Point Blank (1967)

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*. The story is nothing. It’s one of the simplest, almost crudest, crime plots ever put on screen. Left for dead, the betrayed gangster is back for revenge. Or something like that (see below). The Organization are just garbage to be taken out. It doesn’t get much dumber than that.
*. There are parts of it that could have been complicated, in the way traditional noir, or neo-noir, plots are complicated, but here they’re simply left out. For example: What exactly is it that is being exchanged for all that money at the Alcatraz drop? What sort of business (criminal or otherwise) is the Organization in? We never find out.
*. While I’m on the point of the money drop at Alcatraz, you have to wonder if the Organization could have thought of a spot less convenient, or more conspicuous, in the entire state of California for this to take place. It’s like arranging to have Walker’s money handed over to him in the L.A. riverbed.

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*. At the end, the “Alcatraz drop” doesn’t even take place at Alcatraz. It’s done at Fort Point (which explains the final shot looking out across San Francisco Bay at the Rock in the distance). Fort Point is a great location, looking like the Roman Colosseum at night, but one has to wonder why they’re using a helicopter to get in and out. Or why they didn’t just meet at a quiet restaurant somewhere.

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*. The locations are so incredible and theatrical — nay, operatic! — they lend credence to the notion, held by some, that the entire film is the dying Walker’s revenge fantasy. He is dreaming in Technicolor.
*. Since this has become a favourite talking point for this film, here are my quick thoughts on the matter.
*. Con: (1) in the source novel (The Hunter by Richard Stark/Donald E. Westlake) Walker/Parker is not a ghost; (2) on the DVD commentary John Boorman says he has no opinion on the matter but, tellingly, doesn’t say whether this was even an idea he was entertaining while he was making the movie; (3) I’m not sure any contemporary reviewers considered the dream explanation as a possibility, or who the first person was who suggested it and when.
*. Pro: (1) just before the title comes on we see Walker rising from the ground and saying “a dream.” This is certainly suggestive; (2) Walker is a spectral presence throughout. Note how he doesn’t actually kill anyone, and the way he fades into the shadows at the end. Also the scene where his wife tries to explain herself to him and he sits quietly beside her on the couch not saying anything. Doesn’t that make you think of Bruce Willis with his wife in The Sixth Sense?; (3) much of the film has a dream-like texture, especially in its way of slipping through different colour schemes (with Walker’s wardrobe improbably changing, chameleon-like, to fit every interior); (4) when we see Walker without his shirt on there are no scars anywhere on his body, as there surely would be if he’d been shot several times at point blank range; (5) there are a number of lines that are suggestive of his demise, most notably Chris’s remark that she thinks he really did die at Alcatraz.
*. On balance, I don’t think he’s an avenging ghost (like Eastwood’s slain sheriff come back to wreak his vengeance in High Plains Drifter), or that he’s imagining the story as he lies dying. I see the movie as being a straight-up story of a man who somehow survives being shot and comes back to get what’s his. But there’s no denying this other layer of an otherworldly, mythic quality that the film has.
*. As I began by noting, aside from the ambiguity over Walker’s real or imagined presence the story here is very simple and uninteresting. It counts for nothing. How the story is told is everything. This movie is all about its visuals (in particular its use of colour) and editing.
*. We’re immediately plunged into a dislocating montage that shatters chronology, in much the same way Nicolas Roeg would open Performance (1970) and Don’t Look Now (1973). Give Boorman credit for getting there first, but then ask yourself: Who does this today? I can’t think of many current films that take this “throw the audience into the deep end” approach, and certainly none with the same sense of style.
*. This was Boorman’s first colour film and he went all out. The film goes through various colour phases where everything from interior decoration to wardrobe matches up: the cool greys of Lynne’s house, the yellows and golds of Chris’s place, and the greens of the Multiplex Products Company office.

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*. Boorman thought the colours made things seem “not quite real,” and they do seem an odd fit for a noir film: plastic fantastic like that psychedelic sundae of cosmetics Walker smashes in Lynne’s sink. But this made me wonder about something else Boorman says on the commentary. In my notes on Where Danger Lives I mentioned how San Francisco (the initial setting of that film) isn’t a real noir town. Apparently Boorman agreed, at least somewhat, as he only wanted it for Alcatraz and Fort Point. Otherwise he says he found it “so pastelly and pleasant” that he wanted to find its opposite, “something harsher and stark.” So the film moves to L.A. But isn’t L.A. just as pastelly and pleasant here? And what could be nicer and more modern than that fully automated kitchen?
*. I like how Soderbergh brings up Antonioni on the commentary. Boorman had seen Red Desert and there’s definitely a visual influence at work here, and perhaps even a moral one as well (does the opaque Walker feel anything?). There is more to this than colour, which Antonioni came late to. The classical locations with their old-new architectural purity very much recall Antonioni’s Italian settings, as does the framing and composition.

