The Osterman Weekend

Everybody wants to see their heroes go out on top. But for every baseball career that ends with a walk-off home run in the bottom of a post-season 9th, there’s a dozen that end with a routine groundout to short in a meaningless late-September contest. And for every John Huston going out near the top of his game with a movie like The Dead, there’s a dozen guys like Billy Wilder who finish their careers with a disappointment like Buddy Buddy. Sam Peckinpah, who directed such classics as The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs before succumbing to alcoholism and his own personal demons, ended his career with a film called The Osterman Weekend — a movie that history has judged to be a rather dismal failure, cementing him solidly in the camp of directors who ended with a whimper instead of a bang. Despite the warm feelings of two generations of critics, the truth is that The Osterman Weekend was a mediocrity at best and a catastrophe at worst.

Poorly received on its initial release by critics who felt that Peckinpah had been away too long, The Osterman Weekend was welcomed with an attitude typified in a review by Vincent Canby, who praises by faint damn in his practiced bitchy style with the comment, “Everyone is adequate.”
Or is it? As Craig T. Nelson, delivering a terrific performance as the Bernard Osterman who gives the film its name, says, “The truth is just a lie that hasn’t been found out yet.” Poorly received on its initial release by critics who felt that Peckinpah had been away too long (it was his first feature film in five years), The Osterman Weekend was welcomed with an attitude typified in a review by Vincent Canby, who praises by faint damn in his practiced bitchy style with the comment, “Everyone is adequate.” That’s about the best anyone could think of to say about it at the time. The fact that this would prove to be Peckinpah’s swan song hasn’t made critics any more charitable, either; the consensus still seems to be that the thing is a half-assed disaster, a waste of time and talent on every level. The first reaction was the movie was bad, and the received wisdom is that it’s worse. Peckinpah, however, was always a foe of received wisdom, and this is why: The Osterman Weekend isn’t a terrible movie. It’s not even a bad movie. It’s certainly not a great movie, but its status as the movie that literally and figuratively buried him is entirely unjust. Like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, it’s a misunderstood, underrated film that deserves a second look, if not a complete reassessment.

Based on a best-selling novel by spy-thriller populist Robert Ludlum, The Osterman Weekend features Rutger Hauer as a confrontational TV journalist and super-patriot who’s pressed into service by brilliant, risk-taking CIA operative John Hurt (under the supervision of CIA director Burt Lancaster, a fanatical red-hunter with presidential designs). Hurt convinces Hauer that three of his old college friends (Dennis Hopper, Chris Sarandon and the abovementioned Craig T. Nelson) are in league with a Soviet agent and asks permission to place surveillance equipment throughout Hauer’s home during a weekend reunion in an attempt to expose or turn them. However, as with all spy thrillers, all is not as it seems, and Hurt is playing a dangerous game as part of a larger scheme to avenge the death of his wife.

If that description makes the plot sound convoluted, that’s because it is. In fact, it’s a lot more convoluted than that. The Osterman Weekend, though made in 1983, feels a lot more like the Cold War espionage thrillers of the 1970s and has a suitably Byzantine plot to show for it. Indeed, much of the criticism of the film focuses on the fact that the plot makes no sense, the story is difficult to follow, and the narrative is a tangled mess. And, in this case, the criticism is spot on. There are a lot of legitimate complaints leveled at The Osterman Weekend. Its score, by the hit-and-miss Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin, is painfully cheesy. Its structure and editing are sometimes exceptional — particularly in a scene where the guests arrive for the weekend and exchange friendly pleasantries outside, while inside Hauer obsessively watches and re-watches a tape of his friends betraying him — but it’s often a complete mess (though much of this may be attributable to Cannon Films, the oft-schlocky studio who produced the film and who severely re-cut it against Peckinpah’s wishes). And yes, there’s no getting around it: the plot is ridiculous. It makes no sense at all.

The films of Alfred Hitchcock, a masterful director whom Sam Peckinpah much resembles, didn’t make any sense either.
But who cares? The films of Alfred Hitchcock, a masterful director whom Sam Peckinpah much resembles, didn’t make any sense either. Hitchcock shared with Peckinpah a number of traits: both were stylish, technically daring, innovative directors; both always got professional performances out of their casts; both shared common themes, such as voyeurism, the fetishization of violence and a distrust of police and authority. And, like Peckinpah using hack airport novelist Robert Ludlum as his source material here, Hitchcock was also fond of using pulpy sources for his movies, because he knew they contained plot, plot, plot (no matter how absurd or overcomplicated) that would drive his movies along and give them the set pieces he needed to pull off his dazzling displays of technical prowess. No one demands sensible plots out of Hitch; it seems unfair to demand them out of Peck. Vertigo didn’t make any sense. Why does The Osterman Weekend have to make sense?

