Point Blank

Point Blank (1967 USA 92 mins)

Prod: Judd Bernard, Robert Chartoff Dir: John Boorman Scr: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse, from the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark Phot: Philip H. Lathrop Ed: Henry Berman Art Dir: Albert Brenner, George W. Davis Mus: Johnny Mandel

Cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, John Vernon, Sharon Acker

Whether ghost or mere mortal, his [Marvin’s] gracefully focused Neanderthal methodically works his way through his laundry list of targets – an undeniable presence yet simultaneously a vaporous embodiment of bitter vengeance barely clinging to Boorman’s variegated frames. (1)

Point Blank has gradually become regarded as one of the seminal films of late 1960s American cinema. It was made at the peak of Lee Marvin’s booming stardom, and is the first of British director John Boorman’s films to survey his common preoccupation with a character (or often set of characters) let loose in an environment – modern or primeval – they can barely comprehend and plainly don’t belong to. It is, in the best sense of the term, a haunted, dream-like film that draws upon the spatial and temporal experiments of modernist European art cinema, most particularly the work of Alain Resnais. Its almost Proustian reliance on gestures and actions as triggers for memory, configuring memory as much an exterior as interior manifestation of the contemporary mediated world, emphasises the physical, and thus mental, relationships between people and their built environments.

Point Blank is loaded with flashes and fragments of the past that define characters physically as much as psychologically, emphasising in particular the rote and repeated nature of the central character’s (Lee Marvin’s Walker) actions, as well as the “haunted” qualities of his presence and appearances. This character is often left to soak up and respond to environments and surroundings after the core actions have taken place, their physical form and shape bent by the deployment of various optical devices as well as unexplained shifts in mise en scène. In one of the film’s most mysterious sequences, Walker is suddenly alone in his wife’s house, the interior magically vacated of almost all its furnishings, as well as her recently deceased body (she has taken an overdose). As in many other moments in the film there is a sense of déjà vu, one of many scenes and shots that isolate Marvin within the frame, as his character is jettisoned back into the cell he was condemned to in the film’s opening (shot, seemingly fatally, while dividing up the spoils of a heist in the abandoned prison of Alcatraz – the gang’s presence there isn’t really explained either). The film – particularly in its opening 30 minutes – is full of such startling transitions, helping produce a portrait of a society that is both corporeal and spectral, connected to and alienated by modernity, seen through and quite distanced from Marvin’s character.

Point Blank is a fascinating portrait of a commodified, corporate America predicated on seemingly incomprehensible financial transactions and labyrinthine chains of command. It is situated within a modern urban environment of streamlined and minimalist architecture offset by the semiotic abundance of a hyper-mediated world. As Brynn White argues, Marvin’s character works his way through “his laundry list of targets”, acting in a straight-ahead fashion that is largely oblivious to the underlying machinations and structures of the barely visible (or readable) world which “surrounds” him. Nevertheless, here is great deal of ambiguity about the degree to which Walker breaks down or is used by this System (a criminal, Syndicate-like form merely identified as the Organization), as his movements are partly motivated and tracked by the mysterious figure of Yost (Keenan Wynn), a character who gradually reveals himself as a kind of puppet-master guiding Walker’s movements. Marvin’s performance and his lithe, granite-like body provide a remarkable vehicle for rendering this tension between self-determination and discipline imposed by expressly built environments and overarching systems of social organisation.

