Tony Curtis once said any movie made in Hollywood is a miracle – a rather sad irony. Show business…to quote Irving Berlin – “like no business I know”; and fairly apropos when considering John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), in hindsight, a movie that bids farewell to the ancient flowers of old Hollywood only to usher in its new un-glamorous era, never astutely categorized in the annals of film history as what it rightly became - the ‘American’ new wave.
Boorman was, of course, working during exceptional times; a transitional period in which the proverbial curtain came down on the studio system and the ensconced production code: Hollywood’s discombobulated superstructure disemboweling its ‘dream factories’ from the inside out: art for art’s sake about to segue into the modern era, where ‘show me the money’ really is the only cache any creative has for sustaining his/her autonomy in this Babylon of forgotten dreams. In spurts, Point Blank is progressive, disturbing, ground-breaking and - well…‘miraculous’; cribbing from an old Orson Welles mantra: ‘there are no happy endings if you tell the rest of the story’.
In some ways, Point Blank feels as fresh as the day it was made; the constant stylist tug o’ war; the last gasps of the establishment competing with the experimentalisms of the age; queerly symbiotic though never entirely comfortable together. What was it they used to say about ‘strange bedfellows?’ All sorts of subtext are at play: a sexual undercurrent – even homoerotic, at times – between Lee Marvin’s emotionally scarred hit man, Walker, his love/hate relationship with ex-best friend, Mal Reese (John Vernon) and the two sisters, Lynne (Sharon Acker) and Chris (Angie Dickinson) who get passed between these explosive personalities: rams destined to lock horns in a game of sudden death. Boorman strips away the underlay of an omnipotent ‘organization’ whose sole purpose seems to be moving large sums of laundered cash in and out of clandestine contact points. Talk about a Hitchcock MacGuffin! It’s not about the money at all: neither the organization – nor even Walker, who steps off at the last possible moment and allows the sharks to devour each other before realizing his whole reason for being has been predicated on a lie.
The film is immeasurably blessed to have Lee Marvin as its star; Marvin holding the plot together even when the Alexander Jacobs, David and Rafe Newhouse screenplay begins to disintegrate around its particulars. There are whole portions of Point Blank that make very little sense at all – its non-linear, dreamlike essence, bookended by utterly ruthless sequences of brutality and gratuitous nudity; albeit, mostly done in silhouette. It’s fairly obvious, Boorman is in love with the newly christened 40mm Panavision lens, offering him both depth of field and crystal clarity. Style alone, however, does not a movie make – not even with Philip H. Lathrop’s stunning use of the wide angle teeming with gorgeous shots of Frisco and L.A. Evidently, Lee Marvin was apt to agree. For, when initially asked by Boorman to play the part, Marvin agreed on one precondition; tossing out the 70 page treatment and telling Boorman to start anew.
In watching Point Blank evolve on the screen there is a definite sort of ‘spur of the moment’ kinetic energy happening between director and star; Boorman rising above the fairly pedestrian material, but this too in part to the technical wizards working behind the scenes, by Boorman’s own admission “not a single one under the age of sixty” – all of them sacred cows of the old MGM since its early years and old enough to remember that studio in its prime. It ought to be pointed out Point Blank is a movie that could never have been made – much less conceived – during Metro’s heyday. However, like its protagonist, the studio had pretty much gone to seed by the time Point Blank went before the cameras. At the outset, Boorman was summoned by studio executive, Robert O’Brien, who began their conversation by thumping his fingers against a copy of the script, submitted for his approval, then asking the director to explain both it and his reasons for wanting to make the picture.
Mercifully, sweaty palms and heated debate were narrowly averted when a telephone call came in from half way around the world: director, David Lean shooting Ryan’s Daughter on the Dingle Peninsula and asking for more time and money. O’Brien, who was somewhat in awe of Lean, listened intently and obliged Lean incessantly before hanging up the telephone, completely forgetting the reason he had brought Boorman to his office. Reportedly, O’Brien instead said, “Go out and make it a good one”, Boorman hurrying off with his project green lit and not about to look a gift-horse in the mouth.
In Lee Marvin, Boorman had a trusted ally and a very good friend. Marvin’s clout in carrying the picture included both script and casting approval, both graciously deferred to Boorman’s discretion in their first official meeting with the studio, thereby affording Boorman total control over his ‘final cut’. Marvin was to later have only minor regrets over his decision – in Boorman’s choice of Angie Dickinson to play his love interest. But more on this in a moment.