Besides, The Osterman Weekend’s themes are exactly the kind that are best suited to its convoluted, complicated story. It’s about paranoia and distrust and desperation. It’s about panic and confusion and betrayal. It’s not about reality; it’s about perception. This is the modern Peckinpah, not the Peckinpah of the Old West or even the contemporary equivalent of the Old West we saw in The Getaway or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. He turns his incredibly perceptive eye on us, and he sees us … watching TV. Almost everything that happens in this movie happens on television, with Hurt’s gnomelike, omniscient CIA operative Lawrence Fassett (ha, ha) seeing all on his banks of surveillance screens. Hurt is a stand-in for Peckinpah, watching us watching TV, and we’re watching him watching us — which all plays out into a rather unflattering view of the viewer. Like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom — another long-reviled film that essentially killed its director’s career — The Osterman Weekend is cruel and effective in its determination never to let us forget that we, the audience, are voyeurs. From its opening scene, which begins as a piece of softcore Euro-porn, with John Hurt making love to his French wife, and ends as a snuff film, as she’s set upon while masturbating by KGB agents who kill her with a lethal injection, to its closing scenes, which toy with our perception of what we think we’re watching and when, The Osterman Weekend uses its unwieldy plot and twisting, turning script to keep us off balance and reinforce our status as peeping Toms in someone else’s tragedy.

Peckinpah’s direction may not be as astoundingly assured as it was in The Wild Bunch, but he certainly doesn’t seem like a man who hasn’t been behind a camera in years, either. All his normal trademarks are here — the ballet of violence, people hurting each other in slow motion, brutal gunplay (and bowplay), the role of machismo and some fantastic set pieces. An extended action sequence where Hauer and Nelson hold their breaths for an agonizing eternity under the water of Hauer’s swimming pool as rogue CIA agents rain gunfire down on them is as strong as nearly anything Peckinpah has ever done; a fire spreading like ink over the surface of the pool and bullets losing their momentum and twirling, spent, in odd directions as they hit the water are the sort of well-observed visual details that made him famous in the first place. He also rewards close viewing. There’s a scene early in the movie where Hurt is providing Hauer with evidence of his friends’ treachery, and we see on videotape footage of Dennis Hopper speaking to a KGB agent in a public park. Off to one side, barely noticed, is a bystander with a boom box; and yet we hear no music, though the conversation is clear as a bell. It’s not a key plot point, but it does lay the groundwork for the quite justifiable suspicion that Hurt is up to something. It’s also subtle; I didn’t notice it until my third viewing of the film, and it’s never mentioned at all in reviews. It may not be a masterstroke, but it’s also not the work of a director who wasn’t engaged in his work, as critics of The Osterman Weekend often allege was the case with Peckinpah.

There’s plenty more to like about The Osterman Weekend, particularly its excellent cast. The actors were purportedly eager to duke it out with the notoriously difficult Peckinpah, and they acquitted themselves very nicely. Rutger Hauer, as the pugnacious, cool John Tanner, is underrated as always. Chris Sarandon does a great job of playing a total prick, and Meg Foster, as Hauer’s wife, exudes quiet frustration, contempt and, ultimately, deadly menace. John Hurt is fantastic as the aggrieved CIA man out for blood; he does a great job as the master manipulator and even has the funniest scene in the movie (when he’s unable to shut off one of his two-way video monitors, he babbles a hilariously nervous improvised weather forecast until his unsuspecting targets leave the room). And although Burt Lancaster, an actor of whom I’ve never been fond, is all wasted pomposity, Craig T. Nelson is downright revelatory. Nelson puts in a tremendous performance as the anarchic wise-ass Bernard Osterman, a television producer and scriptwriter who uses his Hollywood-bastard persona to keep the others in line at moments of crisis.

Writing a defense of Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend is doomed to failure if your goal is to prove that it’s a great movie, because it’s not. It’s clumsy, it’s poorly edited, and it takes too long to get going. But if I’ve been overzealous in trying to make it sound better than it really is, it’s only because 20 years of critics — including some of Peckinpah’s biggest defenders — have busied themselves trying to make it sound worse than it really is. It’s an accomplished film with excellent performances and extremely memorable scenes, and all the attributes a discriminating viewer would expect from a Sam Peckinpah project. He may not have gone out at the very top of his game, but neither did he go out at the bottom; when he had to go, he went down swinging.