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DVD SAVANT

The Osterman Weekend
Sam Peckinpah Commemorative
2 Disc Edition


The Osterman Weekend
Anchor Bay
1983 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 103 min. / Street Date March 23, 2004 / 29.98
Starring Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson, Meg Foster, Dennis Hopper, Chris Sarandon, Burt Lancaster
Cinematography John Coquillon
Art Direction Robb Wilson King
Film Editor Edward Abroms, David Rawlins
Original Music Lalo Schifrin
Written by Ian Masters, Alan Sharp from a novel by Robert Ludlum
Produced by Peter S. Davis, William N. Panzer
Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The phrase "content owner" appears to make the key difference when it comes to how a film is treated on DVD. If a major company had The Osterman Weekend in its vaults it would probably be released as a straight no-frills disc. Anchor Bay treats Sam Peckinpah's last movie as if it were a national treasure. It's a valentine to the maverick writer/director that assembles just about everything one could imagine related to this okay Robert Ludlum techno-thriller.

Synopsis:

Controversial television news investigator John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) is intrigued when government spy Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt) tells him that his old college friends Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) and Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson) are traitors in the employ of a foreign power. He agrees to help "turn" one of them at their yearly sleepover weekend, in return for getting the high-level CIA chief Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) as a guest on his show. The weekend starts as a mystery game with Tanner's guests wondering why he's acting so strangely. Drug use and emotions get out of control until John's wife Ali (Meg Foster) punches out Tremayne's annoying wife Virginia (Helen Shaver). Even Tanner doesn't know what's going to happen - Lawrence Fassett has bugged the entire house for audio and video and is manipulating everything that's going on.

I'll get what most everyone knows out of the way first: The Osterman Weekend isn't a particularly good movie and it's especially not good as a Sam Peckinpah film. It's certainly better than his previous effort, the abysmal Convoy. Bad buzz over that one kept Peckinpah away from directing for five years. The Osterman Weekend is basically a low-budget independent but the physical limitations aren't the problem. Robert Ludlum's story idea just isn't very promising and ace screenwriter Alan Sharp's screenplay has none of the genius of his earlier Ulzana's Raid and Night Moves, both superior pictures. A spy enlists a newsman in a bizarre plan, and it isn't very surprising when plot developments reveal a full half-hour's exposition to be an elaborate hoax. The idea of surveillance cameras keeping a big-brotherly eye on a houseful of spies was a big bore in 1983, along with the weak message that television brain-washes the masses. The theme of high-level government conspiracies intruding on our lives is talked about but not elaborated. The story is the sort of pretext that in a new film would be used to launch two hours of exploitative action. The Osterman Weekend wants to be serious than that.

Lawrence Fassett's remote control cameras supposedly give him the edge, But plenty happens that he should be able to monitor, but doesn't, like the escape of Tanner's wife and child from the house armed with deadly weapons. The only fun gimmick with the hidden cameras is when Fassett can't keep Tanner's guests from seeing his image on their TV screens, and has to pretend that he's a TV weatherman.

For a movie that's supposedly technically sophisticated, The Osterman Weekend completely misuses the surveillance video idea. The camera views are always optimized, interestingly composed and too tight to be real security or snoop cameras. Worse, videotaped events recovered from surveillance cameras often are edited, especially the murder of Lawrence Fassett's wife. It's not long before the cameras are just being used to peep at various couples making love, and there's no difference between that "coverage" and Peckinpah's earlier cheap hot-tub and bedroom scenes. It doesn't make sense that John Tanner would make love when he knows full well that Fassett is probably watching - and Ali Tanner saw the boxes and boxes of video equipment being wheeled into her house. Isn't she wondering where it's all set up?

