Director: John Boorman
Producers: Judd Bernard, Robert Chartoff, & Irwin Winkler
Writers: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse & Rafe Newhouse
Cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, Michael Strong
Studio: MGM Year: 1967
Why I DVRed It: I had heard of this movie somewhere at some time, but I honestly don’t remember the context. Apparently (I found out later!), it is something of a cult classic, so my guess is that I heard of it from talking to someone who liked to put on airs by talking about “obscure” films from the past… someone not at all like me, the person writing about films from the past.
Anyway, in truth, I think I DVRed this because I had the Bruce Springsteen song “Point Blank” (from 1980’s underrated album The River) in my head the week I saw this on the schedule, and it seemed like too much of a coincidence to not embrace, especially when I read the description and saw the names Lee Marvin and John Boorman. What the hell, right?
Presentation on TCM: This was presented as part of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” series, which has turned out to have some real gems on it (spoiler alert: Point Blank isn’t one of these gems). No one introduced the movie, although my DVR did capture the ending of The Third Man, which included some discussion from a host I’ve never seen before. So, it was kind of like getting an introduction…
Synopsis: This is a simple revenge movie. At the Alcatraz drop point for a heist, Reese (Vernon) betrays Walker (Marvin), his partner, shooting him at point blank range (like the title!).
Somehow, Walker lives and decides he wants the money he was owed… as well as blood. The enigmatic Yost (Wynn) gives him directions about how he can get revenge on the people who set him up, including Reese, Walker’s ex-wife (who is sleeping with Reese), and the crime syndicate (the clandestine “Organization”) that is connected to the heist and that refuses to acknowledge that Walker is owed anything, regardless of the relatively meager size of the debt Walker seeks.
Analysis (contains spoilers): Point Blank is a simple movie dressed up in a complicated package. There is nothing in its story that is particularly innovative, but the style is fresh. It’s glossy and makes uses of interesting shots as well as rapid cutaways and flashbacks. These allow the viewer a subjectivity not typically displayed in revenge films, except when those revenge films are crafted for us to empathize with the revenge seeker (because of the tragic death of his family, for instance). Point Blank is not a film that causes subjective empathy though, because very little is really on the line. Walker doesn’t seem particularly upset about his wife leaving him or his being left for dead. He’s a stoic absurdist hero or antihero (like Mersault in The Stranger). Walker is a man who simply “walks” in and out of trouble, and he could just as easily walk away from any of the action at any point in the film. While everything is shown through Walker’s perspective and psyche, Walker himself is hard to care about because he doesn’t seem to care about anything himself.
That is not to say that Walker would not be justified in his anger or any other emotion. He should be pissed off—Reese has taken his wife, his share of the money, and his life. Everyone assumes Walker is dead, and it is hard to see how he survived the assassination attempt, but he does (or does he?— some critics and fans posit that he imagines the whole movie in his last fits of death, a reading that defies textual evidence and logic albeit not as much logic as the fact of Walker’s surviving a shooting at point blank range…Far more likely is that these theories misinterpret a quotation from Boorman in which he states that Walker “could just as easily be a ghost or a shadow” as a real person, because of his ability to survive and infiltrate the Organization). But the phlegmatic Walker does not seem to care about his wife (who commits suicide after he confronts her) nor about his death. Rather, he only cares about the money he is owed, and even that he only seems to care about to a point. He uses it as a justification for his killing spree, but that’s all it is: an excuse.
Walker is, thus, very much a 60s type character: desultory, detached, disillusioned, and demoralized. The audience of the time is supposed to identify with his countercultural instincts, even while he stands for nothing, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde, but the film misuses the subjectivity it establishes, because it never makes the audience like Walker the way it likes Bonnie and Clyde, because Walker’s not compelling (though Lee Marvin’s screen charisma is undeniable); he’s just an animal clawing his way through a tough-to-survive world. Walker’s survival depends upon his distrust of others and his unwillingness to compromise on his one demand: the money he is owed and not a penny more. Really, though, it just depends on his expertise at killing and his lack of feeling for others.
The film gives him one character to care about, Chris (Dickinson), the sister of his now deceased wife, who tells him that she always thought he was the best thing that ever happened to her sister (poor girl if the best thing that ever happened to her is a relationship with a terse homicidal maniac lacking a first name). Walker and Chris establish a relationship (despite her not having a known last name and him never having a first name), but it is not a loving one. He uses her sexuality to gain entrance to Reese’s LA penthouse when it’s under lockdown, and later in the movie, while waiting for Brewster in his house somewhere outside of LA, she hits him until he agrees to have sex with her. Thus, Chris is a tough broad who, apparently, needs little from Walker other than to be used sexually, even if it means beating Walker up to get her way.
But even with her pre-and post-coitally, he remains one thing: cool. Yost tells him early on to “take it easy—you’ll last longer.” And Walker embraces the advice. He is always calmer than the world around him, allowing him to control each situation and stay alive. While each of his victims either rushes into confrontation, begs, or barters, Walker is fine with sitting back and waiting. This allows a would-be Walker assassin to kill Carter (Bochner) instead of him, as Walker hides in the shadows watching. This coolness under pressure is reminiscent of the Clint Eastwood characters that would come later, particularly in the Westerns, but Walker seems to stand for even less than Josey Wales (and certainly less than the fascist wetdream Harry Callahan). Again, I think the audience is supposed to just like him because he is “cool,” but so what?
