The Osterman Weekend Review
I’m defining my own problems; obviously I’m up on the screen. In a film you lay yourself out , whoever you are. The one nice thing is that my own problems seem to involve other people as well
Sam Peckinpah interviewed on TV, c.1971
In 1981, the only work in Hollywood that Sam Peckinpah – the filmmaking genius who had given the world Ride The High Country, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid andBring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia - could get was shooting second-unit on Don Siegel’s troubled final film Jinxed. Having spent much of the previous five years coked out of his head, psychotically paranoid and virtually incapable of maintaining a relationship with anyone for more than five minutes without trying to kill them, Peckinpah was forced to prove to Hollywood that he could be a good boy. The reward, albeit from the bottom of the pile - two producers of exploitation trash - was The Osterman Weekend, an adaptation of a Robert Ludlum bestseller. Peckinpah hated it, hated himself for having to make it but needed, more than anything else, to be working. The result, muddled and sometimes incoherent though it is, is as revealing a film as any he ever made – a paranoid thriller from someone who could have written the book on paranoia, a study of friendship breaking apart from someone whose friendships self-destructed on a regular basis and an incisive comment on manipulation from someone who could manipulate with the best of them. Even more than this, it contains moments of searing emotional pain which reveal the side of Peckinpah that so few people were allowed to see. It is, consequently, a surprisingly fitting final legacy – and the fact that it’s a mess isn’t entirely inappropriate either when you consider the mess of a life from which it came.
The plot is confused but not entirely impossible to follow. Rutger Hauer plays John Tanner, a successful TV political pundit who is informed by the head of the CIA, Maxwell Danforth (Lancaster), that three of his closest friends – Bernie Osterman (Nelson), Richard Tremayne (Hopper) and Joseph Cardone (Sarandon) are Soviet agents. Placed in an impossible situation, he agrees, in return for an interview with Danforth, to set these friends up while they are enjoying their annual weekend together at his luxurious country retreat. The house is placed under minute surveillance by Lawrence Fassett (Hurt), an embittered and lonely agent who is eager to exact his own revenge on the agency – the hope being that one of the guests will inadvertently reveal themselves. Over the course of the weekend, loyalties are exposed, switched and switched again and some unlikely alliances develop, with the unforgiving lenses of Fassett’s cameras observing everything.
It seems very appropriate that Peckinpah should be making a film about paranoia at a time when he had spent many years believing that he was under constant surveillance from someone. At one point, during 1978, he was incapable of having a conversation in his office at Goldwyn Studios unless the television was on at full volume to confuse whatever bugging mechanism he believed had been installed. His ultimate solution was to close this office and move into a cabin far beyond the reach of his alleged persecutors – at the top of the Absaroka Mountains, 6970 feet above Yellowstone Park. This clearly had more to do with the mountains of cocaine being snorted into his system than any real threat but it’s interesting when watching The Osterman Weekend to reflect that the director really did think that he was, like Tanner and his friends, being watched. He also felt, like Fassett, that he was being manipulated – he had felt this way ever since his first battle with Charles FitzSimons, producer of his first film The Deadly Companions. One of the problems with Peckinpah’s career was that he could never accept that his producers might have any motive other than to fuck him over and force him to be the mediocre workmanlike director that he thought they really wanted. If they were nice to him, he wanted to know what he was being softened up for. If they were bastards, he simply felt that his suspicions were being confirmed. Essentially, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy and however badly Peckinpah’s producers behaved – and some of them were shockingly cruel to him – he was more than happy to force them into behaving even worse. Reasonable, professional men like Daniel Melnick were shocked to find themselves goaded into becoming the bad guys by a man who appeared to be on the verge of insanity. This terror of being a puppet extended into his personal life, principally into his relationships with women where their love for him was interpreted as a kind of trap intended to subdue him into becoming their creature. In a sense, Peckinpah is like Fassett – an embittered professional trying to get one over on the men who have destroyed his life - and the presentation of the CIA and eastern establishment as a country club run by inbred liars seems to have more resonance if you consider it as the way Peckinpah probably saw the Hollywood establishment that had ruined his best work – particularly James Aubrey, the head of production at MGM who did his best to destroy Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. There’s nothing new about this – you can easily read The Killer Elite and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia as films about the professional craftsman battling with soulless, devious Hollywood – but it’s interesting to see it emerge here in a film which was, for a long time, dismissed as hackwork.
