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Point Blank

Point Blank(1967)

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Point Blank was made long after the official end of the noir era but exhibits several of its classic themes. Referred to as the movie about a Hit Man with a serious case of Antonioni-itis, it cleaned up in 1967 alongside Warners' other popular bloodbath, Bonnie & Clyde. It continued to play in frequent Los Angeles revivals and midnight shows for five or six years, where one could always detect a certain tobacco-like aroma ... the film's hazy LA dreamscape was perfect head-trip material.

Synopsis: Fun-loving Walker (Lee Marvin) is shot and left for dead during a robbery by his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) and his best friend Mal Reese (John Vernon). A year later, he turns up alive and well, guided by a man named Yost (Keenan Wynn) on a quest into the criminal underworld. Walker is after the 93 thousand dollars he's owed, and Yost wants a bunch of syndicate middlemen eliminated. Walker locates Lynne but eventually uses her sister Chris (Angie Dickinson) to track down Mal, Big John Stegman (Michael Strong), Fred Carter (Lloyd Bochner) and eventually the top man Brewster (Carrol O'Connor). Chris accuses Walker of being a monomaniacal zombie. The way he behaves, he indeed may be some kind of a ghost.

The key image in Point Blank is massive Lee Marvin striding down the old LAX corridors like a robot on overdrive. This is inter-cut jarringly with intimate shots of Sharon Acker putting on her makeup, creating an indelible visual contrast. This essential LA gangster film was made by a UK director whose only previous feature was a musical about the Dave Clark Five. Yet he has a natural understanding of hardboiled intrigue and powerhouse action scenes. The most dynamic moments are frequently repeated in flashbacks, sometimes even in slow motion. Marvin's Walker crashes through a doorway to strong-arm his ex-wife and shoot big black holes in her empty bed: It plays like a ballet yet is one of the more violent actions in any movie of the 1960s. Surely Sam Peckinpah was watching...

Point Blank is a simple revenge and payback story boiled down to its existential essence, and then pumped up with a visual treatment that resembles the work of Alain Resnais. It's interesting that just five or six years after something Last Year at Marienbad, ordinary American audiences would have no trouble following the time-fractured exploits of a (possibly) ghostly hit man. The moment of Walker's shooting in Alcatraz is repeated at least five times, and scene after scene unfolds in a weird limbo that co-exists with everyday Los Angeles reality (something LA residents have always understood). Jump cuts leap ahead in time exactly as would Kubrick's 2001 the next year.

Rationally speaking, the story makes no sense, as Walker is twice shot point-blank in an Alcatraz cell. He then hobbles painfully into the currents of San Francisco Bay that routinely sweep even strong swimmers out to sea. But our Walker unaccountably turns up a year later with a variable wardrobe of undefined origin, to make short work of one mob functionary after another.

After a classic crash-'em car ride with John Stegman, Walker works his way upward through the mob hierarchy, a faceless corporation of ruthless executives who carry no money but wield excessive power. There's great fun to be had watching Walker decimate their best killers. He suckers Lloyd Bochner's Carter, an unlikable bully, into stepping into his own death trap.

Point Blank flirts with nudity as regards Angie Dickinson, who helps Walker but is frustrated by his lack of feeling. The second best image in the show is the sight of Dickinson losing her composure and hitting, slapping and slugging Marvin as hard as she can. He stands like an immovable rock until she collapses in exhaustion. It's an abstract illustration of relationship problems that would be worthy of Jacques Tati, if he made violent movies.

Boorman frames a steady stream of bizarre visuals through Philip Lathrop's wide-angled Panavision lens. Perfumes and unguents mix in the bottom of a bathtub, another prophetic image from 2001. Images are diffracted through gratings and a disco nightclub uses a psychedelic light show as a wild setting for a brutal fistfight. The only visual cliché is one mannered shot of characters posed 'just so' in a shattered mirror.

Marvin is a Golem with a magnum pistol, gray-haired and wearing a constant mask-like expression. John Vernon is a standout as the treacherous mobster, begging Walker to help him in a roomful of loud men. Carroll O'Connor and Keenan Wynn are also excellent as the top dogs that Walker can't seem to push around.

Action movie fans have always been a bit disappointed by the oblique ending, in which a helicopter lands in the narrow confines of Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge. Instead of a violent payoff, Boorman gives us deep-dish symbolism. When he accomplishes his goal, Walker appears to cease to exist, to dematerialize. Perhaps he's finally become conscious of the contradiction of his own existence, like a Luis Borges character. The miracle is that Boorman's artsy approach works at all - Point Blank is a conceptual original.

Warners' DVD of Point Blank has a sharp enhanced transfer with almost no damage, carrying the careful color design intact from the big screen. The only odd shot is the special effects scene of a character falling from a skyscraper, which looks even more like a bad cut-out than it did in the theaters. The weird soundtrack is nicely turned out with the dialogue always easy to understand.

There are two contemporary featurettes, both called The Rock which cover the filming on Alcatraz. On short has an old-time convict returning to his one-time home. The film's arresting trailer is present as well. But best of all is a commentary with director Boorman accompanied by Steven Soderbergh, who did a similar crime movie a few years back called The Limey. The younger director brings out the very best in Boorman as they talk about the picture's ambiguous elements; it's almost as good as Soderbergh's commentary with Mike Nichols on Catch-22.



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by Glenn Erickson
When documentary filmmaker John Boorman made the leap to feature filmmaking with Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend, 1965), a low-budget rock-n-roll vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, he transformed the quickie into a surprisingly biting satire of popular culture set to a bouncy soundtrack, displaying a remarkable sophistication and creativity unexpected from such a project. It was enough to land him his first American film, Point Blank, where he revealed an even greater ambition and talent.

Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pen name for Donald Westlake), Point Blank shuffles the lean, straight-forward story of a gunman named Walker (Lee Marvin), who is double crossed by his partner in crime and returns (seemingly from the dead) for revenge, into a surreal, abstracted crime drama. The plot is faithful to original novel, a hard-boiled piece of crime fiction reimagined for the underworld culture of the sixties, but Boorman and Marvin, who requested the young director and supported his unconventional vision for the film, refract it through a modern lens. Walker's odyssey from Alcatraz in San Francisco to the underworld of Los Angeles is splintered with short, sharp shards of memory that cut through his story, as if reflecting Walker's attempts to put the pieces of cause and effect together in his mind.

Boorman views L.A. through an alienated lens and edits it more like a European art film than an American crime thriller, but fills it with offbeat, ultra-stylized scenes of violence. It opens on a gunshot that should have killed him and he struggles to put it all together when he wakes up: "Cell. Prison cell. How did I get here?" Marvin is enigmatic, to say the least, as he tracks down his unfaithful, guilt-ridden wife (Sharon Acker), his wife's sister (Angie Dickinson), his old friend turned double-crossing heist partner Mal Reese (John Veron), and finally the syndicate bigwigs, all just to get his due: "I want my 93 grand."

This vision of urban Los Angeles is alternately crowded and noisy and urban, and austere and empty and dislocated. His footsteps echoing through an empty, anonymous hallway becomes the disembodied beat of his march of revenge. A scatting, screaming R&B singer at a chic night spot called The Film Club is the feral soundtrack of a brutal backstage fight, at once visceral and abstracted in the clutter of 35mm film cans and nightclub supplies. The aftermath of a suicide becomes a psychedelic vision of destruction, which disappears in a cut to the apartment suddenly empty, a ghost house with no evidence of life or death, just transition.

The dialogue is loaded with references to "a dream" and characters constant remind Walker that he's supposed to be dead. Keenan Wynn adds another level of remove as the devil whispering in Walker's ear, another unreal figure with a carefully concealed agenda who is preternaturally attuned to Walker's movements. More than an informant, he appears from nowhere to provide a name, an address, a piece of information on the trail to the top man in the Organization as Walker's debt keeps getting passed up the chain of command.

Walker is both an unstoppable sentinel who seems more than flesh and blood and a vulnerable man wounded by betrayal who has armored over his emotions with a mission. Marvin delivers both sides of the character without compromising either. There's a cold fury under his deliberate movements and his eyes betray a moment of regret and sadness when he finds his wife dead by her own hand, but it is all pushed down and kept in check by his single-minded focus. "I just want my money" is his mantra, not a matter of greed but a debt to be settled to balance the scales. Marvin is at once deliberate and relaxed, a veteran criminal soldier alert to everything, which makes his character even more fascinating. He doesn't demand attention on screen, he commands it through confidence and ability and cool focus.

That alone makes him more admirable than Mal, who is played by John Vernon as an oily, arrogant, amoral rat, selling out anyone and everyone to buy his way back into the Organization. The rest of the members of the cast don't play characters as much as cogs, functionaries in a criminal enterprise as a cutthroat corporation, simply doing their jobs as if Walker was a rival in a hostile takeover. Only Angie Dickinson's Chris has the passion and fury and emotional life of a human being, siding with Walker out of both loyalty and for payback against Mal ("He makes my flesh crawl") and the Organization that has taken over her business and her life. Sharon Acker, who plays Walker's wife, comes off less haunted than simply weak. She barely leaves an impression, which is fitting for her character but fails to offer any sense of tragedy to her story, and she's almost instantly forgotten after she exits the film. It's really the only weak element of the film, which otherwise is strong, confident, and sure from beginning to end.

Point Blank has been called a modern film noir but it has more in common with Performance, another crime thriller that fractures time, offers enigmatic and ambiguous characters, and equates organized crime with big business. Boorman delivers meticulously executed set pieces that are designed for the wide CinemaScope frame with a sure sense of space and a dispassionate perspective. He emphasizes intelligence over action and presents Walker as total professional, never flustered and always emotionally removed from the situation. And if Walker is an extreme incarnation of the revenge driven noir anti-hero, the modern syndicate has transformed the old school mob into a world of paper jungles and corporate businessmen, an alienating concept to a two-fisted, gun-wielding independent like Walker. "Profit is the only principle," is their motto. Almost 50 years later, it's more modernist than modern, a fascinating time capsule of an era when young directors brought nouvelle vague style to classic genres, and a cryptic crime thriller that turns Marvin into the most enigmatic criminal professional in the movies.

Boorman creates a hard, austere look for the film and the new Blu-ray delivers a sharp clarity to his vision of Los Angeles as an impersonal modern city. Apart from a few scenes, he strips the frame down to isolated figures in an empty urban landscape under the hard light of the California sun. It's an urban desert and the disc preserves that atmosphere of a ghost city by day and a shadowy underworld at night when the crowds gather on the streets and in the clubs. The impersonal palette of concrete surfaces and blank office interiors in the day gives way to the color of human habitation after dark, which oddly enough has a warmer atmosphere than the harsh light of day.

Carried over from the earlier DVD release is an audio commentary track with director John Boorman and fellow director Steven Soderbergh, a fan of the film who essentially hosts the commentary. He engages Boorman in conversations about the film's style, the use of color and camera lenses, working with Lee Marvin (who became close friends with Boorman), and making his Hollywood debut with a film that refused to play by the studio rules. Soderbergh's The Limey was clearly indebted to Point Blank in both its theme of revenge and in its fractured storytelling and unconventional use of flashbacks. Taking part in this commentary is like paying tribute to his inspiration.

Also features the vintage promotional featurette The Rock (in two parts), which looks at shooting the film on location in Alcatraz, and the original trailer.

by Sean Axmaker