****/**** Image B Sound B Extras A+
starring Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper
screenplay by Alan Sharp, adaptation by Ian Masters, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum
directed by Sam Peckinpah
by Walter Chaw
"We rely too much on sight, don't you think? Appearances being what they are."
And so encapsulates the genius and the madness of Sam Peckinpah's final film, the contentious, still-relevant The Osterman Weekend. Serving as a bridge of sorts between the psychosexual circus of Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980) and the technology/media fear of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), the film strikes a balance between the paranoia cinema of the 1970s and the technophilic sci-fi wonderland of the 1980s. It's brilliant--mark the ways that Peckinpah implies that every shot in the film is taken from a hidden camera for the pleasure of the audience. (A picture hasn't been this successful in indicting the criminal aspect of watching a movie since Hitchcock's heyday.) More than brilliant, like the best of Peckinpah's films, it gets under your skin with scalpel-grace. He made films of intimate violation--of rape, essentially; when you stare into the abyss of Peckinpah's pictures, Peckinpah stares into you.
Like the rest of Peckinpah's masterpieces (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, and the initially studio-devastated Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), The Osterman Weekend is pornography and exploitation. The picture opens with the homicide of Lawrence Fassett's (John Hurt) wife, a hypodermic rammed up her nose while she's masturbating. It's the same opening as Dressed to Kill, essentially, with a main character (the husband, in this case) taking a hot shower and the spouse of the murder victim helpless to intervene, and it's shot not only like a nightmare (it was a nightmare in De Palma's film), but also like a snuff film. (Fassett will later refer to what's unfolding as a snuff soap opera.) With every other shot in the picture, Peckinpah takes a moment to remind that what we're watching is essentially the same thing that someone else in the film is watching, the Lacanian model for this sort of thing involving three ostriches: the first one with its head in the ground, the second one plucking a tail feather from the first, and the third watching unobserved. There's always a fourth implied in this model--the student, of course. (Then there's the teacher.) In this model, Peckinpah's the master, we're his pupils, and The Osterman Weekend is the classroom.
Fassett is a CIA operative, so secret that other CIA operatives don't know anything about him. He's the kind of guy Jason Bourne is, and The Osterman Weekend, as are the two Bourne feature films, is based on a Robert Ludlum novel. Peckinpah updates Ludlum's Cold War creaker with new technology and outfits it with a healthy dose of perversity. There's a certain sexual titillation about listening in, even on matters of state business--rationale, perhaps, for The Conversation's Harry Caul's disgust at too much prurient interest in his subjects. Fassett goes rogue, unbeknownst to his superior, CIA Director Danforth (Burt Lancaster), hatching an elaborate plot to blackmail television personality John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) into "exposing" Danforth's corruption. His chance comes at the "Osterman Weekend," an annual get-together among Tanner and three of his college buddies--Bernie Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), Dick Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), and Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon)--wherein they drink, play games, and reminisce about the good old days. Fassett's plan, and note the homonym of Fassett's name, is to turn Tanner against his pals, who may have double-crossing agendas of their own.
The plot is convoluted enough to feel like an angry joke. Peckinpah doesn't work well with protracted narratives, and so his involvement with Ludlum is a little like oil's involvement with water. Ludlum is just exposition; the major complaints with The Osterman Weekend are first an early scene where we're force-fed too much background (it's almost literally impossible to follow the top-secret slide show), then its denouement, which unravels like a child's clockwork. To my way of thinking, Peckinpah is looking at all this talk and presenting it in a way both ironic and scoffing. There isn't really another film in his history as obsessed with complicated choreography as this one--The Osterman Weekend isn't densely plotted: it's as unfathomable and wild as any of Peckinpah's pictures.
Fassett wires every room of Tanner's house with video monitoring equipment, going so far as to switch on the television at key moments to give the former-friends-now-combatants a little prod when things aren't going well. It plays out like Straw Dogs in reverse: Inspired by the violation of Fassett's wife, Tanner's invasion is from without, for sure, but it's also from within as his friends turn sour and strange. If such a thing is possible, The Osterman Weekend is even more nihilistic than Straw Dogs, in that it doesn't just posit man as beast struggling for its own survival (which is, after all, almost noble in Peckinpah's universe--remember the fetishizing of the scorpion's doomed battle with ants in The Wild Bunch?), but man as a trainable beast whose Pavlovian bell of choice is television and, more particularly, media-controlled news and media-incited unease.