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*. The guiding principle visually, aside from the emphasis on colour, was the use of widescreen. Boorman describes himself as “intoxicated by anamorphic” at the time and again and again he draws attention to it. We see Walker set off against strong horizontals outdoors, while the interiors make every home look a knock-off of Wright’s prairie style. The cars are as long as swimming pools, and you can crush both the front and the back without being injured in the driver’s seat (what were parking spaces like back then?), couches take up the entire frame, and bodies are stretched out on the ground (with a strip of credit cards pulled out from a pocket to emphasize the sense of length in one shot).

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*. Boorman also liked the way widescreen drew attention to the distance between characters, representing antagonism or drift. It’s certainly hard not to notice when you have gaps open up this wide.

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*. Before I leave this brief discussion of visuals, I can’t help pointing out a shot that stopped my breath the first time I saw this movie. Marvin is parked in front of Lynne’s house and we see him in the front seat of his car while his rear-seat windows reflect the house he’s looking at, using the widescreen to make a split screen effect. It was from this point on I knew I was going to like Point Blank.

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*. Lee Marvin. The strong and very silent type. I can’t help seeing him as a kind of matching bookend to Sterling Hayden. Both ex-marines, both awesome, rock-like physical presences, both possessed of heavy bass voices that make your speakers tremble.
*. For the most part Marvin is a total blank. Is he even listening as his wife Lynn goes on about how life has been without him? Is he even there? Or even better, watch him closely in the scene where he first meets Carter (Lloyd Bochner) and demands his money. Look at the sheer immobility of his face. He only has five or six lines in this scene and I had to replay it a couple of times to make sure his lips were moving.
*. The one scene where I thought he did show some emotion comes in his exchange with Brewster, and it’s actually quite funny. Indeed there’s something beyond funny, something positively weird in Walker’s reaction to Brewster asking him what it is he wants. His money. No, really? Yes, really. He just wants his money. He seems hurt, embarrassed to admit it. But that’s all he wants. Who has it? Fairfax? No, a cheque won’t do. He wants his money. Why is this so hard? You can really feel his frustration.
*. But is money all he wants? What is Walker after? Surely not revenge by this point, as Mal and Lynn are both already dead. And the money is truly no big deal. As Chris points out to him, he probably has no idea what to do with it and it wasn’t his in the first place anyway. At the end it’s left out for him almost as an afterthought and it’s not clear if he’s even going to bother picking it up.

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*. On the commentary Boorman says Walker keeps going because he doesn’t know how to stop. Once set in motion he has to follow things through to the end. I don’t find this terribly convincing, but then we know so little about Walker I think we have to just shrug our shoulders over the matter of motivation. I mean, what is Walker anyway before Mal gets him involved in his little scheme? A fisherman brought along to provide back-up muscle? The hired gun describes him as a “pro,” but a pro at what? In the novel he’s a professional thief, but there’s no sign of that here. This is just another example of information that is left out of the stripped-down plot.
*. There’s a great sequence near the beginning that makes you believe in the Walker-as-unstoppable-force idea. I just love his long walk through the airport, heels clacking on the floor, a sound that only ends with his bursting through his wife’s door. Yeah, this is a guy who isn’t stopping for shit. Or even stopping to see if there’s anyone in that bed he shoots up, which there quite obviously isn’t.
*. Or maybe it is all about the money. There’s something about money (at least in America) that is more than just a code, more than Fairfax’s insistence at the end that he’s a man who pays his debts. Walker doesn’t really care that much about losing his wife. She made her choices and she’ll pay the price either in this world or the next. But that $93,000 is different. That’s real. When you mess with money you’re messing with what Ned Beatty in Network calls the essential principle and moral law of the universe. You fuck with that and you must atone.
*. While I’m on the point of information that is left out, we might wonder what Walker’s first name is. No one knows. Apparently his wife and best friend don’t know either. He’s just Walker. Just like Donald Westlake’s Parker was just Parker. Again: not important, not essential.

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*. Manny Farber wrote a weird review of this film, calling it out for its “strangely unhealthy tactility.” I’m not quite sure what Farber was talking about, but there’s no denying how physical a movie this is. For example, I really like when Walker punches one hood in the groin (surely that had never been done before, and how often has it been done since?), or the way Mal pulls up his shirt and pats his hairy belly before going into the bedroom with Chris. Then of course there’s Chris collapsing in exhaustion after giving her all punching, slapping, and shoving the patient, petrified oak in front of her.
*. What does it all add up to? Mainly an exercise in style: an early blend of high (European art house) and low (American pulp) that somehow, magically, works. It had an enormous creative impact, in some ways defining the spirit of what would become neo-noir. Was that the real meaning of Walker retreating back into the shadows at the end? The sun was coming up on a new era, one that Walker could only visit for a certain period of time, pointing the way to before the crowing of a cock.

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