Nine years after Hitchcock's Vertigo possibly kicked off "neo-noir" in San Francisco, John Boorman's sophomore film, Point Blank, breathed fresh, truly groundbreaking vanguard "New Hollywood" air into the genre. This visually arresting, creepily atmospheric motion picture is a film that earns the moniker "haunting." Boorman's film has inspired many filmmakers, as it not only continues and enlivens noir in the abstract, but represents a practical cinematic neologism: a thoroughly fascinating blending of New Wave aesthetics and old-fashioned noirish revenge storytelling.
Based with extreme looseness on Donald Westlake's novel, "The Hunter," Boorman's very '60s, psychedelic film begins with twenty minutes of little dialogue. It remains quite laconic throughout. The visuals communicate in a primordial, dreamlike manner, making the film unspool in a kind of rotating, repetitious and Sisyphean narrative. With each thug and obstacle the protagonist vanquishes, another problem arises for him.
Walker is the only name the protagonist of this film has. The film commences where it will eventually conclude, on Alcatraz, where a gang of drug dealers are using the recently abandoned island (Alcatraz ceased being a prison in 1963) as a clandestine drop-off point. Walker and his friend, Mal Reese (John Vernon) and his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker), ambush the dealers. When the amount of money is not what Mal was hoping for, he decides to cut Walker out of the deal by killing him, taking all of the money and Walker's traitorous wife.
Walker is played by Lee Marvin, who, as I noted in my otherwise unrelated review of The Devil's Brigade (1968), when comparing that war film to The Dirty Dozen (1967), is probably the most fiercely sedulous actor in all of American cinema. As the revenant, Walker, a man who comes back from the dead to reclaim $93,000 after being completely ballasted with bullets by his friend, Marvin finds a role that, for the entirety of the picture, despite the several scenes of physical violence and eruptive righteousness--stemming solely from Walker's belief that the $93,000 belongs to him; evidently he cares not a whit about the double-barreled blast of betrayal he received from his friend and wife beyond their stealing of his money--finds its decibel number small, found in the occasional low growl, perfectly realized in a kind of serene sotto voce.
If Vertigo was about the decimation and eventual deconstruction of its protagonist's humanity, Point Blank is about the spiritually enriching experience of reclaiming it: the entire 92-minute film plays like a meditative afflatus, weighing the metaphysical scales above with Walker's entire being and core. In the DVD commentary, Boorman makes the case that more than any other performance, Walker is the closest approximation to Marvin the man. At one point, Boorman states with chilling eloquence that the "sensitive seventeen-year-old boy" who went to war for his country came back "brutalized." In essence, the war changed the soft-spoken boy into a consummate, still soft-spoken and sensitive tough guy, who, according to Boorman, attempted to express himself through the violence of life and movies. In Point Blank, Marvin is given the opportunity to metaphorically slay the demons of being a sniper for the United States Marines. The revenant he portrays ably and persistently embodies the ethos of the wronged, possibly left for dead soldier, desiring only so much as what he believes he is owed.
Boorman plays with the metaphorical and allegorical, cutting between the realistic world and the symbolic realm of Walker's quest. On a boat that encircles the dreary Alcatraz, the tour guide informs the passengers that escaping Alcatraz is practically an impossibility against the freezing currents that surround the island and Boorman cuts to the celestially mellifluous but entirely illogical imagery of Walker floating on his back, under the aegis of a higher power, as his broken body fantastically makes it back to San Francisco. The ghostly Walker refuses to linger on the shattering reality of his wife's death by suicide. Rather, he focuses with trancelike devotion to the broken perfume and shampoo bottles in the foreboding sink, swirling and pouring about like volcanic streams of lava cascading downward.
Much has rightly been made out of the fact that Walker does not directly kill anyone in Point Blank. His "victims" commit suicide and humorously stumble off of balconies and shoot each other. He uses violence and roughs up multiple thugs, acting more like an uncontrollable elemental force more than a human being, but the deaths that accompany his whole enterprise seem to be more the result of a haunting than the work of an earthly man's involvement. Just as importantly, Walker's emotions are more vividly engendered by the lights and shadows Boorman deftly uses than by emotionally considered narrative beats. Walker, the ultimate sotto voce bad-ass in movie history, moves about like an inwardly feverish, outwardly cool monster. The emotions he experiences are manifested by the rich, psychedelic coloring that splashes across his stoically entrancing face, at a disco light-show where Walker's deceased wife's sister, Chris (Angie Dickinson) works, the cellblock bars--the last sight of Walker's life--are recreated by the swallowing of said face by the deathly chilling shadow of a freeway column, the redoubtable light-and-shadow patterns that fall across said face by the subtly eerie construction scaffolding and even the traditional noir staple of the shadows of Venetian blinds finds itself given newer meaning against Walker's countenance.
Point Blank, despite its 1967 release date, should also be noted for its almost Kafkaesque depiction of the individual fighting off, quite literally, the Organization. In this way Point Blank is a clean bridge between noir/neo-noir and the paranoid cinema of the 1970s (like The Parallax View and The Conversation). Beyond the existential gloominess there is a vibrating, social malaise. It is as though Boorman was able to see into the future and make a film set at a later time that viewed the 1960s without the veneer of joviality that characterized many films (Boorman's first film was Catch Us If You Can, one of the many knock-offs of A Hard Day's Night) of the era. One must wonder if David Fincher looked at Point Blank as a point of reference in making Zodiac, another meditation on the malicious moral pollution permeating beneath the surface of '60s and '70s San Francisco.
The conclusion is equally powerful and ambiguous. By the end of the film, Walker has truly become an eidolon; his presence has slowly but surely become more of an idea, perhaps even an ideal, as he stands in the all-consuming darkness of his own, lived-out, from-the-grave nightmare. The Sisyphean struggle reaches its logical conclusion, and for Sisyphus, once the mountainous ordeal is accomplished all there is to do is to accomplish it all over again. For Walker, with greater insularity than ever before, the mission has finally concluded, as the ghost Walker watches on the island his body never truly escaped. Yet what is superficially a victory becomes the most crushing and depressing of truisms: his quest is all he has left, and so he chooses to prolong it and recreate it, lost forever in the horrors of his own vengeful machinations. Again, with a film this influential among both budding and veteran filmmakers, one must wonder what kind of influence this conclusion had on the ending of Memento (2001).
Point Blank is an elliptical, Resnaisian and Antonioniesque neo-noir made into a wholly engaging experience by the wonderfully truthful lead performance by Marvin, who, with this film, achieved a great, paradoxical feat. He makes Walker into a vulnerable apparition, and a morally beckoning revenant who wields a .357, always coiled like a merciless rattlesnake.