1/4, 1980s, Review, Sam Peckinpah, Thriller

The Osterman Weekend

#14 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.

The disaster that was the production of Convoy (it was financially successful, but not enough to save Peckinpah’s professional reputation) knocked him out of work for several years. Don Siegel, one of Peckinpah’s early mentors, needed some second unit work done on his film Jinxed!, and Peckinpah jumped at the opportunity, purely with the eye towards helping to recover his career from nothing. It worked. He did well, and he got a new opportunity to direct again in the adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel, The Osterman Weekend. He wanted to rewrite it, but the producers refused him. He wanted to cast his own way, but the producers refused him. This is the most purely work-for-hire project in his entire career, including The Deadly Companions, and the script is a mess. It’s a professionally made film that recalls much better, earlier Peckinpah films (mostly Straw Dogs) with some interesting moments around paranoia and surveillance that would feel more at home in a Brian de Palma film, but this is ultimately a disappointing, though not entirely unexpected, way for Peckinpah to finish his career in feature films. He died less than a year later.

The CIA is tracking a Soviet spy program called Omega as uncovered by the agent Fassett (John Hurt) after some operatives murdered his wife. With the clearance of CIA Director Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster), he sets a plan into motion to capture the three known operatives in the US: Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson) a television producer, Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper) a plastic surgeon, and Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) a stockbroker. The three are all friends with television interviewer (perhaps modeled after William F. Buckley) John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) whom Fassett approaches with trying to turn one or all three to the cause of the United States during their annual get together that the friend group calls the Osterman Weekend. With video proof of their conspiring with a mysterious Russian man, Tanner is convinced to help, but he can’t tell his wife Ali (Meg Foster) what’s going on and why there’s suddenly a truck full of video equipment at the house in the days before the weekend.

After Tanner tries to get Ali and their son onto a plane to get them away, Ali and son get kidnapped briefly (with the kidnapper in his own personal breathing apparatus that may have inspired Chris Nolan for Tenet, but I’m not putting money on that bet) before saved by Fassett in a helicopter with Tanner in pursuit. Everyone’s going to be there at the Tanner house for that weekend.

All of this up to this point is fine. It’s not bad, but it’s little more than standard 70s paranoia thriller stuff (even though this was made in the early 80s). Things go south for the film once the weekend starts, and it really feels like there are just important scenes missing. Fassett, set up in a video control center in the woods near the house, is out to mess with the members of Omega, and he doesn’t really get around to doing much before all three are pointing their fingers directly at Tanner for messing with them. There’s even a moment where one of the wives accuses Tanner of using his interviewing skills to mess with them, and Tanner has barely spoken (it’s actually remarked on that he’s not talking much). There feels like there’s a scene missing where he breaks one of them down. Without that basic narrative building block, the breakdown of nerves doesn’t really make sense of work, and most of the second half of the film is based on that.

Well, things do break down, and Tremayne and Cardone try to get away with their wives in Tanner’s RV which Fassett blows up. Fassett is insane! There’s something wrong going on! Tanner catches up here after a fight to the death with Osterman that turns into a draw, and the two friends band together to fight Fassett.

Here’s the other part that is just inexplicable: Fassett. He figures that Danforth murdered his wife (no reason to think that he’s wrong), so he set up this whole thing. The Omega boys aren’t Soviet spies, they’re tax cheats (though their behavior early in the film doesn’t really support it, but whatever), and Fassett decided that he was going to go rogue, kill a bunch of innocents, have Tanner kill several of his men so that Tanner can get away and interview Danforth on his television program while providing Fassett with a surprise visit on the program? It’s so opaque and dumb that it’s amazing anyone decided to tell this story straight. I can see why Peckinpah would want to rewrite the film and try to help it make sense.

There are certain interesting ideas, especially around surveillance and the relationship between the citizen and an all-powerful state agency with no morals guiding it or constraints limiting it, but the story in which they’re including is so absurd and incomprehensible that it doesn’t really matter. This is actually the second time I’ve watched the film. The first was about a year ago when I read some article by Armond White (yeah, that guy), and he was listing all of these paranoia thrillers from the era he found to be better than the more commonly accepted good ones (like Three Days of the Condor). The Osterman Weekend was one of two or three I checked out, and I didn’t like it then. Watching it again now, in the context of Peckinpah’s entire body of work, I see some added dimensions to what’s going on, but it doesn’t help the film itself. It’s still incomprehensible nonsense, the last grasp at financial relevance for a film director and storyteller that was always too rough for mass audiences. Constrained completely by producers, he ended up making a film that anyone could have made from that script, and it’s unfortunate. Peckinpah really had lost something once he discovered hard drugs on the set of The Killer Elite, but I could have hoped that he would have found some way through the haze to make something good. He did make Cross of Iron in this later period, though, so his final years weren’t a complete waste.

It’s always unfortunate when directors go out on their worst films.

Rating: 1/4


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