In retrospect, Point Blank remains something of a textbook example of style singularly buoying a threadbare plot: Philip H. Lathrop’s lush cinematography transforming even the seediest suburbs of Los Angeles into grittily stylish homages to film noir. It’s odd too, because Point Blank takes place mostly in the unvarnished glare of daylight; Boorman using his night shoots sparingly but to excellent effect and even jokingly referring to his high concept for the production as ‘film blanche’. Undeniably, both clothing and hair styles have dramatically changed since Point Blank’s debut, although Lee Marvin’s immaculately tailored and body-hugging suits remain contemporarily chic. Otherwise, the film feels very much in and of the moment, particularly in its unorthodox use of the flashback to jog Walker’s memory. This also helps keep the audience inside our protagonist’s head at all times. For Walker, despite his ‘action guy’ persona is, in fact, a very cerebral creature; a thinking man, tortured by his haunted past chronically turning his present upside down – and perhaps, destined to make even his future rancid.
Boorman sets up his non-linear narrative almost immediately following the roar of MGM’s Leo the lion; Walker (Lee Marvin) lying in a cramped cell inside Alcatraz after gunshots have been fired; the credits laid over moving and still images of the famed San Franciscan prison and Walker’s voiceover digressing us to the not so distant past. In flashback we see Walker hooking up with the fairly malevolent, Mal Reese (John Vernon), who knocks him to the floor inside a very congested nightclub, the rest of the patrons seemingly oblivious to their altercation. Reese ruthlessly shakes Walker by the hair until he agrees to partake in a heist of some omnipotent organization’s money drop at Alcatraz Island.
The plan, so Walker is told, is merely to knock out the organization’s point men and make off with the loot. Walker involves his wife, Lynne (Sharon Ackers) under the pretext three heads are better than one. But almost immediately things turn ugly; Reese cold-bloodedly assassinating the organization’s goons, then realizing the payoff isn’t nearly as large as he expected. Walker is disgusted by these murders – odd, for a hit man (has he gone soft?) – lying on a cot inside one of the cells. He is joined by Lynne, who hums a rather haunting tune to sooth his nerves. Reese appears, orders Lynne from the cell and then shoots Walker without provocation.
There remains some scholastic speculation over whether the rest of the movie is, in fact, the reminiscences of a dying man; Walker expiring in the cell as he imagines the rest of the story. It’s possible, although Boorman has repeatedly refused to comment one way or the other. We observe Walker, miraculously unharmed by his altercation with Reese, lowering himself into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay; the voiceover from a nearby tour boat advancing the narrative timeline to an undisclosed point in the future – now, the present. Walker, immaculately groomed, listens intensely to the boat’s tour guide explain how it is virtually impossible for anyone to escape Alcatraz; begging the inquiry from Walker’s buddy, Yost (Keenan Wynn) – “How did you do it?” Walker doesn’t explain himself, and frankly, neither does Boorman. Instead, Yost outlines his plan of action – actually, revenge. Walker wants Reese and, presumably, the $93,000 owed him from the heist. He also wants Reese’s head on a platter. Yost wants the organization. Their goals are one in the same. Or are they?
Yost gives Walker the address to Lynne’s apartment, telling him Reese lives there too. However, upon breaking in and taking his ex-wife hostage, Walker quickly learns Reese hasn’t lived there for at least the last three months. Another flashback; this one dedicated to Lynn and Walker’s initial ‘cute meet’, their burgeoning romance and her gradual shifting affections from Walker to his best friend, Reese. Lynne confesses she is tired of not knowing about the future; of having betrayed him for a man who continues to pay for her fairly luxurious apartment via a different courier each month, but who chooses to live somewhere else without her. Walker is surprisingly sympathetic; Boorman moving us into Point Blank’s most disjointed and incomprehensible overlap of the past, present and future.
Walker discovers Lynne lying face down in her bedroom; dead of an apparent overdose. We fast track through his nights of sleeplessness, haunted by reoccurring visions from the night Reese shot him; Walker awakening from a dead sleep to discover the apartment empty, with only a white cat sitting on the stripped down mattress inside Lynne’s bedroom. Looking out the window, Walker sees Yost at street level grinning from ear to ear. A change of clothes – for no apparent reason – and Walker now catches the courier (John McMurtry) by surprise, arriving with Lynne’s monthly payoff. Instead, Walker forces the courier to divulge the identity of the man who sent him. The courier points a finger at used car dealer, John Stegman (Michael Strong), whom Walker pays a visit under the pretext of being interested in buying a Cadillac. Taking both the car and Stegman for a ride, Walker trashes the vehicle but gets only one name from Stegman: Chris (Angie Dickinson) – Lynne’s estranged sister and presumably Reese’s new lover.
