Point Blank: John Boorman’s avant-garde Noir masterpiece gave Lee Marvin his most iconic role

John Boorman’s Point Blank(1967) is one of the greatest and most unusual crime\noir thrillers ever made. Apart from being an extraordinary hybrid of American and European film sensibilities, the film also provided Lee Marvin with his most iconic role.

1960s was the decade of revisionism in American society and American cinema. Every movie genre was undergoing reevaluation, with filmmakers subverting and deconstructing the essential tropes and character archetypes associated with a particular genre. The good guys were becoming bad guys, the bad guys were now being cast in a sympathetic light; the demarcation between moral and immoral was being slowly eroded, with heroes becoming blissfully amoral and villains becoming more three dimensional. It was mainly European directors who was behind this kind of revisionism. After Douglas Sirk reinvented the soapy melodrama in the 1950s, it was left to Italian maestro Sergio Leone to reinvent the beloved American genre of ‘Western’ with his own brand of operatic, revisionist ‘Euro-Westerns’ made in Italy and other parts of Europe. Even as this was going on, French masters like Godard and Truffaut were re-imagining the traditional American gangster\noir thrillers through their European sensibilities, and making films like ‘Breathless‘ by breaking every conventional narrative technique associated with traditional American cinema. So, it was only a matter of time that American cinema too embrace this form of avant-garde, Postmodern filmmaking. The year 1967 proved to be the turning point in this regard; director Arthur Penn made Bonnie and Clyde, by pretty much following the ‘New Wave’ European sensibilities to the letter. The film became a big blockbuster, thus practically ushering the age of ‘New-Hollywood’, where American mainstream cinema would expand its boundaries considerably by giving new filmmakers immeasurable freedom to experiment with form and content.

Though 1967 is mainly considered the year of counter-cultural hits like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, there was another film from that year that at the time didn’t find much favor with the audience or critics, but was a film that was every bit (or even more) path breaking and revolutionary as those two films. The film was British director John Boorman’s (first American) film Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, which completely reinvented how a pulpy, noir thriller could be made. By the early 1960s, the almost 2 decade long reign of film noir that had begun with advent of World War II had finally waned. Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Welles and released in 1958, is considered the final film of the classical Noir period. The themes and concerns of the particular genre (or movement or style) had been obliterated by the boom of the 1950s, as well as the emergence of the ‘Big Roadshow Picture’ specifically designed for big screen entertainment. The European filmmakers were particularly inspired by the film noir movement in developing their own ‘New wave’ film culture; Godard and Truffaut started out as film critics championing the noirs of ’40s and ’50s, and it was only natural that when Hollywood decided to get inspired from European cinema, the Noir thriller would make a comeback, albeit in a new form. Thus was born the neo-noir: that consciously and formally nodded to the classical noirs ,while going places – with themes and characters – that those noirs couldn’t. In that regard, Point Blank could be considered the first neo-noir made in America, or at least the the bridge between the classical Noir and Neo-noir – that flourished from early seventies with films like Klute and Chinatown. The film is a unique hybrid of American, British, Italian and French influences, with a British director re-imagining a traditional American genre through the prism of avant-garde Euro-art.

Point Blank was based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark. It’s about a criminal named Walker (in the novel it was Parker), who is double crossed by his wife and friend\partner after a heist. They take all the money and leave him for dead. Walker recovers miraculously from his bullet wounds and returns to take revenge as well as to get back his share of the stolen money ($93 thousand). Boorman transforms this generic tale of crime and revenge into a haunting motion picture influenced by the avant-garde films of Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni – mainly Hiroshima Monamour , Last year at Marienbad, Red Ddesert and L’Avventura. Boorman fashions a narrative that can be read in two ways; one: A man’s futile quest for revenge that turns him into an inhuman, ghost like figure; and two: a metaphysical story of a dead man roaming a world of his dreams just as he is dying or, just after he is dead. In keeping with this double structure, the film uses an elliptical story telling technique, consisting mainly of jump cuts and voice overs. The narrative moves from the past to present (and maybe even future) randomly giving the feel of a scattered dream. The film is also heavily influenced by genre revisionism of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns; Walker bears parallels to Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’. With Point Blank, Boorman does for the gangster film what Sergio Leone did for the western with A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Both re-imagined American culture through an European prism and created a new mythic rendering of some well-trodden themes and characters. Leone’s Dollars trilogy railed against the countless romantic reiterations of how the West was won, and re-invented a genre by approaching it as modern fable, hanging it on a central character that is more of an existential Knight than a romanticized cowboy. Boorman also does something very similar here, turning the concept of the noble avenging angel on it’s head, making him less a human, more a specter; a primal elemental force devoid of any visible human emotions or ability to connect with his surroundings. Though Stark had originally intended the role of Parker\Walker for Jack Palance, the film is impossible to imagine without Lee Marvin. Marvin had a lot of input into making the film what it is. The original script they had was terrible (legend is that Marvin throw it out of the window), and much of the film was made up by Boorman and Marvin, with Marvin substituting physical action for lot of the dialogues, thus making his character more laconic and mythical, and the film extremely spare, minimalist and a purely visual experience.

