Vintage Cable Box: “The Osterman Weekend”, 1983

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“The truth is a lie that hasn’t been found out.”

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“The Osterman Weekend”, 1983 (Rutger Hauer), 20th Century Fox

Inappropriate saxophone-laden soap opera/porno movie/elevator music (by Lalo Schifrin) accompanies the opening credits, wherein John Hurt is doing the deed with a french lady I can only presume is his trophy wife. Men in black (on orders from Burt Lancaster’s section chief) arrive to kill the lady with a hypodermic injection. Later, Lancaster orders Hurt to neutralize political pundit John Tanner (the great Rutger Hauer) and his friends – weirdo plastic surgeon Dennis Hopper, sleazy banker Chris Sarandon, and the titular Osterman (Craig T. Nelson).

John Hurt tips off Tanner that one or more of his friends may be involved in a Soviet splinter group known as Omega, and that he has been instructed to watch them during an informal weekend gathering. Hauer agrees to Hurt and Lancaster’s demands, provided Lancaster appear on his television show. For the rest of us watching the movie, we already know what’s going to happen before it happens, so suspense is kept at a minimum. In poker parlance, it’s like showing your hand before you’ve put your money on the table. There is talk of Tanner’s troubled marriage to Meg Foster (with her gorgeous glowing blue eyes), but their relationship seems like every other normal married couple to me. Perhaps I should examine my priorities!

What follows is an unusually-edited chase sequence. There is an attempted abduction of Tanner’s wife and son with emphasis placed on an enormous pipe going through a windshield. Bits like this are few and far between for a movie like this. Hurt wires Tanner’s house with security cameras in every room, and he spends a lot of time watching all the couples get kinky. The weekend commences, and already nobody seems to be having a good time, and everybody is suspicious and paranoid from the start. It’s like Edward Albee but with naked pool parties. There is a funny bit where Hurt pretends to be a weatherman on the television as he attempts to communicate with Tanner while his friends are watching.

With a great cast and story with so much potential, it’s disappointing to note that this was Sam Peckinpah’s final film. It shows none of the wit, none of the break-neck and feverishly-paced action central to Peckinpah’s work. In addition, the sound quality is abysmal. Nearly every scene shows signs of “looping” (that is when the sound is spotty or of subpar quality, actors return in post-production to re-record their dialogue). What’s the point of having boom operators and sound recordists if you’re just going to re-record all of your dialogue anyway? The sound effects editing is equally atrocious.  The actors sound as though they are shouting in a tunnel when they running through the woods.

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Utilizing the old severed-dog-head-in-the-refrigerator gag, the party breaks up and everybody books. Tanner announces to Hurt that he is through. Hurt traps everybody on Tanner’s property. As it turns out, all of this has been a revenge scheme orchestrated by Hurt against Burt Lancaster, whom he knows ordered his wife’s death, and poor Tanner (not to mention his friends) just got caught in the middle. The movie is inconsistent; there are terrible scenes and then there are moments of brilliance that belong in a better movie.

A relative had gotten me a box set of author Robert Ludlum’s classic books (titles like The Bourne Identity and The Gemini Contender among them) so I had read most of his books at the time before I saw this troubling adaptation. It seems to me the writers wrote up a rudimentary outline of the novel (or not even that – they just flipped through the pages wearing blindfolds and pointing to certain passages). Ludlum’s Bourne series was made into a highly successful franchise starring Matt Damon.

Sam Peckinpah was a legend and a god to modern-day action film directors like Walter Hill, John Carpenter, Robert Rodriguez, and John Woo. He directed “The Wild Bunch”. “Straw Dogs”, “The Getaway”, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”, and many other films noted more for their graphic violence than their fine narratives.

By the way, the dog didn’t die, but he was gagged and stuffed in the closet of a recreational vehicle, along with Tanner’s wife and son. I told you there were moments of brilliance in this movie!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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