Boorman and Marvin have often discussed the connection between Marvin and the character he plays in this film. Actor and director worked together closely on Point Blank, striking up a friendship which lasted until Marvin’s death in 1987 (and that has fuelled several of Boorman’s subsequent projects including several essays and the documentary Lee Marvin: A Personal Portrait by John Boorman, made for television in 1998). Marvin’s Walker is a relentless machine, a character seemingly brought back from the dead to wander through the Purgatory of contemporary Los Angeles and gradually work his way through the criminal system. Both Boorman and Marvin have commented on the links between this character (and his inherent brutality) and Marvin himself who had been hardened by the violence, killing and traumatic physical experience (he almost died) of his wartime service in the Pacific. Despite the access we are given to Walker’s highly reactive thought processes, sometimes through a kind of voiceover or the memory-images mentioned earlier, he is a mostly rendered as a “hard body” defined by his very physical reaction to his surroundings. This “hardness” and the implacability of Marvin’s body are virtually parodied in the scene where Chris (Angie Dickinson) attempts to pummel him out of her own frustration (brought on by his lack of communication and solipsistic desires). For almost a minute she hammers into his chest and slaps his face, exhausting herself as Walker/Marvin stands absorbing her blows. Such a scene – whose effect is partly comic due to its excessiveness – would commonly be used to emphasise the physical strength of such a character, and although this scene does achieve this it equally highlights Walker’s lack of interiority.

Such a rock-like countenance does not mean that there isn’t a physical grace to Marvin’s performance, he often moves swiftly and deftly here like a cat, but his actions and body appear counter to the “world” he encounters. Several of the film’s most striking scenes involve Marvin destroying or physically damaging parts of the environment. For example, in order to attain information from a car-dealer he takes him out on a “joy-ride” that concludes with him bouncing the car between the stanchions of the freeway that criss-crosses overhead (the film is full of such ugly-beautiful vistas). Walker’s violence is both enabled by the modern world and nullified by it. His rudimentary actions, though at one level very effective, seem hardly appropriate to this world. Although he carries a gun throughout the film, he only discharges it in such moments as when he pointlessly but cathartically shoots up the dishevelled bed of his wife. Like many such moments, this scene also has a symbolic dimension, highlighting Walker’s sexual frustration and humiliation. Shot in slow-motion it also emphasises the physical recoil of the shots, as if the gun is reacting against Walker’s actions (and Walker’s use of weaponry is contrasted to the clean and clinical telescopic rifle used by the Organization’s preferred hit man). This scene is also remarkable for its use of crosscutting between characters and places, heightening its sonic emphasis on Walker’s clipped, advancing footsteps and the hard-lit artificiality of the world he has to pace through.

Walker is something of a “natural man” who is made to encounter totally synthesised surroundings. This encounter resonates closely with Marvin’s own relationship to the cinema, a form which only intermittently allowed him to break through the artifice created by the rote conventions of the genres and roles he was trapped within (which this film also respects and reinforces at some level). In many ways, it is Marvin’s two films with Boorman that allow him to most fully develop and express his patented and expressly physical and gestural mode of performance. Following Point Blank, Marvin and Boorman decamped for the Pacific islands to make Hell in the Pacific (1968), an extraordinary two-hander with Toshiro Mifune which further emphasises the gestural, the voice as sound, and the physical relationship of bodies to their environments (and how they are arranged). These preoccupations draw heavily upon the remarkable physical “clarity” of Marvin’s screen persona. As David Thomson suggests, “At his best, he [Marvin] was without sentimentality, mannerism, or exaggeration, frightening in his very clarity”. (2)

Point Blank is also expressly modern in the way that it represents the world of criminality. Boorman deliberately steers clear of the ethnic stereotypes common to this form, the Organization presented as a white-collar business that neatly obscures the criminal activity that sustains it. Walker is used as an old-fashioned blunt-edged instrument to break through this dislocated system, but his base motivations, emotional outbursts and actions ultimately fail to clearly achieve the simple justifications that fuel his quest (he wants to get paid his $93,000). One of the film’s most effective and humorous scenes takes place in the hillside retreat of Brewster (Carroll O’Connor), a character who is supposedly a leading figure in the Organization. The opulence of Brewster’s house is perfectly in keeping with the stereotypes attached to such characters within the gangster genre, but his incredulous responses to Walker’s assertions about the underlying motivations for working his way through the echelons of the criminal corporation (“I really want my money”) highlight the blurred distinctions between the underworld and legitimate business (like several other figures Walker encounters he seemingly only transacts electronically and has no money to pay him off). It tells us much about the rarefied and tranquillised world Boorman creates – with stabs of violence and physicality deeply rooted in Marvin’s persona – that we easily believe Brewster’s assertions, countering the way we would commonly read such stalling activities within the genre.

