The Osterman Weekend (1983)

Posted: August 9, 2013 in Favorite Films
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49. The Osterman Weekend (1983)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Starring: Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson, Meg Foster, Burt Lancaster, Dennis Hopper, Chris Sarandon

If I had to classify my first experience with “The Osterman Weekend” it would be as a happy accident. On one particular Saturday afternoon in the 1990’s, I was tuned in to the television watching some old movie on the Fox network (If you asked me which one, I wouldn’t be able to tell you). After it had ended, I was just about to go do something else when a commercial for the next feature came up. Once I heard the names “Rutger Hauer” and “John Hurt,” I didn’t need to know what the movie was about. I was hooked already.

Adapted from the 1972 Robert Ludlum novel of the same name, the film offers the following scenario: It’s 1983 and the Cold War, although in its last decade of existence, is still very much alive. You’re a confrontational TV talk show host (like the ones we see today regularly on MSNBC and Fox News), and a total stranger has just convinced you that your three best friends are Soviet agents. This is the dilemma faced by John Tanner (Rutger Hauger). The man coming to him with this information is CIA agent Laurence Fassett (John Hurt), who is working under orders from CIA director Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster). Tanner wants to interview Danforth, to which there is an agreement under one condition: Tanner must help to expose his friends and help bring down the spy network known as Omega.

That very weekend is when these friends will be getting together at Tanner’s house for their annual party known as The Osterman Weekend, named so for Tanner’s friend Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson). Even before they arrive, Osterman is suspicious of Tanner, as are his other friends Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper) and Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon). Tensions mount, and Fassett is watching all of it and throwing gas to the fire through closed-circuit television. There are crosses, double-crosses, and triple-crosses before the movie is over, and anyone who thinks they have total control of the situation is simply delusional.

I don’t typically care much at all for stories revolving around conspiracies, so for this to engage me at all speaks well of the film. For it to emerge as one of my favorite movies of all-time means that someone clearly did something right. Many critics at the time of its release, Roger Ebert included, tended to have quite the opposite reaction. The most common complaint was that the plot was full of too many holes, which it seems to me to be actually somewhat appropriate when you consider that the very nature of a conspiracy is that it is full of holes.

To be fair, the production of “The Osterman Weekend” was riddled with its share of problems. Director Sam Peckinpah’s reputation of drug and alcohol addictions had made many in Hollywood weary of working with him, and as such the producers had to seek independent finances. Peckinpah himself proved difficult, insisting on making rewrites to the screenplay after expressing his distaste for both it and the original novel. If it had not been for his desperation to repair his public image, it is likely Peckinpah would have left the movie all-together. When he finally submitted his cut of the film (which is available as a special feature on the DVD), it was deemed so incomprehensible (and it is!) that the producers saw little choice but to fire Peckinpah and do a re-edit themselves. It stands as Peckinpah’s final film, as he sadly passed away the next year due to poor health stemming from his aforementioned addictions.

Despite the messy production, the finished product is a very fun little movie. I particularly enjoy the rare opportunity of seeing Rutger Hauer in a heroic role. John Hurt makes anything he’s in more enjoyable just by his very presence. The score by Lalo Schifrin is great, especially the beautiful saxophone solo track, “Face of Love.” But what I take out of my experience with “The Osterman Weekend” most of all is that it was my introduction to actor Burt Lancaster, who has gone on to become one of my favorite actors. His screentime here is limited, but Lancaster has that uncanny ability to pull you in and make you hang on his every word, whether he’s playing the hero or the villain.

If I have any advice going into watching “The Osterman Weekend,” it is that you do your best not to overanalyze everything that’s going on and just have fun with it. It makes for a much more pleasant viewing experience.

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