Tanner is Fassett's victim not because he's a weak man, but because he's an extremely powerful one, someone who wields popular opinion and paranoia like a weapon. As we watch The Osterman Weekend, we're put in the position of Fassett behind his bank of monitors, fantasizing about his last tryst with his wife as he watches Tanner and his missus, Ali (Meg Foster), have sex. Eventually, Tanner watches his friends and their wives fighting and fucking--he's become a victim to his own medium, lulled and misled. The image that swims to mind is James Woods in Videodrome growing an orifice that accommodates videotapes and excretes guns. When Tanner, too late, understands that Fassett has manipulated media in the same way that Tanner manipulates it on his crossfire-like political ambush program, it makes perfect sense that retribution will come through the phallic intrusion of another camera.
If Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was Peckinpah's autobiography, The Osterman Weekend is his manifesto in brief. It's an angry, ugly little film blessed with a screenplay by the great Alan Sharp (Night Moves) and by rock-solid performances all around, especially from Rutger Hauer, hired for playing a robot and still sounding somehow and always like he's dubbed. His whole allure from such films as Dandelions, Spetters, and Soldier of Orange is a violent sexuality and an alien remove--he's the perfect pundit, and a pretty fair Peckinpah protagonist, too. The Osterman Weekend is a mirror for the individual ruined by his culture, taken for a patsy, robbed, lied to, and, in true Peckinpah vernacular, fucked unkindly by the monoliths we trust. The Osterman Weekend has never been more current than it is now--and if it's imperfect, it's imperfect in exactly the right way.
Anchor Bay releases The Osterman Weekend in an archivist's dream of completion, a "Sam Peckinpah Commemorative 2-Disc Edition" that's additionally part of the company's Divimax line. The packaging proper (a swing-tray keepcase inside a shiny slipcover that's vulnerable to fingerprints) contains a lengthy insert written with verve, intelligence, and anger by Gary Hertz. His disdain for Rex Reed earns him points on the credibility meter--even if they're obvious ones--and his dead-on observations about the film render much of what I've written above moot. The original poster art for the picture is included therein.
The first platter, meanwhile, features the theatrical version of the picture in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that has the undeniable blanch of an Eighties title (lots of grain, lots of murk) but looks so much better than previous home video incarnations that it's hard to find a lot of fault with the image. Seeing the film in widescreen for the first time is, by itself, something of a revelation. Sound comes in the form of 5.1 remixes in serviceable Dolby Digital and booming but essentially undifferentiated DTS-ES. Pressed, I prefer the DD 5.1--as the source sound elements are muddy, better a soft muddy than a big one. Disc 1's main event is a feature-length commentary grouping Peckinpah historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle, and Nick Redman--at least that's who's introduced, but as they never associate a voice with a name, I never had any idea to whom I was listening at what time. Doesn't really matter that much in the grand scheme, and the track, although mostly academic, does provide a nice history (and a few speculations about plot twists) for the piece. I felt edified--more than what I usually feel after listening to a yakker.
Disc Two includes "Sam's first cut" of The Osterman Weekend--and it's rough, indeed. A little like the lost scenes from The Wicker Man, Anchor Bay has decided that the historical significance of the footage is more important than the aesthetic crudity of the source elements, a position with which any self-respecting film buff would concur. Here, the elisions that our historians discuss in the commentary are presented in all their bemused, belligerent splendour. The opening murder/rape is almost literally unwatchable now in addition to figuratively so, and the cutting (the film was eight months into post-production before Peckinpah was fired and scenes were rejiggered) resembles the hallucinatory disco switchbacks of Alfredo Garcia and Cross of Iron. The whole thing plays a lot more like a really bad trip; it's as easy to see why the producers wanted something different as it is to recognize in retrospect why Peckinpah should have just been allowed to keep his vision intact. I doubt the film would have grossed more one way or another, so why not take one for legacy? The thing is that I don't prefer the director's cut to the theatrical one: they're different in structure and execution, but they're identical in subtext, and that's something Peckinpah shares with Orson Welles. While hacks can take their shots at burying their films, cosmetic surgery never obscures the heart of darkness throbbing beneath.
A new 74-minute documentary, "Alpha to Omega", is a model of the kind of work that Anchor Bay is doing for important genre pieces, as it hears from almost every surviving member of the principal cast and crew (Dennis Hopper is absent, though--more's the pity) while providing a firm foundation for the picture now and in its time. I would have appreciated a second full-length yak-track with Hauer, who seems extremely bright in his interview. (Foster, likewise.) One can never get enough Billy Wilder or Sam Peckinpah anecdotes and on that score as well, the doc certainly obliges. The theatrical trailer, those wonderful Anchor Bay biographies, and a massive still gallery (80 images and counting) round out the set, a must-have--especially in the wake of The Bourne Supremacy, Control Room, and The Manchurian Candidate (2004). Hide the sharp objects before viewing. Originally published: August 31, 2004.
102 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1 EX, English DTS-ES 6.1; CC; 2 DVD-9s; Region One; Anchor Bay