Point Blank, 1967.
Directed by John Boorman.
Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, Michael Strong and John Vernon.
After being double-crossed and left for dead, a mysterious man named Walker (Lee Marvin) single-mindedly tries to retrieve the rather inconsequential sum of money that was stolen from him.
In Point Blank, director John Boorman keeps Lee Marvin’s silent terror Walker in the shadows, right up until the unforgettably haunting last shot. You fear for Walker’s opponents, a cowardly John Vernon among them – he’s the bogeyman in his own film. He’s a stylised mythical spectre of whom his own wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) doesn’t know his first name, a potentially comical conceit if it weren’t for one thing: there’s a strong possibility Walker dies in the opening minutes of the film, and what follows is his exaggerated revenge fantasy.
This would explain the ghostliness of Walker’s world, why he succeeds so capably against such odds, why he can second-guess everyone to his own advantage. It could give a reason for why Point Blank plays out in a high reality, always conscious of its own existence as a movie. A death-dream would also be appropriate for a film so obsessed with memory, one that’s structured so oddly, like a frenzied mind firing off in numerous directions at once. Point Blank is a tough crime thriller, yes, but it’s also a weird and unsettling one.
The settings are spare and desolate – the opening titles show Alcatraz as a devastated, apocalyptic rock. A minimally modernised California evokes the same feel. The lack of humanity in the single-minded Walker is echoed wonderfully by his surroundings – even when crowds of people are in shot, there’s a detachment to Boorman’s camera that leaves figures resembling ghosts. Each shot seems intentionally framed with too much space and silence, with actors isolated by the hugeness of a cold, dead world.
This gives Point Blank a vague sense of existing in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo image of San Francisco (where much of Point Blank’s action takes place), its main character trapped in a weird unreality that constantly reflects his own damaged psyche. Johnny Mandel’s eerie score, which sounds as though it belongs in a psychological horror rather than a hard-boiled noir, only adds to the disturbing vibe. The colour scheme, too, has a pop arty edge that breaks out at unexpected moments (one striking shot set in Lynne’s all-grey house sees Walker staring down into her bathtub, where smashed shampoos and scents are coagulating into a swirling rainbow soup). Bright contrast colours are seen creeping into lifeless surroundings, matching for visual splendour Point Blank’s greatest achievement: its editing.
Point Blank’s innovative editing remains bold even now. Time and space becomes malleable in Boorman and editor Henry Berman’s hands, flashbacks and fractured memory slipping into the main narrative intermittently. There are some transitions that stick in the memory forever, like the nightclub fight scene, where Walker faces off against two thugs in a back room. Walker brutally defeats his two opponents; cut to the nightclub singer, screeching in close-up; cut to a waitress, screaming in terror at the sight of Walker’s two vanquished foes; cut to Walker placidly looking on, hidden, on his face reflected gaudy nightclub graphics. What was probably rather simple on the page becomes a very ‘60s concoction of vibrant cutting and colour, an example of Point Blank’s genius construction. It adds up to a hazy dream of a movie, one which may all be the result of Walker’s dying mind.
In the lead role, Point Blank features Lee Marvin’s most Lee Marvin-esque performance. As Walker, he’s a monosyllabic stone slab, his mind set so firmly on revenge that all else has become surplus, irrelevant. Walker refuses to reveal his history or what’s on his mind if it isn’t directly related to getting back at those who crossed him, but Marvin adds unprecedented depth. He’s full of coiled rage, of barely veiled sadness, while his sadistic tendencies always remain at the surface. Walker is supposedly unfeeling when he discovers his wife’s death by suicide, but Marvin makes you feel it. He’s a picture of cold intensity, dispatching villains in surprisingly violent fashion without so much as a twitch, a master of tightly controlled physicality giving a lesson in less-is-more acting.
None of which is to say Point Blank doesn’t get to have its gangster movie cake, too. You get Lee Marvin in your film, you also get macho posturing and efficient bursts of violence, like the moment Walker invades Lynne’s home looking for Vernon’s Mal Reese (the best friend that betrayed him), blasting his six-gun in slo-mo before wordlessly settling on the couch. Part of Point Blank’s initial appeal is that Walker’s unrelenting prowess means he simply cannot be defeated – he evades sniper bullets and police attention, only to go on and get his man. There’s a brilliant sequence where Walker coolly strolls past security into Reese’s fortified home, effortlessly taking out hired goons before facing off against the big boss himself. It’s a remarkably assured moment, so assured that it doesn’t quite make sense that this is only Boorman’s second feature.
Point Blank, at 46 years old, is still harsh, affecting and peculiarly under-seen. It’s a classic of the crime genre, a streamlined revenge tale that possesses unforeseen power and features one of Hollywood’s hardest leading men playing probably his meanest role. John Boorman’s film is a masterpiece.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.