Chris works as a cocktail waitress at a seedy nightclub called The Movie House, where still images are projected against silk screen and the thoroughly annoying Stu Gardner screeches into a microphone, encouraging the tightly wound patrons to respond in kind. Walker taps one of the waitresses (Sandra Warner) for Chris’ new address, observing he is being watched by a pair of goons and Stegman who has been sent by Reese to dispose of Walker. Instead, Walker ducks out the back way, but not before he thoroughly pummels Stegman’s thug muscle, toppling a heavy shelf of movie canisters onto one goon and pulverizing the other with what can only be described as a thoroughly wincing knuckle bust to the crotch.
Breaking into Chris’ bungalow in the dead of night, Walker discovers his ex-sister-in-law unconscious and splayed across the bed similarly to the way he discovered Lynne’s lifeless remains, and with the same bottle of sleeping pills on her nightstand. Alas, Chris has only taken one to knock her out for the night; Walker stirring the woozy gal to life much to her regret. The decision to cast Angie Dickinson was Boorman’s. Lee Marvin had requested Peggy Lee, owing to hard feelings still existing between him and Dickinson from an incident on the set of 1964’s The Killers. Dickinson had yet to forgive her costar. Later in Point Blank, she would have her revenge, in a scene where Chris gives Walker a good chest-thumping with her fists.
But back to the plot – such as it is. Chris allows Walker to stay at her place, explaining Reese has since taken up residency at Santa Monica’s fashionable Huntley Hotel. Boorman hand-picked this location himself, then instructed MGM’s art department to add a time lapse matte that included a posh penthouse on its rooftop. In the meantime, Reese goes to see Frederick Carter (Lloyd Bochner): his contact inside the organization. Carter is unimpressed, blaming Reese for letting Walker live; also for stealing his wife as a trophy. Reese explains he needed all the money from their heist to pay Carter off, something Walker would never understand. Carter agrees to stakeout the Huntley with bodyguards for Reese’s protection; Walker convincing Chris to slink and coo her way into the penthouse and, in fact, Reese’s bed.
In the meantime, Walker breaks into a gay couple’s apartment across the street, ordering them to telephone the police to create a diversion. Responding with curiosity to the sudden appearance of cruisers, Walker gets his moment to sneak into the Huntley’s underground parking - taking the elevator to the penthouse. There, he discovers Reese and Chris in post-coital embrace. While she hurries to dress, Walker drags Reese out of bed by his leg; Reese landing with a thud on the carpet and clutching at his bed sheets for false modesty. With a gun to his brain, Reese willingly divulges the names of his superiors: Carter, Brewster and the main man, Fairfax. Walker, who has already bound and gagged Reese’s bodyguards on the patio, now drags Reese to the edge of the balcony, determined he should pay out the $93,000 or die. Instead, Reese stumbles and falls over the side of the balcony; a clumsy traveling matte following his naked body to its unglamorous – and curiously unbloodied - road splatter in front of the hotel. Nevertheless, it draws a crowd almost immediately, including Yost, who quietly observes Reese’s demise with great satisfaction, virtually unnoticed.
The next day, Carter admonishes his bodyguards for their failure to protect Reese from Walker. He pulls Stegman aside and hands him a package. It’s Walker’s payoff and he’s going to deliver it personally at a prearranged rendezvous under the overpass. Alas, this too is a setup, Carter having hired a sniper (James Sikking) to take care of both Stegman and Walker. It’s a fairly neat plan, except Walker now breaks into Carter’s private office, terrorizing his secretary (Nicole Rogell) with a few whispered threats in her ear that leave her quivering. He also knocks Carter’s bodyguard unconscious, forcing Carter to take him to the prearranged rendezvous with Stegman.
Unknowing of the setup, Stegman is perplexed to find Carter rushing to meet him; two gunshots from the sniper’s high-powered rifle putting a definite period to Carter, then Stegman as Walker looks on from the relative safety of a nearby concrete runoff. A few moments pass and Walker decides to examine the contents of Stegman’s package, discovering nothing but a block of paper squares disguised as money and wrapped inside. Carter never was going to pay Walker off. In his commentary track, John Boorman claims to have discovered this underpass location for this sequence, endlessly exploited for various crime/thrillers. Alas, Boorman has forgotten about Gordon Douglas’ 1954 sci-fi gem, Them! – the one about giant radioactive ants; Douglas already having used the storm drain locale for his pivotal standoff between mankind and nature.
