Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Osterman Weekend

Release Date: 
14 Oct 1983 (USA)
(viewed SA 10 Mar 2012)
Sam Peckinpah
Robert Ludlum (novel) Ian Masters (adaptation)
Rutger Hauer
John Hurt
Craig T. Nelson
Burt Lancaster
Dennis Hopper
Chris Sarandon
Meg Foster

IMDb link and rating:
Plot Synopsis:


I like spy movies and enjoyed this film for the things I expect from this genre: some genuine suspense, the cat-and-mouse maneuvering of competing intellects, and a couple of interesting twists that managed to catch me by surprise. There aren’t any really likable heroes in the film, apart from the innocent and surprisingly resourceful wife played by Meg Foster, but the antagonists are plentiful and varied in their levels of villainy and sinister intentions, and the roles are played by a first rate cast. The sole moment of comic relief--a preposterous scene in which otherwise ultra-sophisticated, all-powerful CIA surveillance equipment suffers from the failure of a simple on-off switch, thereby forcing an undercover agent, caught with his face on the television screen, to ad lib an extended weather report to preserve his cover--reinforces the seriousness and heaviness of the rest of the film. 

In her review, Lynne mentioned the dated feel to the film and I agree with that observation. Of course, I am not criticizing things like the movie technology (a film cannot be blamed for not using techniques that had not been invented) or the setting (the Cold War might seem out of date now, but is a perfectly good topic for fiction). Still, though, I think the film seems frozen in time--I would have said the ’70’s, but actually the film was released in 1983--probably mostly because of the music, which an Amazon editorial review called a “jazzy approach” that imbued the film with a “sensual, dangerous ambience.” In art, the price of being hip in your day is being irrelevant later.

The performances of the male actors were matched by very good performances by the women, which is not always the case in movies that seem to hold as a primary qualification for the female roles the willingness to remove one’s shirt on the big screen. Of course, I’m never one to complain about the liberal exposure of women’s breasts, but the frequent baring of chests in a decidedly unromantic, squalid, and sometimes disturbing style did strike me as merely gratuitous (and the only aspect that really warranted the R rating).

On second thought, however, maybe the gratuitous flaunting of bare breasts was the point. It conveys the theme of the film: that we are all watchers and are watched ourselves, and we don’t look away even when we might have done so. (Recall the sole comic moment I described above; the failure was, significantly, that the television wouldn’t turn off.) The film ends with a challenge: “What you’ve just witnessed is, in many ways, a life-sized video game. You saw a liar talk to a killer and you couldn’t tell them apart. Buy hey, it’s only television. As you may know, television programs are just the filler between attempts to steal your money. So if you want to save some, turn me off. It’s a simple movement, done with the hand and what is left of your free will. The moment is now. My bet is you can’t do it. But go ahead and try.”


Despite its strong late 70s fashion-feel (hair, clothes, make-up, drug culture, over use of titillating bedroom scenes), The Osterman Weekend holds up well enough in its portrayal of the art of psychological manipulation and its action sequences.  I was able to suspend my general distaste for those cultural vestiges and concentrate on the story it tried to tell.  But on that score alone, I have to admit I was confused between the spy, traitor, double-agent motivations set-up between the CIA director (Burt Lancaster) and the murine-faced CIA agent (John Hurt). Due to the coupling of incredible abilities with unbelievable incompetence, I began to suspect the underlying plotline early on: Don’t kill a man’s wife—especially when he can’t understand how he got so lucky in the first place—and expect him to roll over.

As to the ostensibly civilian characters, I disliked them to a man. One woman, the one the studio executives wisely chose to place on the movie poster, was a kick-ass, but sadly minor, player. Among the other men, Rutger Hauer and Craig T. Nelson had some moments of believable buddy banter during the flight for their lives, but it relieved none of their more awkward moments throughout the movie. Worth mentioning, the R-rated movie also showed a smooth collie in peril and implied moments of extremely bad parenting.   

I gave it a 5.5 because it kept me awake (automatic 5 on a Friday night, 4 on a Saturday) wondering how it would all turn out and because it starred Rutger Hauer and Craig T. Nelson who – even with the rat growing under his nose – is a terrific, possibly under-rated actor.

If you want the sheer discomfort of watching dysfunctional couples I recommend Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? If you love the psychological thrill that comes from spies, traitors, and not knowing who to trust, I recommend Seven Days in May or No Way Out. Finally, if you crave a match between man and a woman that strains the bounds of credulity, I recommend Funny Face.  If you want all three  compressed within the loose trappings of the late 70s, served up on video, The Osterman Weekend is the way to go. 

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