The cast is mostly underused in a screenplay that mainly has them wondering what's going on while partying, playing in the pool and snorting cocaine. Peckinpah apparently tried to concentrate on the relationships between the characters as a way of generating interest that the spy story didn't have, but the various arguments and excesses among the guests aren't very compelling. Helen Shaver's sex-obsessed wife isn't much fun and Dennis Hopper and Chris Sarandon have little to do. Eventually their characters are all "resolved" in a way that smacks of budget cutting: two angles in a driveway and sitting in an RV, and they're all neatly retired from the picture. Meg Foster and Craig T. Nelson have the best roles simply because their characters are relative innocents behaving with some dignity. Rutger Hauer has a nice tentative quality, but his limited English makes him unsuitable to play a telegenic American news personality.

Peckinpah was probably making an honest stab at being cooperative with his producers and creating a commercial movie, a gambit he should tried ten years earlier. His slo-mo action is edited almost exactly like sequences from his earlier films (parallel actions cross-cut at 96 frames per second) but a dumb car chase is still a dumb car chase, and the climactic action isn't all that exciting either. Isolated in closeups, victims and attackers don't have much relation to one another. We remember the okay insert shots of silenced machine guns blazing away, but the arresting image of Meg Foster firing her longbow like a Greek warrior isn't the dramatic highlight it should be.


Anchor Bay's DVD of The Osterman Weekend is a two-disc set that will delight fans of the film and Peckinpah addicts. The Divimax transfer is excellent and the encoding of the feature is flawless. 1

Disc 2 contains an entire second cut of the film, at a much lower quality. This is the first time an original preview version of a Peckinpah film has been shown, and we can see for ourselves why the producers re-edited it. Peckinpah used cheap video distortion on his opening scene, rightly sensing it needed something to make it more interesting. When the preview audience didn't like it, the producers stepped in. Most of the rest of the editorial alterations are simplifications of cuts that can be debated, but for all the good they did the producers needn't have bothered. It's yet another film that the director can claim was yanked from his arms and ruined. Chances are Peckinpah would have found some other issue to divorce himself from the film and condemn his producers, so as to retain that unbroken record. He started out truly being persecuted by front-office executives, but by the 1970s the director was routinely undermining good and supportive producers, like Daniel Melnick.

Disc 2 also has a 78 minute docu on the making of the film that features lengthy interviews with most of the actors and both producers. Covering the filming in minute detail, the show is a fine record that is overlong by half, with a lot of content redundancies. Since the disc set is for avid Peckinpah fans and not average viewers, this is perhaps appropriate. I still rankle at the premise that Peckinpah's genius can be measured by the statements of his actors, the ones who go on record praising him. They may be proud of their work in a Peckinpah film, but none can really verbalize anything about his direction that's exceptional. In fact, the actresses all recite episodes that sound like harassment. Cassie Yates tells of being instructed to sit up in a bathtub that the director is secretly draining. How can she consider Peckinpah professional when she knows that the focus of his attention is on her breasts? This is sensitive direction?

Back on disc one is a free-for all commentary track that rounds up four published authors on Sam Peckinpah - David Weddle, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman. For the length of the movie we hear excuses for blah scenes, high praise for shocking moments (like the unaffecting opening murder) and lofty enthusiasm for their collective Saint P. All of these gentlemen have written compellingly about the director, but here their adulation and general presumption of genius leads to all kinds of speculation and auteuristic association games. When one author relates Craig T. Nelson's moustache to that of Dalton Trumbo, it comes off less as a coherent observation but as a way of boasting about his personal dinner meeting with Peckinpah, Trumbo and composer Jerry Fielding.

There is also a still gallery, bios and an original trailer. The menu animation is particularly imaginative. The overall gloss of the packaging will make The Osterman Weekend look like a dynamite special edition on the store shelves.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Osterman Weekend rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary (see above), Alpha to Omega a feature-length docu on Peckinpah making his last movie, trailer, stills and bios
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: March 27, 2004


Footnotes:

1. The Divimax blurb on the back cover is amusing. It assures the viewer that although Divimax is ultra-sophisticated, it "can be viewed on any home entertainment system." That's a relief. It reminds me a bit of the ad copy that used to run with plugs for cheap 8mm movie projectors in old comic books: "It projects both B&W and Color movies!"
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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