John Boorman Gets Revenge: Point Blank, A Hollywood Tale

Of all the disjunctions in John Boorman’s seminal 1967 noir Point Blank, none is more jarring than the one that

all the disjunctions in John Boorman’s seminal 1967 noir Point Blank, none is more jarring than the one that occurs at the very beginning: the roaring MGM lion followed by a shot of a battered and dazed Lee Marvin with a psychedelic light show playing over his face. Here was the symbol of Hollywood tradition, supplanted by the very countercultural weirdness that threatened to make Hollywood irrelevant. The MGM execs who were baffled by the movie must have been even more unsettled by what followed—a sudden, unexplained cut to a cell on deserted Alcatraz Island where, under the credit, “Lee Marvin … Point Blank,” the star himself is shot and left for dead. What the hell was going on here?

one thing, the death of the studio system. By 1967, Hollywood was desperately trying to find a way to attract the new youth audience but was too scared to abandon its by-the-book methods. The result often was movies that wound up looking like a Jaycee in a Nehru jacket: The mod trappings couldn’t disguise the square essence. Several months before Point Blank was released, Arthur Penn, in Bonnie and Clyde, had reconnected American movies to the energy of its previous golden era, the 30’s, and heralded the new sensibility they would have in their next golden era, the 70’s.

Boorman didn’t follow Mr. Penn’s visionary lead. He did something more
insidious: He let the rot show. In Point Blank, cold, angular modernist design melds with the flat anonymity that characterized Hollywood production design during the studio system’s death throes. It’s Antonioni meets Lover Come Back. The upright, uptight Rotary Club blandness, which had given contract-player types like Lloyd Bochner and Michael Strong and Keenan Wynn a living playing lawyers, doctors and small-time businessmen in B-movies and TV shows, mutates into the sliminess of mob bosses, hit men and two-bit gofers.
times, Point Blank feels like an
uneasy amalgam of innovation and played-out convention. But the mix is finally startling, a kind of vampirism in reverse, with Mr. Boorman’s stunning technique putting blood back into a desiccated corpse of a genre.

all the knockout visual preening that Mr. Boorman and his cinematographer Philip Lathrop indulge in lies a standard revenge melodrama. Lee Marvin’s Walker agrees to help an old buddy named Mal Reese (the wormy John Vernon) get out of debt by staging a heist at abandoned Alcatraz Island, where “the Organization” has a money drop. Reese, who’s been sleeping with Walker’s wife (Sharon Acker), improvises and shoots Walker, taking Walker’s share of the money and leaving him to die. Walker survives and, with the help of Yost (Keenan Wynn), who wants to destroy the Organization for his own shadowy purposes, sets out to get his revenge and his money.

first thing that drew together director and star was a shared contempt for the script. Credited to Alexander Jacobs and David and Rafe Newhouse, it could have been taken from any pulp novel (and, in fact, it’s based on The Hunter, one of the books written by Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark). Impressed with how Mr.
Boorman intended to rework the screenplay, Marvin, who had approval of script, casting and final cut, ceded those to Mr. Boorman. Making his Hollywood debut, Mr. Boorman had the kind of control reserved for the most powerful directors, and he made stunning use of it.

pictures like Breathless, Shoot the Piano Player and Band of Outsiders, Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard had poeticized American gangster pictures. Mr. Boorman’s method was closer to the puzzle movies of their nouvelle vague colleague Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad). The question movie geeks have always debated about Point Blank is whether Walker is, in fact, dead from the beginning, and the movie is his dying fantasy.

he’s gut-shot, we see him rising from the cell, a jacket tied round his wound, plunging into the icy waters to swim to the mainland. On the soundtrack, a chirpy tour guide tells us no one is believed to have survived an escape from Alcatraz—and there seems no way Walker could, either. Back in civilization, he’s dressed in a steel-gray suit which, with Marvin’s white hair, gives him the appearance of an avenging wraith. A cocktail waitress greets him with “Walker, you still alive?”

in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, a movie that is almost an homage to Point Blank (and it’s Mr. Soderbergh who interviews Mr. Boorman on the DVD commentary track), sequences are edited to dislocate us. In the most famous sequence, Mr. Boorman cuts between Walker striding furiously through LAX, the relentless clip-clop of his hard shoes echoing on the soundtrack, and Walker ’s wife going zombie-like through her day, unaware that her “dead” husband is coming for her.

effect of the movie is both oblique and brutal, as if we’d been sucker-punched without first being told why. The tension only occasionally breaks, as in the scene where that most delicate of movie broads, Angie Dickinson—playing Walker’s sister-in-law and, as she frequently is, superb—stands in front of Marvin slapping him silly while he doesn’t even blink, regarding her as no more effectual than an ape would a persistent fly.

saves Point Blank from being Alain Resnais–style diddling is the B-movie energy of the pulpy premise, the thumb-your-nose freedom in Mr. Boorman’s rule-bending and the sense that both director and star are working out personal obsessions. On the commentary track, Mr. Boorman says the movie is about the psyche of Lee Marvin. Marvin, who had snuck into the Marines at age 17 and come back marked by the brutalities he’
d seen,
would make a career as a movie thug. Though there are exceptions (throwing a pot of boiling coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face in The Big Heat), Marvin was the least showy of villains. He presented the violence of his characters as a fact, without judgment. There was nothing sentimental about Marvin.

can you be moved by, or at least have a stake in, such a character? In Point Blank it’s because the single-mindedness of Walker’s quest for revenge and money is more recognizably human than the reptilian machinations around him. The criminal empires of earlier noirs have become, in Point Blank, as faceless and efficient as any other big business. Sustaining the organization takes precedence over the lust for greed or power or any personal ambition. Walker is the hero because he’s the one who resists turning himself into, in William H. Whyte’s phrase, the Organization Man. The irony is that even as he is tearing it to shreds, Walker is doing its nefarious bidding.

is why, at this distance, Point Blank can be read as a prophecy of the fight John Boorman has waged throughout his career, trying to keep his own identity while working for “the Organization”
that is Hollywood. That’s the implicit subject of his great, near-Shakespearean family comedy, the 1990 film Where the Heart Is. If Mr. Boorman has beaten the odds by bringing glories like that picture (or Hope and Glory or Beyond Rangoon) to the screen, he’s lost to the house in other ways. Disney, which neither liked nor understood Where the Heart Is, dumped it in theaters and then punished Mr. Boorman by not sending him any of the handful of rave reviews that appeared. At the end of Point Blank, Walker recedes into the shadows he emerged from in the first shot. We’re lucky that Mr. Boorman has refused to go as quietly. John Boorman Gets Revenge: Point Blank, A Hollywood Tale