Not long ago from Netflix I received a DVD of a film I was curious about. Though I’d never seen it, I recall reading something years ago about a movie called The Osterman Weekend, a 1980s spy thriller which was director Sam Peckinpah’s (The Wild Bunch) last film. I can’t recall where the article was that I read or who wrote it, but it derided the film as atrocious but also bizarrely fascinating, and more so once you take into account the curious story of how it was made. I am, on occasion, a sucker for bad films, so I was naturally curious.

So I watched The Osterman Weekend. I realize this may sound like hyperbole, but it’s the single most bizarre movie I’ve ever seen. Not the worst, but the strangest. It’s strange, perplexing and head-scratching in a much more profound way than are movies whose makers intended them to be bizarre and perplexing (say, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Pan’s Labyrinth) precisely because the people who made The Osterman Weekend thought they were making a fairly straightforward action thriller movie. It’s also a terrible movie in its own right, but that’s almost beside the point. A film this unusual is definitely worth talking about, which is why I decided to do a blog post on it.

Explaining the ins and outs of the plot, which is virtually nonsensical, would take a blog post several times as long as this one is going to be. Suffice it to say, after an absolutely incomprehensible and extremely disturbing opening scene shown on grainy video of what is evidently supposed to be some sort of CIA contract killing, CIA agent Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt) is sent on a mission by his superior, Danforth (Burt Lancaster) to “turn” a couple of Russian agents who belong to an enemy spy ring called Omega. (Don’t you hate it when your best friends from college turn out to be KGB spies?) This will be done when the agents–played by Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper and Chris Sarandon–go away to spend the weekend at the house of their friend John Tanner (Rutger Hauer), who Fassett brings in on the plot. For reasons never adequately explained this is all some sort of set-up, and Fassett convinces Tanner to let him wire his entire house with TV cameras so they can snoop on the Russian spies doing attractive things like snorting coke off their wives’ tits. Ultimately, again for reasons never explained, the whole thing goes awry and degenerates into an orgy of explosions, a flaming swimming pool and Tanner’s wife (Meg Foster) running around shooting people with crossbow arrows.

This trailer makes The Osterman Weekend look like a straightforward, logical action thriller. Once you’ve seen the movie you’ll realize what a feat that is.

This summary is literally as coherent as I can make this movie sound. There are a number of digressions that make even less sense than the major plot points. For example, apropos of absolutely nothing, early in the film some kind of agent hijacks the groovy 80s station wagon carrying Tanner’s wife and son, and a huge car chase ensues. It ends abruptly and then no one ever mentions it again. Or the bit where the son opens the refrigerator and finds what he thinks is the severed head of his dog, right there on the shelf next to the ketchup–only it turns out to be a papier-mâché  prop. Say what? The whole movie is filled with weird non-sequiturs like that. Sometimes they’re intentionally funny, other times (more often) they’re obvious accidents. I got several big belly laughs out of this film but I don’t think what I was laughing at was intended to be funny.

How did this movie get this way? I can’t confess to being a big Sam Peckinpah fan, but I do know he was a talented director. The story behind the movie is a little sad. Peckinpah, who among other directors like Don Siegel revolutionized movies in the late 1960s with a gritty, over-the-top depiction of violence, had been on the outs with the Hollywood establishment for quite some time. He was notoriously hard to get along with, and he was also severely addicted to drugs and alcohol, which meant between his drunken binges, testy personality and frequent health crises his movies tended to go way over budget and be difficult to complete. Essentially blacklisted by the early 1980s–and in declining health–Peckinpah somehow managed to scrape enough favors together to get offered a job directing The Osterman Weekend, which was an adaptation of spy fiction master Robert Ludlum’s popular 1972 novel.

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The horrifying opening scene of The Osterman Weekend involves a naked John Hurt. Fortunately the resolution of the actual scene is far poorer than this still shot.

The production was a mess from the beginning. Nobody could agree on a script they liked–not the producers, nor Peckinpah, nor even the several writers brought in to try to salvage it. It was still in pieces when cast and crew assembled in November 1982 to shoot the movie, mostly at the former ranch house of Hollywood star Robert Taylor which was the location for the weekend retreat. Peckinpah reportedly didn’t even like Ludlum’s original novel. Although the actors on set loved working with Peckinpah, as the production wore on his health got worse–at one point directing from a hospital bed–and so did his relationship with the producers. Amazingly, though, the film wrapped on schedule and under budget. Then, in post-production, the truly epic battles began.

When they saw the movie Peckinpah shot and edited together, they hated it. So did the test screening audiences. In the one test showing The Osterman Weekend received, a large portion of the audience walked out after five minutes–the disturbing “video murder” scene at the beginning of the film was too much for them. Every time the producers asked Peckinpah to change something, however, a huge brouhaha began. Ultimately they decided to cut their losses and simply fired him. They commissioned a re-edit of the film, removing some humorous material that Peckinpah put in to balance the violence. No wonder this movie was such a chore to watch. But even the re-edit couldn’t save the bizarre opening sequence, which is still incredibly strange and repelling. Frankly I wish they’d cut the papier-mâché  dog’s head and Craig T. Nelson’s laughable mustache, but whatever.

sam peckinpah

Sam Peckinpah was a talented director. Quentin Tarantino is, in many ways, Peckinpah’s modern-day creative heir; many of Tarantino’s films contain homages to Peckinpah.

The film was released in October 1983 to savage reviews but at least mediocre box office, and actually turned a good profit in Europe. It turned out to be Peckinpah’s last movie. He never sat in the director’s chair again, perishing of heart failure in December 1984.

Essentially, The Osterman Weekend is a weird mishmash of a movie, taken from an odd story with a far-fetched premise (what if your friends turned out to be spies?), made by a dying man working for people he hated and who did not believe in him or the artistic vision he sought to create–assuming there was one. There might once have been the theoretical idea of The Osterman Weekend as a coherent, terse spy thriller, made by an experienced and talented action director who knew how to make and deliver successful and important pictures, but somewhere along the way this film completely fell apart. What results is possibly the weirdest 103 minutes in the history of Hollywood. You owe it to yourself to see it, if only for the “WTF?” factor.

All images of The Osterman Weekend are copyright (C) 1983 by Twentieth Century Fox film corporation. The portrait of Sam Peckinpah is also under copyright but the copyright holder is unknown. I believe that my use of them here–to identify the film and person in question, and with no non-free alternative available, or alternately as brief passages quoted in a review–constitutes fair use under copyright laws.