Moving on: Walker decides to track down Brewster (Carroll O’Connor), who he incorrectly assumes is the head of the organization, at least so Yost has led him to believe. Walker and Yost arrive at Brewster’s home while he is away on business; Walker later bringing Chris to Brewster’s place after hers has already been trashed by the organization looking for clues. Chris and Walker have words – or rather, she assaults him in a fit of rage (the aforementioned comeuppance – a.k.a. ‘payback’ Dickinson inflicted on Marvin. Reportedly, it left bruises and welts all over the actor’s body). Walker is unmoved by Chris’ violent outburst, waiting for her to tire out before casually reclining on the couch to watch television. In response, she turns on every major appliance in the kitchen, followed by all the lights in the house, and finally the P.A. system and reel-to-reel music in her efforts to elicit a response. Walker eventually discovers Chris in the billiard room. She strikes him in the head with her pool cue, the pair falling to the floor.
Boorman expertly plays the next several moments; cutaways of Walker and Chris involved in some passionate love-making, as the pair writhe between the sheets, Boorman cutting to Walker thinking about Lynne in his arms; in Reese’s embrace, Chris with Reese, and finally, returning to Chris and Walker lying together after their frenzied exchange. Boorman gives us more flashback references the next morning; Walker observing the crumpled bed sheets that remind him of Lynne’s overdose. Chris interrupts his thoughts, emerging from the bathroom fully clothed. “Hey,” she asks, “What’s my last name?” to which he replies, “What’s my first?” This, she also cannot answer. (Aside: I’ll just diverge here to suggest that while superficially this exchange of dialogue seems ‘cleverly’ scripted, it really does not add up or take into account Walker ought to know Chris’ maiden name, if for no other reason, than presumably because it’s the same as her sister, Lynne’s, whom Walker was married to… remember?)
Brewster arrives with his own bodyguard in tow; Walker dispatching him posthaste and holding Brewster at gunpoint to demand his money. Brewster suggests Walker is looking at this situation the wrong way. The ‘organization’ is a business and under the operations of a business model they are not about to pay blood money on a say so – even at the point of a gun. To prove this point, Brewster telephones the head of the organization - Fairfax, who unequivocally refuses to pay Walker off. In reply, Walker spares Brewster’s life but shoots up his telephone. Brewster now insinuates to Walker there is one other way to get his money – by intercepting the organization’s latest money drop the same way Walker and Reese did earlier, only this time with Brewster’s complicity.
Brewster and Walker rendezvous at San Francisco’s Fort Point, a helicopter landing with the prearranged drop off a few moments later. Brewster makes the exchange alone. But Walker remains conspicuously absent and for good reason. Only moments after the helicopter’s departure, Brewster is gunned down by the same sniper Carter hired to get rid of Stegman. Yost emerges from the shadows and is identified by the dying Brewster as Fairfax. Yost now congratulates Walker on helping him to eliminate all of his nefarious underlings within the organization. He offers Walker a job as its point man. But Walker has had enough, vanishing into the shadows before anyone is the wiser. The sniper reaches down to collect the payoff. But Yost tells him to leave it. Just another package of cut paper used to snuff Walker out of hiding? We’ll never know, because Point Blank ends here; the camera tilting and panning to a long shot of Frisco with Alcatraz Island in the distance.
For its time, Point Blank broke many taboos; chiefly with more graphic displays of violence and flashes of gratuitous nudity. Boorman and his production team could also lay claim being the first film company to shoot inside Alcatraz; an impressive feat considering the prison had only been mothballed a scant three years earlier. In between principal photography, Angie Dickinson and Sharon Acker posed for a fashion spread in Life Magazine, pitting their obvious glamor against the rusted out backdrop of these infamous prison walls. Shooting at Alcatraz fit with Boorman’s desire to accentuate the very sparse landscape in which the rest of his story takes place. He also utilized color in a fairly interesting way; almost monochromatic by design at the start, then gradually becoming more saturated as the movie progressed.
