s the odd car chase (complete with a pre-Tenet mask-wearing driver) and the pool shootout. There’s no stinting on one of Peckinpah’s priorities: female flesh. He takes any opportunity to lavish attention on Van Kamp, Yates and particularly Shaver, who seems to have been entirely obliging (and found Sam to be a sweet man and not a misogynist at all on their first meeting; Yates was less convinced by his attempts to let water out of the tub she was in, exposing her breasts).
The preview cut apparently had audiences walking out as Van Kamp pleasured herself. Or was it because of the woozy pirate-video footage? Either way, in a movie critiquing voyeurism, its commentator was evidently fully complicit, however much he may have seen TV as a lowest common denominator (possibly he believed one encountered a better class of bosoms in the movies?) Lalo Schifrin’s score isn’t altogether complementary in this regard. Or perhaps it’s much too much so; it’s suitable unsettling and fractured when it comes to emphasising the indistinct plot mechanisms, yet it also cranks up the cheap, softcore sleaze-track parody elsewhere.
The DVD making of documentary is disappointingly short on thematic content, but big on how buoyantly wayward producers Peter S Davis and William N Panzer ditched B-movies for the big time, yet did so without financing in place – an infamous suitcase full of counterfeit bonds was involved at one point. They were left making the film at the whims of the bond company; whatever Peckinpah’s undoubted foibles, the pair were essentially in a position of foisting an extreme situation on a man in the end of his days, thus not helping his health any. Which makes their cheerfulness as they recall the situation a little rum. You quickly sympathise with the director’s advice to Hurt: “No matter how nice a producer may be, you gotta learn to hate him”. These producers would find their biggest success with Highlander, but for now, the first Ludlum movie adaptation (based on his second, 1972 novel) would have to do.
The Osterman Weekend is an anomaly of its era and a real curiosity. It doesn’t deliver as it ought, for reasons Ebert set out, but it’s also worthwhile for many of the reasons Taylor (over) states. Perhaps a De Palma would have been the ideal purveyor of such material. Although, conversely, he surely wouldn’t have been overly concerned with its political or thematic commentary. There’s been talk of a remake (going back about a decade now), but I doubt it would be especially versed in such considerations either. We all know what Ludlum means to Hollywood now, and that’s vanilla bad apples. As opposed to pervasive corruption, per the norm.
First published by Now in Full Color on 18/03/22.