Like all of his work, The Osterman Weekend reveals Peckinpah’s own inner-self, no more clearly than in the character of Fassett. John Hurt’s extraordinarily affecting performance is a triumph of characterisation, a portrait of a professional killer at the end of his tether and haunted by the ghosts of his past. The intensity of the pain in this performance is hard to disassociate from the pain that Peckinpah himself experienced time and time again in his relationships – an emotion which also comes out in the disarmingly honest scenes between Tremayne and his cocaine addict wife (an excellent performance from Helen Shaver, herself a reformed addict). Loving the women in his life with a desperation that bordered on mania, Peckinpah was also incapable of treating them well and the cycle of abuse and need that he was locked into began when he was a young man and lasted until the loss of his final lover, Carol O’Connor, in December 1983 – his contradictory final words to her seem to me to say everything, “I love you and I’m going to leave you alone.” In much of Peckinpah’s work, this hopelessly confused attitude to women and love recurs in horrible, uncomfortable scenes such as the ones involving Amy in Straw Dogs and the bitter confrontation between Stella Stevens and Jason Robards in Cable Hogue. One of the extant cuts of Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid features a lengthy, corrosively bitter scene between Garrett and his wife that demonstrates once and for all that Peckinpah could do relationships just as well as he did violence – even if his talent was mostly for displaying how people who love each other manage to tear each other to shreds. This isn’t entirely satisfying in The Osterman Weekend and sometimes, promising scenes between the three couples end before they have a chance to go somewhere interesting. But there are memorable moments –Betty Cardone (Yates) cynically retrieving her gum from the headboard after her husband has offered her two minutes of sex; the desperate need of Tremayne’s wife for some kind of connection with a human being rather than the usual connection with a pile of coke; the look of recrimination on Ali Tanner’s (Foster) face after the staged kidnap attempt and the scene where she accuses him, saying “You’re always so sure you’re right, sitting on your damn throne.” But mostly, it’s there in the quiet desperation of Fassett as he repeatedly watches the images of his wife being assassinated with the knowledge that any revenge he exacts on Danforth can never be enough to dissolve his memories. Broadening the comparison into other areas of Peckinpah’s life, his reliance on other people, particularly the ones who reluctantly kept coming back after he’d treated them appallingly or even tried to kill them, is there in the sense of comradeship between the friends and particularly in the quietly touching relationship between Osterman and Tanner. The other side of this coin – male competitiveness and violence - is nicely depicted in the knockabout scene where a game in the pool turns into a not so good-natured brawl – one which is, amusingly, mocked by the watching women.
Peckinpah’s ludicrous soubriquet of “Bloody Sam”, a label which doesn’t bear much relation to the reality of the elegant and brilliantly controlled violence in his films, leads many to expect non-stop action from his work. This is rarely delivered. Anyone watching Straw Dogs expecting a quick fix of brutal cartoon knockabout is quickly disillusioned and I know people who can’t understand why The Wild Bunch should get an 18 certificate – usually those who don’t see that the sense of desperate elegy and waste in that film is far more adult and disturbing than the carnage wrought by the bullets. He has made a number of films with very little violence in them – the sad, funny Junior Bonner and The Ballad Of Cable Hogue; the balletic, graceful The Killer Elite; the silly, good-natured Convoy; the serene, reflective Ride The High Country; the little-seen, remorseless TV version of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine. There are some very well choreographed action sequences in this film – the car chase/attempted kidnap and the masterfully edited crossbow fight towards the end – but I don’t want to harp on how brilliant these are. We all know that Peckinpah can do action and he does it in this film with a slightly tired, overdone panache as if to say “Right, see how easy it is ?” But the film certainly isn’t action packed and its paced deliberately, with a lot of rather flat exposition in places and some clunky dialogue.
What is a welcome surprise is how little Peckinpah’s sense of black comedy has been diminished by his sojourn in the land of chemicals. From a cop chastising Osterman for his “strident writing” to the final, cruelly funny distortion of the famous “His Master’s Voice” image, the film keeps bubbling up with wit and humour. There are some delightful comic moments, amongst which my favourite is the scene where Fassett, on the verge of being unmasked to the three ‘agents’, has to pretend to be delivering the most boring weather bulletin in television history. There’s also a sharp sense of satire about the depiction of television as a drug which is used by the government to manipulate the public and advertisers to rob them. Towards the end, Tanner addresses us on this point and says, “As you all know, television programmes are just fillers between attempts to steal your money.”