Boorman tapped into Marvin’s unique characteristics as an actor to design much of this movie; the film was really built around Marvin’s persona, especially his quicksilver movements and his abrupt and hostile attitude. One of the things that Boorman concentrated on was Marvin’s walk – especially since the name of the character is Walker – which is just one of a kind; he milks more excitement out of Marvin’s walk than any other set piece in the film, and  nobody walks on screen like Lee Marvin. His walk is brisk, straight, emotionless and unconcerned; It’s almost robotic in it’s forward progression, as if it will stop only on reaching its destination- no matter what happens. The most striking moment in the film is when Marvin has recovered from his wounds and is back in L.A. to confront his wife. We see him walking through a long corridor, with exaggerated sounds of his shoes tapping the ground. And as he keeps walking, he starts becoming bigger and bigger, finally, fully filling the frame. The film then cuts to Marvin waiting outside his wife’s house in his car, he has stopped walking, but we still hear the tapping sound of his shoes. It gives a clear indication to Walker’s character: He is coming at you relentlessly, it doesn’t matter whether he is walking, driving or standing still, at all times, he’s coming to get his enemies. Marvin’s body language is always that of a man in a hurry; talking very fast, moving very fast; His famous dialogue from Don Siegel’s film, The Killers (perhaps his first starring role) was: “I don’t have much time”. Point Blank has a lot in common with The Killers – the lead character being a driven, unstoppable killer as well as the presence of Angie Dickinson, who played the femme fatale in The Killers, and here she plays the role of Walker’s sister in law, Chris, who helps Walker track down his enemies.

During his heyday as a leading actor in movies; that’s from the mid to late 1960’s, Marvin specialized in playing characters who are on a mission. Films like The Killers, The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, right up to The Delta Force (in the mid 1980’s) have all seen him in this avatar. Either he is leading a team on a mission or he is going all alone. Marvin started off by playing villains in acclaimed movies like The Wild One, Bad Day at Black Rock and Seven Men from Now, where he held his own against revered icons like Marlon Brando and Spencer Tracy. He was well into his forties when he hit stardom. His hair was white by then and had started balding. His main competitors were extremely good looking guys like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. But he managed to carve a niche for himself with his own style and attitude. He, more than anybody, embodied the maverick, rebellious, defiant counter-cultural attitude of the ’60s; being emotionally scarred for life due to his participation in World War II as a real marine, he was able to project a more hard-edged and rough persona than Newman or McQueen. With back to back successes in tough guy roles in the mid ’60s, Marvin became an archetype for the tough no-nonsense hero in the vein of Humphrey Bogart. Like Bogart, he was sardonic, nonchalant and not conventionally good looking. As already mentioned, he had a long climb to stardom and, once he reached there, he wouldn’t stay there for much long. He was beset with personal problems; an addiction to alcohol and quite an eccentric choice in films & roles that would see his star go down pretty quickly in the early ’70s, but in that brief period, he would be successful enough to make a lasting impact on the cinematic landscape. Point Blank came at the height of Marvin’s stardom, when he was flush with back to back successes- including winning a best actor Oscar for Cat Ballou(1965). So Marvin had a lot of power in the making of this film- script approval, co-star approval, final cut etc.., all of which he transferred to director Boorman who thereby had a lot of freedom in making this picture. Boorman used it to fashion one of the most esoteric crime dramas of all time. Right from it’s opening shots, we realize that we are in a very different kind of film. The first 10 minutes or so of the film consists of a number of lightning-quick, elliptically-assembled shots, blurring the line between dream and reality. We witness Walker, along with best friend Mal Reese (a superb John Vernon, in his first screen role) and wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) successfully intercept a clandestine money drop-off taking place on Alcatraz; when Reese finds that his share of the spoils isn’t satisfactory, he and Lynne plug Walker full of holes in a dank, shadowy prison cell. The film begins with Walker trying hard to remember how he came to be in that cell and, as he pieces his memories together, moments from past and present come tumbling together, including a moment with strong homoerotic undercurrents, where a desperate Reese is seen lying over a drunken Walker (who is lying dazed on the floor) amidst the jostling feet of the fellow drunken revelers; Reese is trying his best to convince Walker to come along with him for the Alcatraz job; the words he keeps repeating is “I am your friend Walker“, the words keep resonating like a ghostly chant. Walker can’t believe that his wife (who was having an affair with Reese) has betrayed him and his friend has shot him. So as he awakens from his stupor and sets forth to swim out of Alcatraz, the word that he keeps repeating is: “Dream?, was it a Dream?“. Boorman cuts to a floor level, low angle shot, in which the figure of Walker slowly rises up, like a spirit out of the body.

