By Melvin Cartagena
Point Blank – 1967 – dir. John Boorman
The opening sequences show deception, and Alcatraz. The closing scenes show deception, and Alcatraz. Point Blank explores relationships, mortality and alienation, yet retains a core of impenetrability in its ultimate meaning. An essential mystery remains that no critic or academic that has tackled this movie can fully explain it in writing. Even the mighty Pauline Kael somewhat recanted her initial opinion of the film, going from, “A brutal new melodrama is called Point Blank, and it is,” in a 1967 New Yorker review to “intermittently dazzling,” in a re-viewing of the film a few years later.
Point Blank, because of its poor initial reception, has been overlooked as an individual moment in modern cinema, an isolated event that looks forwards and backwards in cinema’s history. Behind it are the stylistic elements from the classic phase of film noir from which it borrows. Dutch tilts and unstable/nervy camera angles in dark places contrast with panoramic long shots in broad daylight that render landmarks like the L.A. River Canal alien and desolate. Los Angeles could be an abandoned metropolis with Walker and the Organization as its only inhabitants. From noir’s influence we get a jagged, elliptical storyline where we follow Walker (Lee Marvin), hot on the trail of fellow crime partner Mal Reese (John Vernon) after shooting Walker in the back and leaving him for dead, making off with Walker’s $93,000 share of the loot and his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker.) But where a typical noir film would’ve finished its story with a bleak statement about loyalty and the traitorous femme fatale (like in Out of the Past), Point Blank’s tale is just getting started. Taking a cue from French New Wave films like Godard’s Breathless, we leap forward in the narrative to crucial plot points. One moment Walker is in a jail cell in Alcatraz, wounded, dazed, wondering what happened. The next he’s on a ferry ride to Alcatraz, unharmed, staring at the bay waters with a blank face as he gets information on Mal from Yost (Keenan Wynn), and on the Organization, the criminal outfit that has Walker’s money, the pack that Mal runs with these days. Then in the space of one cut he’s in Los Angeles, striding down an LAX terminal aisle, his footsteps setting the cadence for what’s coming. Then he’s in Lynne’s apartment, learning what’s happened in his absence. Then he’s at Stegman’s (Michael Strong) used car lot, smashing one of Stegman’s cars and getting some more answers. Then he’s at the surreal nightclub, collecting yet more information, hurting people, and so on into Angie Dickinson’s life, Lynne’s sister, whom Walker uses to get close to Mal, disposing of Mal by shoving him off his penthouse rooftop when he has no more information to give to Walker, and into the very office of the Oranization’s second-in-command. Walker gets a lot of information in his search, but he never really gets his money, not in the way we’ve come to expect when watching gangster revenge movies. For all his relentless brutality, Walker may as well be a bullheaded Joseph K., forcing answers out of people, but never getting any closer than the character in Kafka’s The Trial in finding answers to his own death.
Even the scenes of trance-like calmness that serve to give us a breather from Walker’s relentlessness contain potential violence. After Walker shoots Lynne’s bed and sits on the sofa, seemingly spent, he stares into space as Lynne recaps events from the year Walker’s been gone, and his very stillness exudes menace. When he sits in Brewster’s office (Carroll O’Connor) and listens to the man’s excuses, he makes his impatience known by shooting the phone on Brewster’s desk. At all times Walker is a coiled cobra in search of a target to strike. Nothing is wasted in Point Blank, so these scenes of tranquility also serve to reflect on the fractured lives these characters live. (“Do you remember when we met?” Lynne asks Walker in a voiceover as they both dive into an incoming wave. “Suddenly, we were together.”) Looking forward in the history of movies, these moments of calm also predate the quiet vagueness that speaks volumes, something we’d see the following decade in movies like Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Last Wave.
The at the film’s center, his face as impenetrable as the movie itself, is Lee Marvin. From the essentially languid scenes that open Point Blank the action is hurtled forward by his sheer presence, the pace dictated by his shoes pounding the tiles of the LAX aisle as he strides toward his vengeance. Whether he’s punching and kicking thugs in the crotch, destroying private property, or setting up others to be the sniper’s target instead of him, Walker never stops turning things and people over to find his money. (“Things aren’t done this way anymore, Walker,” the Organization’s top man tells Walker in an effort to reach some kind of truce. “Let’s be reasonable.”) Walker is a throwback, a man of a wilder era with an outdated code of honor that has no place among these ‘businessmen.’ Walker’s search for money hides a personal quest for some sort of humanity he left behind in Alcatraz. His shooting signals the end of the freelance gangster, and the beginning of the business cabal. (“What do you want from me, Walker? You’re supposed to be dead.”)
Point Blank is a rare film, a movie that as much by its style as by its refusal to make itself clear, has become its own legend.