Sunday 24 April 2016

Movie Review: The Osterman Weekend (1983)

A muddled thriller and the final film directed by Sam Peckinpah, The Osterman Weekend has a weak script and distracted execution.

CIA agent Laurence Fassett (John Hurt) loses his wife to an assassination. His subsequent investigation leads him to uncover a Soviet spy network known as Omega, consisting of three former college classmates: plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), stock trader Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) and television producer with radical tendencies Bernie Osterman (Craig T. Nelson). Fassett convinces CIA director Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) that he can turn at least one of the spies into a double agent, with the help of controversial television journalist John Tanner (Rutger Hauer), also a former classmate of the men.

Fassett and Danforth lean on Tanner and cajole him into helping out with the plot. On a weekend when the Omega three are converging at Tanner's secluded house with their wives, Fassett wires the place up with numerous cameras and microphones. From a command post in the woods Fassett then orchestrates mind games against the spies to try to unhinge them and get at least one of them to consider becoming a double. But all is not what it seems, and before the weekend is over Tanner will find family, including his wife Ali (Meg Foster), son and dog, placed in grave danger.

Other than a top notch cast in decent form, not much about The Osterman Weekend works. Based on a Robert Ludlum novel, the film was a B-production that gained unexpected, and as it turned out, undeserved cachet when Peckinpah signed on as director, despite his failing health. By then considered a washed-up force, Peckinpah accepted the opportunity to restart his career, which led to many star names signing on to the project.

They need not have bothered. The script is mostly stuck in the early 1970s (the book was published in 1972), when the theme of surveillance was fresh and scary and captured in a spate of films like The Conversation and The Anderson Tapes. Here Peckinpah takes advantage of one more decade of sexual liberation on the screen by injecting plenty of scenes of bedroom frolicking as captured by hidden cameras, but it's all a sideshow that serves to needlessly distract from an already convoluted premise. Merete Van Kamp (Fassett's wife), Meg Foster (Tanner's wife), Helen Shaver (Tremayne's frequently drugged wife) and Cassie Yates (Cardone's wife) take turns appearing in various stages of undress, and it's almost all gratuitous.

But at least the sex and nudity are understandable as exploitation. The spy versus spy script is almost beyond comprehension, a victim of a lazy adaptation by Alan Sharp, perhaps grappling with weak source material. The reasons behind the central assassination of Fassett's wife are glossed over. The actual crimes committed by the Omega threesome are never explained. What proves to be incredibly sloppy approval from Danforth for Fassett to proceed with his high-risk, well-resourced mission turns out to be an inexcusable gaping hole.

When the bullets start flying and the violence escalates, the film offers middle-aged white collar men who are suddenly experts at combat and exceptional survival skills. And Tanner's profession as a hard-hitting, in-your-face journalist and interviewer exposing military cover-ups awkwardly mixes in an altogether dissonant tone that simply does not fit with the rest of the film's theme.

There is enough talent in the cast to ensure that The Osterman Weekend is not a total loss, with John Hurt committed in the most complex role as the emotionally wounded agent Fassett. Rutger Hauer, in the midst of his career purple patch, Craig T. Nelson, despite a bit of a ridiculous moustache, and a stodgy Lancaster are all serviceable.

True to form the project ended with Peckinpah embroiled in a battle with the producers, who wrestled control of the final cut and re-edited the film to try and improve legibility. By the end of 1984 Peckinpah was dead, aged 59. The Osterman Weekend is mess of a final note to end a career on, but perhaps also a most appropriate one.

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