CIA director Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) watches a recording of agent Laurence Fassett (John Hurt) and his wife (Merete Van Kamp) having sex. When Fassett goes into the bathroom to take a shower, two assassins enter the bedroom and kill his wife. Fassett, unaware of his employer's involvement, is consumed by grief and rage. He hunts the assassins, eventually uncovering a Soviet spy network known as Omega.
Fassett tells the director that he wants to turn some of Omega's agents to the side of the West. He sees an opportunity in John Tanner (Rutger Hauer), a controversial television journalist who is highly critical of government abuses of power. Fassett explains that Tanner's closest friends are Omega agents. He believes Tanner could convince the Soviet spies to defect. He offers videotaped evidence of Tanner's friends discussing financial matters with a Russian man, whom Fassett identifies as a KGB agent. Tanner met his friends in college, and they have all gone on to successful careers. The spies are Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), a television producer who knows martial arts; Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), a plastic surgeon; and stock trader Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon). Tanner agrees, but only on the condition that someone from the CIA appear as a guest on his show. Danforth agrees to this condition.
Tanner's troubled marriage is not improved when he asks his wife, Ali (Meg Foster), to take their son out of town for the weekend without him. He does not want them involved but cannot tell her why he wants her to stay away. While Tanner is driving his wife and son to the airport, their car is ambushed, and Ali and the child are kidnapped. With Fassett's intervention they are rescued unhurt and the kidnapper is shot dead. In the meantime, Tanner's home has been wired with closed circuit video so Fassett can gather more evidence. Now fully aware that Tanner is involved with the CIA, Ali and their son are allowed to stay.
Osterman, Tremayne and Cardone arrive for the weekend, each having recently encountered difficulties engineered by the CIA in order to unsettle them and make them receptive to defection. The mood is tense. On the second night, Fassett sends a video feed to Tanner's living room television, replaying the evidence of the three men meeting with the KGB agent. Ali has a heated argument with Tremayne's wife, Virginia (Helen Shaver), and everyone retires to their rooms. Tanner's son discovers the severed head of the family dog in the refrigerator, but it turns out to be fake. Tanner has had enough and demands that his guests leave. Tanner confronts Fassett and insists he arrest the suspects. Fassett orders a guard to kill the broadcaster.
Cardone and Tremayne and their wives escape in Tanner's RV. Tanner confronts Osterman and assaults him. Osterman easily overpowers him, and demands an explanation. Tanner says that he knows that Osterman and his friends are Soviet agents. Osterman dismisses the accusation; he explains that they have been illegally sheltering money in Swiss bank accounts to avoid taxation, but insists they are not traitors.
Fassett appears on the television and admits that he knows Osterman and his friends are only tax evaders. Fassett kills the Tremaynes and Cardones by remotely detonating an explosive device on the RV. He sends his soldiers into the house to kill Osterman and Tanner. Fassett taunts Tanner during the attack on the house, revealing that Danforth authorized his wife's murder. Fassett offers to release Tanner's family if Tanner will expose Danforth on television.
Sometime later, Danforth prepares for his remote interview with Tanner. Danforth is at his office and will speak into a camera and microphone crewed by the TV station. Tanner introduces Fassett on the air and Danforth becomes enraged when he realizes he has been tricked. Fassett, who is also being filmed remotely, exposes Danforth as a murderer. Fassett's remote location is a secret, but it is clear someone is coming for him. It is revealed that Tanner himself has pre-recorded his questions for both men and has used the video feed to locate Fassett, whom he shoots and kills. He then rescues his wife, his son, and his dog.
William Castle initially purchased the film rights and asked author Ludlum to write the script. Ludlum was reluctant. Despite his extensive film and theatre experience, he said "I didn't leave that crowd of ocelots to go back into it."
As related in the documentary Alpha to Omega: Exposing The Osterman Weekend, producers Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer were celebrating the wrapping of a film when they ran into Larry Jones. Jones, also a producer, revealed that he owned the film rights to Robert Ludlum's 1972 novel The Osterman Weekend, but was giving up on turning it into a feature film since he had not been able to develop a satisfactory screenplay. Davis and Panzer immediately offered to purchase the rights, as they felt this could be the project that elevated them out of the B-movie features that they had been financing up to that point. Jones and a partner agreed, and Davis and Panzer began pre-production.
The first order of business was to adapt Ludlum's complex story, and for this they hired Ian Masters. Davis claims that Masters followed conspiracy theories and closely paid attention to the CIA's activities throughout the world. After Masters developed the script's groundwork, Alan Sharp was hired to work on characters and dialogue.