Despite the film’s reluctance to provide definitive answers on the subject, one can safely assume that Walker is fatally wounded during the film’s opening scene, and that his recovery and search for the $93,000 is merely a deathbed fever dream. Boorman repeatedly hints at such a reading; starting with Walker’s first meeting with his enigmatic benefactor, Yost(Keenan Wynn), on a boat circling the Rock (the tour guide’s speech about the near impossibility of escaping the island fortress is intercut with the implausible sight of Walker floating his way back to civilization). The conversation between Yost and Walker are like a lot of conversations that Walker has with several other characters in the film; the other characters do all the talking, while Walker dispassionately hovers around them. There are numerous scene in the film where Walker is either framed by bar-like shadows (recalling the Alcatraz cell he was shot in), or boxed in by static, entrapping frames replete with lenses and mirrors. He is repeatedly asked the question “Are you still alive, i thought you were dead” or he is told by someone that he should just “lie down and die.” In one of the scenes, Dickinson is seen beating the hell out of Marvin, while he remains unflappable. She strikes him and strikes him, until she falls down exhausted, while Marvin just straightens his coat and tie and walks away; he then coolly sits down to watch a TV show, where they’re discussing neurotic inertia. Her act of violence can be interpreted as an act of beating life into a dead body, just to feel if it still has some life left in it, But it appears that he has gone far beyond, maybe beyond this world itself into the great beyond. He appears obsessed to the point of insanity in getting back his money and is prepared to go to any lengths, use anybody, kill anybody, to get it; it’s like a final task that Walker’s spirit has to fulfill, only after which, he can go peacefully into afterlife. This ambiguity about the character is maintained throughout the film , enabling the viewer multiple readings into every scene and action of Walker. There is also the fact that, 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 – wrecking cars, destroying bedrooms, breaking up alarms in the corporate offices etc.. – he is actually not directly responsible for any of the multiple deaths that takes place in the film. He is a key catalyst for these killings to occur, but the deaths are equally facilitated by the hard-edged modernity of the world that defines these characters: Lynn overdoses on sleeping pills, Mal Reese (semi-accidentally) falls to his death from his Penthouse apartment; Reese’s friend Stegman and his bosses, Carter and Brewster, are killed by a Hit man; Walker is like the devil who tempts his victims by opening doors to their doom, and they consciously walks in, to their deaths. The film also has a very ambiguous ending, with Marvin coming close to the money he was looking for, but refusing to go out and get it; it seems that Yost, who was helping Walker to take revenge on Reese, is actually Fairfax, the head of ‘The Organization‘ that Reese was working for; Reese had betrayed Walker so that he can have the money to pay back The Organization. Yost had very cleverly used Walker’s obsession to eliminate all the other members of The Organization who were trying to unseat him from power. So walker winds up at the same place as he began, betrayed and robbed. Yost\Fairfax angrily asks Walker to come out of his hiding place and take his money, that’s left on the ground. But Walker doesn’t react and, he slowly recedes into the enveloping darkness.