It’s not subtle but it’s easy to imagine Peckinpah, anti-establishment to the end, grinning with pleasure. A more subtle joke is the casting of Burt Lancaster as director of the CIA, a rather delicious irony for those who remember Seven Days In May - or, for that matter, Twilight’s Last Gleaming.
The performances throughout the film are fine and sometimes extremely good. John Hurt is, as so often, beyond criticism with an ability to suggest psychosis without going over the top. In his first American leading role, Rutger Hauer is confident and charismatic and he’s well backed up by Meg Foster, as a woman who is, for Peckinpah, unusually strong. Helen Shaver is often astounding and Craig T. Nelson combines strength with unpredictability. He’s always finding an interesting inflexion in a line or an interesting non-verbal reaction. Hopper and Sarandon are less impressive but perfectly acceptable and Burt Lancaster supplies the gravitas you would expect. The most maligned aspect of the film – Alan Sharp’s screenplay –isn’t really bad at all and is sometimes very good. As usual with Sharp, dialogue is better than construction, but this is a pretty nice companion piece to his ultimate exploration of nihilistic paranoia Night Moves. Although the film was largely made without Peckinpah’s usual collaborators, he was allowed to work with John Coquillon – DP on Straw Dogs and Pat Garrett among others – and the film looks gorgeous with some scenes quite breathtakingly beautiful. At other times, it looks a little flat but I think this might have been intentional. Otherwise, the production is competent rather than inspired. The only really objectionable element is Lalo Schifrin’s horrible jazzy music score.
It’s been said that The Osterman Weekend isn’t a fitting final film for such a great filmmaker. But I don’t know about that. It sums up many of his preoccupations and has a mischievous wit that is very attractive. It’s not The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett but then very few films are and we shouldn’t judge a filmmaker harshly just because he doesn’t always make masterworks. That Peckinpah was able to make it at all is some kind of miracle, considering what he had done to his body and his career, and we should be grateful that it turned out as good as it did.
It’s a delight to see Anchor Bay come up trumps with a disc to equal the best Peckinpah Special Editions thus far produced – although this is admittedly limited to the Criterion and Fremantle discs of Straw Dogs, both of which are essential for completists because they contain different and equally fascinating extra materials. This new disc of The Osterman Weekend is a worthy companion, combining an impressive transfer with some magnificent bonus features. Indeed, were it not for a truly ludicrous attempt at a surround soundtrack, I would recommend the disc unreservedly.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. This is a very good job indeed, especially when you consider that the original elements were not in particularly good condition. This is a generally detailed picture which comes across particularly strongly in the more evocative moments, such as a helicopter flying through the twilight skies in chapter 19. Some scenes seem softer than others but this isn’t a major problem because the level of contrast is generally very good. Blacks are particularly impressive and the shadings of grey are superbly defined, especially during the interior scenes of the second half of the film. There is a slightly grainy appearance to much of the film but this is not distracting and is usually suitably filmic. Colours vary in their impact. At times, they are strong and potent – reds tend to come across best – while at others they seem rather muted and have the flatness of a TV movie. Artefacts appear fleetingly here and there but are, again, not a serious problem. I don’t think this is as much of a knockout as the Criterion version of Straw Dogs - which gave me the feeling of seeing that film anew – but it’s perfectly respectable and a breath of fresh air compared to the TV and video versions that I have seen previously.
Three English soundtracks are offered but, sadly, neither is the original mono recording. Bearing in mind this unacceptable state of affairs, the DTS track clearly impresses more than the DD 5.1 track. It has better fidelity and a more spacious feeling. However, in addition to Anchor Bay’s usual fiddling around with the mono signal between channels to simulate a surround sound field, we are forced to listen to new sounds added, varying from ambient outdoor noises in exteriors to bullet thuds and clicks and pops. But lets be honest here, ‘remaking’ a soundtrack is simply not acceptable. It’s just as noxious as colourisation in my opinion and at the end of the day it comes down to home theatre masturbation for people who simply can’t cope with a film if it doesn’t utilise every possibility of their equipment. I would refuse to watch a film made in black and white Academy ratio if it was cropped for 1.85:1 and colourised so why should I have to listen to some sound geek’s approximation of what a film might have sounded like if it had been made in surround sound ? There is no defence for not supplying an original mono soundtrack on a DVD and I have therefore given this disc a 0 for sound. This will be my policy for every disc in the future which doesn’t offer the original mono soundtrack for a film recorded in mono, unless the director has expressly indicated that he wishes such a remix to take place and has been involved in creating it. Peckinpah had to cope with people messing about with his films when he was alive so it’s a great pity that he still has to suffer it 20 years after his death. The argument that it’s what he would do if he was directing the film now is utterly pointless – he isn’t here to make the decision so why should we make it for him ? The 2.0 Stereo mix is marginally more acceptable but what’s the point ?