With the screenplay completed they went looking for a director, and an offhand comment led them to Sam Peckinpah, the controversial and troubled man who had helmed The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971). Suffering from a damaged reputation due to alcohol and drug addiction (noted most recently on the set of his 1978 film Convoy), Peckinpah had been given the opportunity to do second unit work on Don Siegel's Jinxed! in 1981. The competence and professionalism he displayed made it possible for him to be considered as director of The Osterman Weekend.
Many studios did not want to work with Peckinpah because of his antagonistic relationship with producers. Additionally, the director's health was poor. Davis and Panzer were undaunted, because they felt that having Peckinpah's name attached to their film would lend it an air of respectability. Due to the director's damaged reputation, the producers were forced to seek financing from independent sources.
According to the commentators on the film's special edition DVD, Peckinpah hated Ludlum's novel and he did not like the screenplay either. Peckinpah requested and was given permission to work on the script himself, but after submitting his first few pages the producers forbade him from any more rewrites.
In Marshall Fine's book Bloody Sam, screenwriter Sharp said that he himself did not like the screenplay he had written, and that he found it incredible that Davis and Panzer used his draft as the shooting script. Fine also wrote that Ludlum had stated to his friend Jason Robards that he would provide a free rewrite; if this is true the producers never accepted his offer. In spite of his distaste for the project, Peckinpah immediately accepted the job as he was desperate to re-establish himself within the film community.
Multiple actors in Hollywood auditioned for the film, intrigued by the chance of working with the legendary director. Many of those who signed on, including John Hurt, Burt Lancaster and Dennis Hopper, did so for less than their usual salaries for an opportunity to work with Peckinpah. Rutger Hauer, fresh from the success of Blade Runner, was chosen by the producers for the lead role. For the film's primary location, the Tanner household, the filmmakers chose Robert Taylor's former residence in the Mandeville Canyon section of Los Angeles, the "Robert Taylor Ranch".
Peckinpah managed to keep up with the 54-day shooting schedule and within a budget of just under $7 million, but his relationship with the producers soon soured and he became combative. The cast greatly respected him and said that Peckinpah put everything he could into directing the picture in spite of his physical exhaustion and health problems.
By the time shooting wrapped in January 1983, Peckinpah and the producers were hardly speaking. Peckinpah delivered the film on time and on budget, submitting his director's cut to the producers.
This version was screened once on May 25, 1983. Test audiences reacted unfavorably and many walked out of the theater during the first few minutes. Peckinpah opened with a distorted image of Fassett and his wife making love, and the way he had edited the scene made it difficult for the audience to discern what was going on.
Panzer and Davis were hoping that Peckinpah would re-edit the film himself, because they did not desire to antagonize him any further, but the director refused to make changes. Peckinpah had also filmed several satirical scenes, subtly ridiculing the product. As a result, the producers felt they had no choice and effectively fired Peckinpah and re-edited the film themselves.
The producers changed the opening sequence and deleted other scenes they deemed unnecessary. Peckinpah proclaimed that producers had sabotaged his film, a complaint he also made after filming Major Dundee (1965) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973).
The film was not a blockbuster, though it grossed $6 million domestically and did extremely well in Europe and on the new home-video market. Theatrical distribution was handled by 20th Century Fox.
Critics reacted unfavorably towards the film, with one of the common complaints being that the story was full of plot holes. Roger Ebert wrote, "I sometimes enjoy movies that make no sense whatsoever, if that's their intention. But a thriller is supposed to hold together in some sort of logical way, isn't it?'" The Chicago Reader's Dave Kehr has stated, "The structure is a mess...which ultimately makes it too difficult to tell whether its oddly compelling qualities are the result of a coherent artistic strategy or the cynical carelessness of a director sidelined." Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote that it was "incomprehensible" and "full of gratuitous sex and violence", but "has a kind of hallucinatory craziness to it". It currently holds a 43% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Thorn EMI picked up the initial video rights; a laserdisc edition was published by Image Entertainment. It is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray from Anchor Bay Entertainment, which has included the director's cut of the film on its DVD release, but it is sourced from the only known copy in existence, a low-quality, full-screen videotape.
Alpha to Omega: Exposing The Osterman Weekend is a 2004 documentary about the making of The Osterman Weekend. It was included as a special feature on Anchor Bay Entertainment's 2004 DVD release of the film. Featuring interviews with many members of the cast and crew, it not only examines the process of bringing Ludlum's novel to the screen, but also provides a portrait of Peckinpah's approach to the filmmaking process, and of his frame of mind and physical health following years of substance abuse. It was directed by Jonathan Gaines, who co-wrote it with Michael Thau, who was also the editor.
In February 2012, it was reported that talks were under way to film a new adaptation of Ludlum's book.