Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Point Blank (1967)

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.

15 comments:

skidoo68 said...

Wow. Great piece, Alexander. You managed to fine new ground. And bonus points for using the word "eidolon."

sarcastig said...

One of the big gaps in my neo-noir knowledge, and now I really want to see it, like, right now.

And yes, "eidolon". I generally have a pretty large vocab, but I had to look this one up. I'm sure I'll use it at least three time today!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Christian and Hedwig. I'm glad you liked "eidolon"--when I think of Point Blank, I often think of that word.

Hedwig, I suggest you check out Christian's review of the film, too, and also Craig's over at LiC. All three of us have weighed in on this film, and in each case we didn't know about the other one having done/doing it. I think we can give the film credit just for doing that to us.

Christian, what do you think of my interpretation of the ending? The ending is so ambiguous that, I believe, I've had entirely different interpretations with each viewing.

I suppose a more "conventional" reading (at this point, not way back in '67 or when Christian's sagacious teacher was gloating about how brilliant he was, aha--got to give him the devil his due... it took me at least two viewings to get it myself years ago) of the ending is that Walker has achieved his goal and he simply leaves things be, because, as a ghost, he really has no practical use for the money. All that matters is that he "won" the moral victory, so to speak. (In any case, the ending does seem to be one of the big hints, along with plenty of others, that Boorman leaves the audience to suggest that Walker is indeed a dead man.)

Another interpretation that I've read, and I kind of like, is that the entire film is partly a fever dream of a man who is slowly dying on Alcatraz and that the end of the film is really just his dream ending because he's finally dying. This sort of goes to the mood and atmospherics of the film--is it so dreamlike because it is, ultimately, a dream? Or is it dreamlike because it's a ghost story as much as it is a noir?

I could probably look at this film and watch its ending carefully once a week and every week have a different interpretation. One tricky, trippy film.

christian said...

I agree with your take, but I believe a dying fever dream makes sense and a ghost achieving closure does too.

Strangely, on the audio commentary, it seems to matter not a whit to Boorman, or he's keeping mum.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yeah, the commentary made it seem like he doesn't care which way you look at it. Or, like you say, he wants to stay quiet so people can latch onto whatever theories they've discovered or cooked up.

cjKennedy said...

Get thee to a video store and rent this one Hedwig, tout de suite.

If it doesn't work for you, watch it again.

Very nicely reviewed, Alexander. You humble my own.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Craig, but I found your review quite illuminating, too. And the optimistic side of me wants to side with your scenario, that Walker's alive but his spirit died, a kind of reversal take on the whole question.

Troy Olson said...

Came across this review while reading my brother Kevin's blog, which pointed to this particular post, etc. etc.

Anyways, Point Blank is such an interesting movie for the reasons you state. I remember when I first watched it I was expecting a French Connection or Dirty Harry type film and I got neither, so I was a little underwhelmed. It wasn't until a second viewing 10 years later that it all clicked and I saw how great this movie really was and how it was a precursor to the lauded auteur-director era of the 70's and an homage to the French New Wave.

I had previously gone with the thought of Walker as representing an unhuman force of nature (or perhaps akin to a golem) uncaringly destroying everyone he comes in contact with, single-minded in his goal. Then, once he reaches the end point of that goal, that was it, his journey is over - there is actually nothing left for him to do, so why should he care if he dies or not. What was he going to do with the money anyways...

Yeah, so a fairly literal reading of things.

I kind of like your take on it more though -- there's something more sad and hopeless about Walker when you look at it as him as Sisyphus, reliving his vengeance quest over and over again, but never being able to succeed. That reading of the character feels more in line with the the overall tone of the film. Looks like I need to watch it a third time!

Troy Olson said...

Oh, I should have read your first comment -- you get at some of the same thoughts of how to read the film. Looks like I went with the "conventional" method myself, so thanks for providing some other viewpoints. That's why reading about film can be so enlightening...

Also, I have the unfortunate problem with seeing the name of the movie as Point Break everytime I see it written out...damn you Keanu!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the terrific and kind response to the review, Troy. I agree--those looking for a Dirty Harry/French Connection kind of film will be initially disappointed. It's one (to borrow a phrase from earlier in this comments thread) "trippy" mood piece, and more of a meditative exercise than a simpler revenge tale.

I think the conceptive interpretation of Walker as an inhuman, uncontrollable and unstoppable and implacable force is a valid interpretation (I like your pointing to the Hebrew "golem" as a comparison, too).

However, I'm obviously partial to my interpretation, which I came to after, I believe, my third viewing. (Maybe after my second but I believe after my third.) Thank you for the great contribution here, and I look forward to hearing (or rather reading) what you think after your third viewing. This is a film that gains greatly from repeat viewings. Thank you once again.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, no reason to apologize, Troy--I'm sure there are many other interpretations as well, and yours was at least partially different from the one I mentioned in the earlier comment.

And yes, Keanu deserves some scorn for a few different things. Haha, that is funny about seeing Point Break rather than Point Blank here.

Sam Juliano said...

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of POINT BLANK (which for me is Boorman's second-greatest film behind HOPE AND GLORY and ahead of EXCALIBUR and DELIVERANCE) is the avante garde stylistics that he informs upon the noir mood and romantic sense of fatalism. The film, with it's scope cinematography (panavision as I recall) does blends Antonioni (which you note) with the revisionism of some of the Leone films. To achieve this of course he employs to great effect saturated colors (again as you note) and a vibrant soundtrack. Th enoirish 'impisonment' theme is of course part of teh fabric of the film.
On the surface, as you state at the outset the film is "visually arresting" and "creepily atmospheric" and teh early images communicate in a "primordial, dreamlike manner."
I love the exhaustive examination of Lee Marvin, whom you rightly call as "fircely sedulous and actor as there is in American cinema." His performance is probably the greatest of his career. Indeed, here's your excellent explanation:

"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."

And this sentence, again bringing in the San Francisco parallel with VERTIGO is brilliant:

"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."

And this as well:

"Boorman plays with the metaphorical and allegorical, cutting between the realistic world and the symbolic realm of Walker's quest."

I also like the idea that POINT BLANK is a bridge between the neo-noir and paranoid cinema of the time, and the suggestion that MEMENTO'S ending may have been influenced.

Your final paragraph pretty much says it all:

"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."

For one of your earliest reviews, it's astonishing how provocative this essay is. It's extraordinary.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Sam. I appreciate the kind words, and especially your comment about this still holding up okay for being one of my first pieces.

Yes, I do positively love this film. I utterly agree with you (except I still consider this Boorman's finest picture, but at that point who cares?), and I'm happy to see that you agree about the film's landmark placing as a bridge between classic film noir and the paranoid cinema of the 1970s.

Lee Marvin is astoundingly great here, and again I'm happy that you too find his performance so palpable and arresting.

Thank you!

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