The extras on the 2 disc set more than make up for this lapse with the sound. Although there are only four substantial features, each of them is excellent and one is simply phenomenal. On the first disc, we get the theatrical cut of the film accompanied by an audio commentary from David Weddle (whose book “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” taught me most of what I know about Sam), Garner Simmons, Paul Seydor and Nick Redman. This is interesting and full of acute observations, as you would expect. The first three names are developing a nice little sideline in commentaries for Peckinpah films – they also featured on the R2 Straw Dogs and have done a track for the upcoming R1 MGM release of Junior Bonner. Sometimes the men talk over each other and there is a bit of one-upmanship – Simmons knew Peckinpah so tends to win in these little battles – but it’s good-natured and interesting. Weddle tends to come across best although he seems to have totally changed his view on the film since he wrote his book. This first disc also features the original theatrical trailer.
On the second disc we get the other three features. There is an excellent 78 minute documentary called “Alpha To Omega” which charts the making of the film. Given that Sam was on best behaviour for much of the production, there’s not a great deal of scandal but it’s still good to see the interviews with most of the cast – Hopper is the most conspicuous absentee among those who are still living – and the producers. These two come across rather well as pleasant blokes who knew very well what they were letting themselves in for and seemed about as supportive as any producers could be. They do have a tendency to blame the completion bond company for the changes made to the film though which strikes me as blatantly passing the buck. Equally interesting is an extensive stills gallery which contains some heartbreaking pictures of an obviously ailing Peckinpah along with images of the production and the cast and crew.
Best of all though is the inclusion of the legendary, long-believed lost 116 minute Preview Cut of the film. This is from a 20 year old Betamax recording which is fullscreen and in very rough shape indeed but it really doesn’t matter. It includes extended scenes of the relationships between the various participants and a changed version of the ending. Provocatively, we get a scene which indicates that Tanner is having an affair, which explains the frostiness between him and his wife. But it’s the opening which is most fascinating. This apparently caused women to walk out and encouraged the producers to re-cut the film but it looks quite mild stuff 20 years on. Rather than simply depicting the end of sex between Fassett and his wife and her assassination, it lingers on the sex and then shows the woman masturbating (under the covers) prior to being killed. More than this, the scenes are weirdly covered over with motion blurs and distortions and all manner of deliberate noise. This is intended to represent the way Fassett sees the world and I think it’s very effective, not least because it shows how daring Peckinpah still was at the fag-end of his career. It’s a very self-conscious device but I like it and it fits in well with the way that the screen is often distorted with patterns and shadows. I should point out that this is very much a minority point of view.
The film is divided into 20 chapter stops. Miracle of miracles, the main feature also features subtitles which is a huge leap forward for Anchor Bay. Well done chaps ! It’s nice not to have to make the usual complaint. The extra features and the preview cut are not subtitled but at least subtitling the main film is a start. The menus are well animated with some effective transitions between screens.
The Osterman Weekend is far from a great film but it is a gripping and revealing one which is ageing very well, not least for the incisive comments it makes on our current obsession with reality TV. Anchor Bay have done it proud in terms of visuals and extras and the trump card really is the inclusion of the Preview Cut. The horrible audio lets it down and reduces the overall mark from a 10 to a 9. I’m well aware that this audio remix will not be a drawback for some viewers but I can’t in all conscience hold my peace about it. Next thing we know, we’ll be getting Citizen Kane presented in 2.35:1 and colour with a 6 track stereo mix. I think it’s important to take a stand against this kind of insidious tinkering. Apart from this, however, the disc is very impressive but the R1 would win out for me, since it has the good taste to include the original mono soundtrack.
The Osterman Weekend is released to buy on the 29th March