(SPOILERS) The Cliff’s Notes for Point Blank require one to note its nouvelle vague influence (fractured time lines and the ilk), but the likelihood is that anyone coming fresh to the film now will be fully au fait with its various stylistic and narrative devices, so assimilated are they into the mainstream. Still striking, however, is John Boorman’s stylistic sensibility, coming on like a noir comic strip brought to life, yet shot through with Technicolor purpose. It’s an existential mood piece, yes, but it’s translated into the language of an action spectacle, one with a particularly dark sense of humour.
Steven Soderbergh hosted a commentary track for the movie with director John Boorman (the latter’s Hollywood debut), in which he admits to having stolen from Point Blank many times. That much is plain, but his copying is characteristically Xerox-thin, absence the attitude and point of view brought to bear by Boorman and star Lee Marvin (as Walker). Just look at The Limey, also built around an out-of-time revenger and concise in its length. Yet contrastingly rather flaccid when it isn’t energised by a ferocious Terence Stamp, and bearing the tell-tale signs of its somewhat turbulent readjustments in order to shape it into a passably functional state on screen.
Soderberg referred to Point Blank as a memory film, and there’s no argument that it encourages a less than entirely literal approach to its proceedings. It’s there in the framing, the architecture, the lighting and the claustrophobic sparsity of inhabitants. Is this Walker’s dying revenge fantasy, having been shot on Alcatraz by erstwhile accomplice Rees (John Vernon)? Chris (Angie Dickinson) seems to think so: “You died at Alcatraz, alright”. Boorman offered no opinion, admitting Walker could just as easily be a shadow or a ghost as the live article. But the soundtrack, before diving into our protagonist’s mission to secure his $93,000, repeats “a dream… a dream”, and frequently returns to Walker’s “dying” moments while offering disorientating montages (the clothed/unclothed Walker and Chris). Chris’ sister (Sharon Acker) earlier recalls “Suddenly we were together” of their failed romance, as if to emphasise that none of this is happening outside of a spontaneous imagination.
Indeed, I was in minded of Nicolas Roeg’s juxtapositions, his blurring of subjective, objective, and time and place. And let’s not forget he and Donald Cammell made their directing debuts in the gangster milieu too, just a short time later. Although, I doubt Roeg would ever have considered making a genuine crime movie (Cammell certainly did).
Boorman also lends a propulsion to the Point Blank that’s at odds with the often indulgently less focussed milieu of the art movie; indeed, there’s an idea, one that will afflict you mightily if you check out the recent The Green Knight or any of Terrence Malick’s latter-day offerings, that for existential ramifications to be worthy, they must be slow, languid, devoid of dramatic engagement. Point Blank is a vibrant riposte to such a pseudy perspective (as is the cinema of Michael Mann, at its best anyway).
Indeed, the picture’s a delight in its kineticism, be it Walker’s percussive footsteps as he pursues his dogged quest down corridors and through streets and up tall buildings; is it a coincidence that the titles of the same year’s The Prisoner, the existential spy series par excellence, also began each episode with an audible march down a corridor? Walker breaks into Lynne’s apartment, brandishing his handgun, and blows away the bed (later, he will do the same to Brewster’s phone). There’s a fight – among film reels – at a psychedelic night club where the band’s “Ow!” performance forms a punchy accompaniment. Rees takes a tumble over the penthouse suite balcony, his bedsheet unravelling as he goes, as if in parody, a twisted inversion of a fairy tale.
Brewster (Carrol O’Connor) delivers a very funny remonstration of Walker’s behaviour – bridling against an enraged antagonist with a very big gun – in which he charges “You’re a very bad man, Walker. A very destructive man!” and all but mocks him for his inability to comprehend that the Organisation just does not parlay in cash. As Chris Peachment put it in Time Out, Walker, a ’50s anachronism – Robert Altman would later lean into something similar with The Long Goodbye – is “increasingly puzzled and frustrated when he finds there is no money, because the Organisation is the world of big business run by respectable men with wallets full of credit cards” (credit cards soon to boast carbon credits; one wonders how the Organisation would get around that. Perhaps put Great on the payroll). Peachment also drew parallels with Godard’s Alphaville, whereby both “use the gangster/thriller framework to explore the increasing depersonalisation of living in a mechanised urban world”.
Walker is on a quest for answers, Number Six is plied for answers, and when answers finally come into play for both, they prove paradoxically elusive. We see Walker break into the numerologically significant Henley hotel, run by the Organisation (1111, or 11:11). Walker is ostensibly tracking down his money, yet that in itself is an existential McGuffin. What he really wants is more elusive (we never see him take his cash, if indeed it is cash in the package).
And like any quality existential musing, there’s ultimate doubt cast on the validity of his motivation; it turns out that Yost (Keenan Wynn) is Organisation man Fairfax, getting Walker to do his dirty work. Who are the Organisation, ultimately? Is Yost the man on top? Or like the Elite, is there always someone one level above? Boorman invoked Arthurian legend in respect of Yost (“the mysterious figure who comes and goes”). He’d be doing a lot more of that in the future.
Point Blank was based on a Donald Westlake novel (The Hunter), one later remade by Mel Gibson as Payback (with, famously, two different cuts, after Gibson had production designer John Myhre reshoot thirty percent of Brian Helgeland’s version). The cast – Dickinson, Wynn, Vernon, Acker; James Sikking would later play another hit man in Peter Hyams’ Narrow Margin, quite possibly cast in homage – are all good. This is arguably Marvin’s movie, however (albeit, one could readily imagine a more commercial take with James Coburn). It was Marvin who “transferred” his star approval he granted by the studio to Boorman, and thus his carte blanche.
Pauline Kael called the picture “Showoffy, brutal, somewhat inexplicable” determining that it was the director’s “virtuosity that is the star…” Point Blank, she muttered, offered “more energy and invention than Boorman seems to know what to do with”. Other movies would subsequently attempt this seemingly effortless existential action pose (The Driver; Soderbergh, of course), but there’s a very thin line between pulling it off and making it seem either a pretentious doodle or emotionally inert, such is the manner in which many of the elements of the traditional thriller are pared down to essentials of dynamic and aesthetic.