Nothing about Walker as a character is all that interesting. I guess he could be read as a character embodying a dying ideal of manhood and purpose in a changing America. He does not seem to understand, for instance, that the world does not work the way he thinks it does—he can’t, for instance, just get money from the people who owe it to him. As he climbs up the Organization (the nefarious cabal that Reese was attempting to buy into), he learns from Brewster (O’Connor, a highlight of the casting) that money isn’t what it once was. Brewster tells him:
Let me tell you something about corporations. This is a corporation, and I’m an officer in it. We deal in millions, we never see cash. I got about $ 11 in my pocket.
Walker would be better suited getting money from a bank or Western stagecoach, but instead he is attempting to rob a modern business, making him an anachronism, a man out of his element. That’s mildly interesting, I suppose, but the film doesn’t quite sell that point. Instead, Walker is just a man who seems to kill for no other reason than to kill, and he quits and “walks” away (sorry to keep emphasizing the obviousness of his moniker—I just think it’s kind of stupid) when he finds out he’s been a puppet for the shadowy Yost the whole time.
So what makes this movie a cult classic, which it apparently is? The movie (like most cult classics) was a bit ahead of its time. Most historians mark the birth of New Hollywood in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Point Blank, also released in 1967, is right on the cusp then, but it never found the audience of either picture. Part of it is because the movie isn’t quite counterculture enough to really be “New Hollywood.” Lee Marvin insisted that John Boorman, directing his first feature in America, be granted final edit and be in charge of all casting decisions. Boorman made the film look very much like a 1967 production, but the story isn’t that far off a typical Lee Marvin Western. And Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson (she of the Rat Pack) weren’t exactly the stars the youth clamored to see. So, Point Blank disappointed at the box office. A lack of financial success is, of course, a prerequisite for cult classic status.
Second, the movie could be seen as an influence for other directors looking to make movies that are overly violent but lack any real causality for the violence. Walker always has a simplistic raison d’être for his killing, but everyone can see through it. Really, he’s like Travis Bickle or Rambo: he’s killing just because he can. The character of Walker is incredibly common in films these days (see John Wick, Taken, or any number of Jason Statham movies), so Point Blank’s influence is easy to see. Cult classic films are usually influential too—that’s how they endure.
Third, the film has some elements that make it more interesting than my analysis would suggest. It contains several elements of the New Wave cinema, including sweeping and long tracking shots, the aforementioned quick cuts, and some interesting cinematographic techniques to distort the audience’s expectations. Chief among these are the focus on bright lights moving in and out of focus when helicopters land and the often disorienting splices into memory. Take the film’s opening sequence. Walker is in a prison cell, mumbling “How did I get here?” We cut to a flashback of a mob of men in suits fighting. One says, “I need your help.” That is a far cry from the beginning of a traditional revenge story. It is more similar to the beginning of Apocalypse Now (which also has some New Wave elements) than it is to, say, The Outlaw Josey Wales (which succinctly provides the reason for Josey’s revenge while also summarizing the Civil War). In Point Blank, the audience is just as confused about Walker’s circumstances as Walker seems to be. The director plays with this through the use of some very clever camera work. Boorman uses a lot of reflection and stacked images throughout the movie to make the audience unsure of exactly what he/she should be looking at in each scene. This keeps one confused throughout and makes the film much more compelling to watch than it has any right to be.
So, all of this combines to make the film popular with a certain audience. I’m not that audience, even while I can find redeeming elements of it (e.g., the subjectivity, the cinematographic tricks, the screen presence of Marvin and O’Connor). As an aside, it was the first film to be shot in Alcatraz. So, we wouldn’t have The Rock (and other films!) without Point Blank I guess.
Should I have DVRed This on TCM: I don’t know. The movie was… fine. It was fine. I didn’t think it was unenjoyable; it just wasn’t anything all that great or informative or profound or anything like that. But that’s a good thing. It’s a simple revenge movie, and it doesn’t try to make any overly profound statements. I usually hate it when movies don’t know their place (that is, when an action movie tries to get “deep” for instance), and this one did know its place. I liked the New Hollywood styling of it—the quick cuts to flashbacks, for instance—and Marvin and O’Connor are enjoyable; I just never felt like I cared about Walker. When Walker “walks” away from Yost, the puppetmaster, at the end of the film, without his money, the audience is supposed to feel vindicated that Walker is his own man, but I just was bored by then.
If I were more inclined to liking action movies, I might say it was fantastic. I just don’t really like the genre, even when the movie is one that is at least somewhat influential on later examples of the genre (I noticed, for instance, similarities between Point Blank and Get Carter—movies lacking clear morals and personal stakes (unlike, say, Death Wish)). And I legitimately thought the movie was rather interesting to look at (like cinematographically). So, yeah, I guess I should’ve DVRed it, but I definitely would not DVR it again.