For most of the film, Walker moves unhindered and unhinged through, what looks like a sleek, futuristic San Francisco\Los Angeles landscape. The world that Boorman creates for Walker is very interesting; it’s drenched in shades of avocado, yellow, green and orange. The architecture is very modernist, there are absolutely no traditional buildings anywhere in the film. It’s all skyscrapers, viaducts, tunnels, garages, overpasses. Boorman wanted the setting to be hard, cold, sterile and futuristic. This applies to his filmmaking too, which is also very modern, but not minimalist; the plot, characterization and performances are minimalist, but every frame is dense with rich visual detail; like the scene that takes place in a jazz club, which uses a lurid, blood-red color palette. the club belongs to Chris, and Walker comes to meet her to get information about Reese, but he is attacked by Reese’s men. The fight takes place in the background of psychedelic visuals projected on to a screen; at the very end of the fight, we see images of molten lava projected onto Walker’s face. It’s a tour de force of visual imagination, also, music and sound design; screeching lyrics and animal sounds accompany the visuals. This is contrasted with the cold, industrial hues of the corporate offices of The Organization. Boorman creates a world that is not very pretty, but it is very attractive and very sexy. Every frame is so lovingly composed: framed, color coordinated; camera movements perfectly measured; the viewer doesn’t feel like looking away even for a second; we really see a great film artist’s enthusiasm at being given an opportunity to indulge in his artistry to the fullest, particularly, right at the beginning of his career. Thematically too, Boorman tries to do a lot of new things; for example he gives us an overview of the links between organized crime and corporate capitalism in America; this is almost 5 years before Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, except here, the ethnicity of the members of the organization are not made explicit, keeping with the abstract nature of the film. We also see that, as Walker goes higher and higher in the criminal syndicate’s hierarchy, he meets up with the same kind of people, their names might change, but their attitude towards crime, business and power (and how they wield it), as well as, how they respond to an external threat, is pretty much the same. The Organization is a well oiled, giant machine, where the individuals in different positions are machine-parts that are replaceable without effecting it’s overall functioning. This makes it a perfect antagonist for the emotionless, superhuman Walker; the villain is more menacing than the ‘superman’ hero.

John Boorman would go on to have a substantial career, though an erratic one. He has directed a number of other notable films, both in Hollywood and Britain including, Hell in the Pacific (1968), Deliverance (1972), Hope and Glory (1979), and The General (1998), and except for the 1981 Arthurian saga, Excalibur, none of them would come close to the inventiveness and brilliance of Point Blank. Another link between Point Blank and Excalibur is their roots in Arthurian Legend; one can very easily read the parallels: Walker is Arthur, brandishing his .44 Magnum like the Excalibur ; he is betrayed by his wife and best friend, who have an adulterous affair; just like Lancelot and Guinevere; later, Walker is seduced by his sister in law Chris, pretty much like Arthur is seduced by his half-sister Morgana (taking the form of Guinevere) , who gives birth to Arthur’s nemesis Mordred – there is a surreal sex scene between Walker and Chris, where their lovemaking is intercut with scenes of lovemaking between Reese and Chris and Walker and Lynn, the images are mixed up to the point that it appears that all four of hem are making love to each other at the same time ; there is an obsessive quest at the center of the story, akin to the quest for Holy Grail in Excalibur and, just as Arthur is revitalized after drinking from the Grail, Walker is resurrected from death in his quest for the $93,000. And, above all, there is the Yost character in the film acting as a sort of Merlin figure. Obviously, Boorman was deeply into this Britannic Myth – he also once tried to mount an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in the 1970s  – and the two most brilliant films of his career will carry it’s influence. This imparts Point Blank with a mythical dimension which is not usually found in noir or neo-noir films.

When the film was finished, it confounded the studio, the audience and the critics., hence, the film was not a success at the time of its release in America. It was more warmly received in Europe, where it was quite successful. Its critical reputation has grown over the years and today it is considered a cult classic. Mel Gibson starred in a terrible remake of this film called Payback(1999), directed by Brian Helgeland , which John Boorman jokingly refereed to as been made from the script that Lee Marvin threw out. 1967 turned out to be a great year for Marvin, practically the zenith of his career; The Dirty Dozen, his other release, became the biggest hit of the year, and Marvin was voted the top box office star. He would reunite with Boorman for Hell in the Pacific, but that was not a happy experience for both of them. They never worked together again (neither did Boorman ever make another crime\Noir thriller like Point Blank), though they remained close friends till Marvin’s death in 1987.  When Marvin passed away, his widow offered Boorman any of Marvin’s personal articles as a souvenir. Boorman chose Marvin’s shoes.