Boorman also had costume designer, Margo Weintz coordinate each character’s attire to match the backdrops: as in Carter’s office – a bilious green, complemented by the bodyguards’ suits in varying tonalities of green fabric: ditto for their shirts and ties. Boorman also altered certain locations to heighten the film’s sense of isolationism; having his production team remove all of the potted plants from an airport terminal, as example, to give it a more clinical feel. He also spray-painted one of the long-range observation binoculars on the beach to compliment Angie Dickinson’s bright yellow ensemble, with Lee Marvin dressed in complimentary mustard tones.
There is little to deny Point Blank its place as a transitional piece in American cinema; the old giving way to the new – or rather, struggling to keep pace with it. Perhaps, only in retrospect, does the film seem tepid and unoriginal; modern eyes at a greater disadvantage for having endured countless imitators of Boorman’s unconventional style ever since. Even so, there’s not much going on here in terms of plot; the Jacobs/Newhouse screenplay marking time, and at 92 anemic minutes, with a thoroughly unimpressive amount of repeat coverage in flashbacks.
Why, for example, do we need to be shown again and again Walker’s every waking and nocturnal thoughts are of Lynne? We know this by his actions; his unwillingness to kill her in cold blood, by the tender – if remorseless – way he handles her suicide, and by his visitation to her grave. Much has been written of the fact, Walker – although a hit man, arguably no better than his competition – manages to escape Point Blank without killing a single person. This overriding sense of compassion is decidedly uncharacteristic for the traditional hit man persona. It also makes Walker a rather fascinating figure – the avenging angel with male machismo, but whose heart somehow doesn’t seem to be in it; Lee Marvin’s introspective presence adding layers of subtext with a casual glance and the occasional scowl. It must be said of Marvin; few actors of his generation (and certainly none since) have been able to get away with as little, while giving the audience so much.
Regrettably, we’re not really given much else in Point Blank; the other characters rarely going beyond the cardboard cutout stage: Lloyd Bochner’s slippery eel, Angie Dickinson’s bittersweet sex kitten, Keenan Wynn’s man of mystery and John Vernon’s grotesquely unsympathetic sell out. All these characterizations add flavoring of a kind. But none attain distinction; an unrecoverable hurdle for the movie. The story grows more episodic rather than cohesive as it unravels; the characters motivations becoming less clear, instead of crystalizing for the audience.
From its opening flashback/flash forward montage of discombobulated events, to its showdown of shady big reveals, Point Blank is anything but self-explanatory; its motives even more unsound. Remember, Boorman expertly sets up Walker’s revenge premise at the start of Point Blank. It’s supposed to be a no holds barred, knockdown/drag out fight to the finish. But Reese’s death does not satisfy Walker. Nor is it cathartically appealing for the audience to observe this raw and unrepentant killer suddenly devolving into a sniveling snitch before accidentally taking a header in the raw over the side of the Huntley Hotel. What is Walker’s motivation thereafter? Arguably, the cash. He’s willing to put a bullet in Brewster to get it…or is he? And what of the final helicopter money exchange? Does Brewster know it’s all a setup… the money not in the package he picks up; the audience coming to realize as much after Yost instructs his sniper to leave it behind?
Alfred Hitchcock remains the supreme master of the MacGuffin: a seemingly all-important element of the plot, ultimately inconsequential except to keep the characters and the storyline moving ahead. Alas, Point Blank has one too many MacGuffins to be taken at face value or even to keep us entertained. Introspective and brilliant screenwriting or merely Boorman’s desperate attempt to cobble together a movie on the fly from his fractured series of inconclusive plot twists? Yes, Boorman gives us style. But style alone remains a vacuous substitute for good solid storytelling. Point Blank’s narrative core is as rudimentary as it becomes infrequently uninspired; just a story about an angry guy who cannot even assert for himself the ever-changing purpose of his quest.
There’s better news for Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray; improving on the very fine DVD in the expected ways. Colors brighten, contrast and clarity marginally improve and the image becomes tighter with more fine details revealed. Alas, Warner Home Video continues to skimp on their bit rate. Point Blank looks fairly impressive, clean and with good tonality and contrast. Could it have looked better? Hmmmm. Warner gives us a fairly aggressive audio – nicely done, plus two vintage short subjects shot consecutively with the movie as promo pieces and the original theatrical trailer. There’s also a fairly entertaining commentary from Steven Soderbergh and John Boorman. It’s more an affectionate waxing between directors than a comprehensive ‘this is how I made my movie’ – but it generally informs and is definitely worth a listen. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)