Monday, May 16, 2016

Retro Review: THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983)

(US - 1983)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Written by Alan Sharp and Ian Masters. Cast: Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, Burt Lancaster, Chris Sarandon, Meg Foster, Helen Shaver, Cassie Yates, Sandy McPeak, Christopher Starr, Jan Triska, Merete Van Kamp, Tim Thomerson, Buddy Joe Hooker. (R, 103 mins)

The legendary Sam Peckinpah's final film was a typically troubled production that saw him clashing with producers and having the film recut without his involvement. A very loose adaptation of Robert Ludlum's 1972 novel, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND stars John Hurt as Lawrence Fassett, an embittered CIA agent whose obsessive investigation into his wife's murder leads him to uncover evidence that three men--TV writer Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), and hotheaded stockbroker Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon)--are really Soviet agents who have been operating in the US since their college days. Fassett convinces their old college buddy John Tanner (Rutger Hauer), now a successful liberal pundit in the political talk show arena, to host a weekend reunion with the guys and their wives. With Tanner's home filled with hidden surveillance cameras and Fassett in regular communication, it's the perfect set-up to expose the alleged KGB agents and in exchange for helping out the US government, Tanner gets an exclusive, one-on-one interview with controversial CIA chief Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster), infamous for his extensive authorization of all manner of high-tech surveillance.

Given its prescient subject matter--cable news pundits, high-tech spy games, government overreach, etc--THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND was a bit ahead of its time and seems ripe for an updated remake today. This version is entertaining, often for the wrong reasons.  It's incredibly convoluted, crossing over into the incoherent on occasion, and it's often very sloppily edited, with a few repeated shots and no one watching the continuity when it comes to Nelson's epic fake mustache, which almost never looks the same in two consecutive shots. Peckinpah reportedly tried to make this into an espionage satire, similar to his initial cut of 1975's THE KILLER ELITE which, by the time the producers finished recutting it, was left with only a visibly drunk and unsteady Gig Young slurring his words and struggling to stand and James Caan and Burt Young battling ninjas to keep it interesting. As with that film, the producers removed all the comedy, so maybe OSTERMAN's inconsistent editing and the varying mustache lengths were all part of unsung satirist Peckinpah's master plan. There's some effective bits, especially once Peckinpah lets the film fly off the rails in the last third. Peckinpah uses a peculiar technique in his action scenes here, with a lot of slow-motion and drawn-out, quick-cut editing that, in context, works well, especially in the late-going with the exploding RV, plus he gets a genuinely terrific performance out of Hurt. There's a lot to like here--irate Lancaster at his most assholish (is there any way a guy named "Maxwell Danforth" won't be a complete prick?); gratuitous nudity; Meg Foster decking Helen Shaver; and a hilarious bit involving a dog's head in the fridge--but at the same time, it feels like a missed opportunity. There's a pronounced lack of focus and the disconnect between the director and his producers is apparent.  It's a mess, but a consistently intriguing one.

Speaking of messes, Anchor Bay's Blu-ray, released last year, is a splotchy, ugly disaster. And unlike their special edition DVD from 2004, it doesn't include the 116-minute Peckinpah rough cut that led to his dismissal from the project. THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND was Peckinpah's first film since 1978's CONVOY, much of which was directed without credit by his friend James Coburn. Coburn was interested in stepping behind the camera for some future projects and was serving as second unit director to get his DGA card. The veteran actor ended up directing significant portions of the movie while Peckinpah was holed up in his trailer on an extended coke binge. After doing uncredited second unit work without incident for old friend Don Siegel on the 1982 Bette Midler bomb JINXED!, Peckinpah was given THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND as a comeback project and while things initially ran smoothly, disagreements took over and by the end of shooting, there was no communication between him and the producers. When Peckinpah refused to make the changes demanded after a disastrous test screening in May 1983, he was handed his walking papers and the producers re-edited the film themselves. After directing a pair of Julian Lennon music videos, including one for his breakout hit "Too Late for Goodbyes." Peckinpah died of heart failure at just 59 in December 1984, a little over a year after THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND's November 1983 release.

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