Point Blank is by no means the first film to deal with the corporatisation of criminality – The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939) and such late 1940s noirs as I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1948) already start to make this move – but it combines this thematic preoccupation with a revisionist abstraction of the codes, iconography and geography of the genre. In the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films narrativise this shift but Point Blank is more concerned with the abstraction of physical space and temporality that accompanies such a change. Late 1960s Los Angeles ultimately provides a kind of Purgatory that Walker needs to pick or bludgeon his way through. But although Walker is a very physical presence who metes out some form of violence to many of the characters he meets, as well as whole range of inanimate objects, he is actually not directly responsible for any of the multiple deaths that pepper the film. Although he is a key catalyst for these “events” to occur, the deaths are equally facilitated by the hard-edged modernity of the world that defines these characters. Like such later figures as Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973), Walker is a man who is in the moment and explicitly out of time, a propulsively physical force and a “vaporous”, almost angelic vengeful essence. The streamlined minimalism of many of the film’s “environments” facilitates Walker’s seemingly straightforward quest, but this simplicity belies the considerably more complex structures (of power, finance, etc.) that are not mappable or readable onto these spaces.

Ultimately, the most fascinating thing about Point Blank is the way in which in renders its environment. In some respects it has much common with two other films released in 1967, Jacques Tati’s Play Time and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. All three of these films pit somewhat archaic characters against supremely modulated environments. It is also a key function of these characters to start to break apart the worlds they are trapped within (and each is also determined or defined by their physical actions, the way they move and ritualise gestures, rather than a truly worked-out psychology). Like both these other films, Point Blank relies upon colour as a key means of rendering environment, seeing its modulation as a central means of regulating and determining action. Although hardly schematic, the film is full of scenes which rely upon the registration of small differences in shade and colour – it is a commodified, strangely depopulated world designed to contain extreme or unexpected actions. For example, in one scene set within the corporate criminal world, various shades of green are deployed to unify character and surroundings (green is also a key colour in both Play Time and Le Samouraï). Like Play Time and Le Samouraï, Point Blank is also a portrait of a particular city. Point Blank’s Los Angeles is rendered as an explicitly modern environment, contrasted to the ghostly chalkiness and milky whites of San Francisco that open and close the film (and from which Walker emerges and returns, and into which he finally and mysteriously vanishes).

Although Point Blank is a striking and memorable film, it is also difficult to remember in detail. The overwhelming affect of the film is atmospheric, producing a heightened awareness of the abstract qualities and shapes of people, things and overarching environments. In Point Blank everything is a function of environment, and the film’s detailed portrait of the sun-kissed concrete of contemporary Los Angeles is amongst the cleanest and bleakest that has been captured on film. Manny Farber rightfully identified something monstrous in the film, commenting that Point Blank is “a great movie for being transfixed on small mountains which slowly become recognizable as an orange shoulder or a hip with a silvery mini-skirt” (3). In this world of over-sized things, some of which turn out to be parts of people, Lee Marvin emerges as both a monolithic mountain-peak (Farber also claimed he had a “Planter’s Peanut head” [4]) and just part of the scenery. It is also amongst the two or three most indelible, precise and committed performances of Marvin’s career.

Endnotes

  1. Brynn White, “Ballad of a Soldier”, Film Comment vol. 43, no. 3, May-June 2007, p. 52.
  2. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th edition, Little, Brown, London, 2002, p. 569.
  3. Manny Farber, Movies, Hillstone, New York, 1971, p. 158.
  4. Farber, p. 157.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Director of Contextual Studies (including Cinema Studies) in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and co-editor of Senses of Cinema.