Point Blank – Film rerelease at selected Cinemas
Director – John Boorman
Starring – Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Vernon, Keenan Wyn, Carroll O’Connor
John Boorman’s stylish and era-defining classic is given a welcome rerelease at selected cinemas nationwide. Ian Johnstone tells us why we should be going to see it.
By the early ‘60s the Hollywood gangster film cycle seemed to have come to an end. In fact, before Point Blank’s release in 1967, the only notable movie of its type was Don Siegel’s remake/remodel of Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film noir adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Killers (1964), also starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, which refashioned the street hoods of Depression-era America with a chilling corporate identity.
Englishman John Boorman’s innovative and atmospheric second movie – which seemingly came out of nowhere after his Swinging Sixties Dave Clark Five musical Catch Us If You Can – dragged the all-American crime film out of the black and white shadows of the 1940s and 1950s, straight into the searing, vivid daylight of 1967 pop-art LA. The result is probably Boorman’s, and Marvin’s, greatest movie – a superb, shifting, Panavision Metrocolor noir.
Evocatively, Point Blank opens with a double-cross. Gangster Walker (Marvin) and his old friend Reese (the fabulously oleaginous John Vernon, in his debut picture) meet in a cell on a disused San Francisco prison island of Alcatraz (Point Blank was the first Hollywood film to shoot on location there since the federal prison closed in 1963), having stolen money from a rival outfit. Reese pulls a gun, shooting his soon-to-be-ex-partner at point-blank range, and as Walker loses consciousness, he learns the full extent of his duplicity – Reese has been having an affair with his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker). Miraculously, Walker survives and swims across San Francisco Bay to safety. Later, he meets a stranger, Yost (Keenan Wynn), who helps him form a plan for retribution against Reese and his ex-wife that will recover the money stolen from him. In return, Yost wants syndicate mobsters The Organisation – which Reese has joined using Walker’s $93,000 cut of the money – wiped out.
Utilising stylistic elements borrowed from the European avant-garde (Godard, in particular), Boorman constantly fragments the narrative with starting flashbacks, cutting backwards and forwards through time. Just as disorientating are the overlapping sounds and slow-motion sequences, which combine to create a dream-like, almost hypnotic effect as Walker puts his plan into action. Tracking Lynne to LA, he finds himself unable to kill her and when she commits suicide by taking an overdose of pills he transfers his attention to her sister Chris (Angie Dickinson), adapting a strategy to use her as the bait that will draw out Reese. But when Reese is killed Walker must go through The Organisation itself to get his $93,000 – a seemingly pointless venture. With stunning simplicity, Boorman highlights both the futility of Walker’s mission and the blandness of the corporate capitalist gangsters he encounters with a simple motif: The Organisation is unable to give him his money because they no longer deal in cash.
Walker is a man totally out of time with this new dehumanised age, and the film’s stunning cinematography reinforces his alienation: Wellesian camera angles frame him against soaring high-rise office buildings and other concrete and glass structures, showing that his outmoded individualism is simply over whelmed by these surroundings – a point reinforced by Johnny Mandel’s wonderfully melancholic score. Marvin gives an enigmatic and subtly expressive performance as the laconic, near-somnambulist Walker, and his sheer physical presence dominates the film.
Yet despite his violent manner, Walker never actually kills anyone – his enemies destroy themselves – and at one point he simply steps out of the range of gunfire with a ghostlike ease. Instead, he pursues his goal with an almost inhuman determination, and in one of the most brutal fist-fights yet filmed – in a go-go club called The Movie House, appropriately enough – Marvin moves in a deadly robotic fashion, smashing a bottle in a hood’s face and punching him in the stomach as he writhes on the floor, before delivering a hard karate blow to the groin. His victim’s screams of pain blend with the yells of pleasure from the club’s James Brown-style house band (The Stu Gardner Trio playing the incredibly funky ‘Mighty Good Times’). Later, after smacking an Organisation bodyguard in the face with a gun, mob boss Brewster (played by Carroll O’Connor) exclaims in exasperation, “You’re a very bad man, Walker, a very destructive man. Why do you run around doing things like this? What do you want?” Almost shocked, Walker replies, “I want my money.” But as his sister-in-law has already told him, “What would you do with the money if you get it? It wasn’t yours in the first place. Why don’t you lie down and die?”
Very loosely based on Donald E. Westlake’s (1933-2008) 1962 hardboiled crime novel The Hunter, written under the pen-name Richard Stark, Boorman’s movie rewrote its source material almost entirely (Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse are the credited screenwriters). The location of the drama is moved from the east coast of America to the west, in the process transforming Westlake’s double-crossed, amoral hood character, Parker, into Marvin’s aging loner Walker. The biggest deviation from the novel’s straightforward crime tale – and easily the most significant – is Boorman’s explicit implication that Walker’s quest for vengeance never actually happens, that the entire movie is the revenge fantasy of a man in the dying moments of his life, trying to turn bitter defeat into something approaching victory. Boorman and cinematographer Phillip H Lathrop even manage to capture a whole new vision of Los Angeles – surely the most photographed city on earth – using vast storm drains, car parks, automobile dealerships and the blank concrete undersides of freeway flyovers to illustrate the depersonalised nature of the sprawling Big Nowhere. Like Siegel’s The Killers, frames from Boorman’s Point Blank could have been used as alternative source material for Andy Warhol to continue his Death and Disaster series of silkscreen images.
With its bleak, existential styling’s and cruel intelligence, Point Blank proved to be a major influence throughout the cynical post-‘Nam/Watergate 1970s, most notably on Clint Eastwood’s phantom avenger-western High Plains Drifter (1973) and even sent ripples through the feelgood 1980s – one only has to look at the dark cynicism of movies as diverse as Alex Cox’s Repo man (1984) and William Friedkin’s To Live And Die In LA (1985).
George Armitage’s Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), a witty parody of the Reagan years work ethic, carried echoes of Boorman’s brilliant movie, and not just in its title – Cusack’s hitman, Martin Blank, is every bit as disillusioned, trying to find his way in a culture that spawned him but has no further use for mavericks. Of the 1999 Brian Helgeland reworking of Westlake’s novel The Hunter, starring Mel Gibson, it is probably best to draw a discreet veil. Studio and star interference helped produce a financially successful but vapid picture, which was ironically much closer to Westlake’s book than Boorman’s enduring neo-noir masterpiece. Taylor Hackford’s 2013 uninspiring adaptation of Westlake’s Flashfire, a 2000 Parker novel, starring Jason Statham, entitled Parker, also missed the sleazy intensity of Boorman’s picture.
Boorman’s Point Blank perfectly defined the era in which it was made; yet it continues to generate a prevailing enigmatic attraction in the postmodern 21st century. Be sure not to miss the opportunity to appreciate Point Blank on the big screen.
Point Blank is re-released on 29th March 2013. At the BFI Southbank plus selected venues nationwide. You can watch the trailer for Point Blank below.
All words by Ian Johnston. More work by Ian on Louder Than War can be found here.