Point Blank (1967)

MGM, USA, 92 minutes, Panavision, colour

A Judd Bernard-Irwin Winkler Production
Producers: Judd Bernard, Robert Chartoff
Director: John Boorman
Screenplay: Al Jennings, Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse
Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark
Photography: Philip H Lathrop
Editor: Henry Berman
Music: Johnny Mandel
Colour consultant: Bill Stair

Walker: Lee Marvin
Chris: Angie Dickinson
Yost/Fairfax: Keenan Wynn
Brewster: Carroll O'Connor
Carter: Lloyd Bochner
Stegman: Michael Strong
Mal Reese: John Vernon
Lynne: Sharon Acker
Gunman: James Sikking

'Did it happen? Was it a dream?' asks Walker (Lee Marvin) at the start of Point Blank, a 60s Hollywood movie that won attention due to the flashy direction of Briton John Boorman as well as for its status as a classic crime thriller.

Walker, a gangster who has been double-crossed and shot by his partner after a heist on the former prison island of Alcatraz, poses the two questions on the point of death.

The rest of the film focuses on his somewhat improbable survival, escape to the mainland and vengeance on the criminal gang who have made off with his share of the loot.

At least, that's one way of looking at it. Another is that the remainder of the film is hallucination of a dying man. In other words, it's all a dream.

A third reading is that Walker comes back from the dead to kill his enemies, as did the Clint Eastwood character in the sombre Western High Plains Drifter (1973).

Indeed, he is like an automaton, saying little and expressing himself through extreme violence. As Chris (Angie Dickinson) tells him: 'You really did die at Alcatraz'. Another clue is that Walker is literally a dead man walking. He has no first name.

Yet another interpretation was put forward by the British critic David Thomson, who wrote in 1998 that the film could be seen as the fantasy of the crime gang's money man (Fairfax) who summons Walker to bump off his rivals.

Boorman, who at the time was heavily influenced by the French New Wave directors of the 60s, does not provide a definitive answer. Like Alain Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad (1961), the film is open to several different interpretations.

Boorman, who was born in London in 1933, made the movie newly arrived in Hollywood after a career on British TV and a minor movie, Catch Us If You Can, starring the pop group The Dave Clark Five.

With Point Blank, he showed his worth and started a brief but memorable collaboration with Marvin, then at the peak of his career.

He also infused the movie with considerable depths of meaning. Indeed, Point Blank is more than a thriller. It rises to the level of a sociological commentary on 60s America.

It also employs Boorman's favourite theme of an Arthurian quest involving a knightly figure (Walker) and a Merlin-like character (Yost) played by Keenan Wynn.

Filled with amoral and nihilistic characters, the film features some of the worst things about the USA: rampant car culture, terrifying violence and impersonal cities, in this case Los Angeles.

The action starts at Alcatraz, the former prison island in San Francisco Bay. A consignment of Mafia drugs money is hijacked but the heist yields insufficient cash for gangster Mal Reese (John Vernon) to pay off his debts to the mob. Desperate, he shoots Walker in order to grab his $93,000 share.

Walker survives and swims to safety to take revenge on the 'organisation' to which Reese belongs amid scenes of considerable violence and black humour, something Boorman used to good effect in his later thrillers The General (1998) and The Tailor of Panama (2001).

The mysterious Yost, who could be some kind of policeman, appears as if by magic at various points in the film and encourages Walker to retrieve his money.

The tough guy stalks his victims around LA wearing smart suits that never seem to get creased.

'This organisation will take care of Walker,' says one hood. 'It will never happen. He's a pro. He'll tear you apart,' comes the reply. Another example of the mordant dialogue: Chris - 'What's my last name?' Walker - 'What's my first name?'

One violent set piece has Walker beating up heavies in the back room of a nightclub. The cries of a soul singer are replaced by the screams of a woman who comes across his bloodied victims.

The trail leads to used car salesman Stegman (Michael Strong). An ironic touch has his corny radio advert broadcast as Marvin systematically wrecks one of his cars - with Stegman inside.

Another example of the gallows humour is a flashback of gangster Mal Reese (John Vernon) telling Walker before the crime: 'We'll live forever.' Boorman cuts back to Reese falling to his death from his penthouse apartment pursued by Walker.

Next to go are the oily Carter (Lloyd Bochner), killed accidentally on purpose by his own hitman, and Brewster (Carroll O'Connor), a victim of a double-cross instigated by himself.

The twist ending reveals Yost to be Fairfax, another member of the organisation. He has cunningly engineered the deaths of the other gangsters to benefit himself.

He then offers Walker a role in the organisation. Walker recoils, backing away into the shadows without the money or the girl. His dream over, he can die in peace.

Most contemporary critics agreed that Point Blank was a stylish if violent thriller. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times felt Boorman did an 'amazing job' capturing the look and feel of LA.

He added: 'But holy smokes, what a candid and calculatedly sadistic film this is. What a sheer exercise in creeping menace and crashing violence for their surface shock effects.'

He also felt the film was likely to 'engross' audiences without 'enlightening' them as to what was going on.

This is because Boorman, who often tries to fuse commercialism with serious cinema, was not interested in making a conventional thriller.

A highly perceptive study of the film appears in Jack Shadoian's Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film (1977). He calls the film a 'dream poem' and a 'personal, surreal vision' of the inhuman America that Walker confronts.

He says that the film asks the question: what is real? It is full of disembodied voices over intercoms and microphones. The scene in the nightclub he sees as a metaphor for the 'cultural chaos' of the 60s. The flashing lights, garish décor and screaming singer only serve to alienate people.

Shadoian writes: 'The false liberation of the 60s and its true psychic distress are superbly evoked.'

He also makes the point that many sexual actions in the film are one step removed from the real thing. Walker empties his gun into his wife's bed (the gun being a Freudian symbol for a penis), Stegman looks at an attractive woman and fondles his car (!) while the nightclub singer caresses a microphone.

Several critics pointed out that Boorman modernised the gangster film. Things were simpler in days of yore when James Cagney despatched his enemies in the final reel, sorting out everything literally in black and white.

In Point Blank, Brewster and Carter live respectable, affluent lives. One reason why Walker cannot be paid his $93,000 is that the organisation doesn't use cash any more.

Most frightening of all, the mob has become in almost every way indistinguishable from a typical US corporation. This leads to the conclusion that the mob is American big business.

Point Blank and the second Boorman/Marvin picture Hell in the Pacific (1968) were screened at London's National Film Theatre in 1997 in the presence of Lee Marvin's widow Pamela. She pointed out that Point Blank had been included in a list of the ten best thrillers of all time.

She added: 'It is still extremely affecting. It is such a powerful and frightening movie. I think he (Marvin) was extremely proud of it. They (Marvin and Boorman) were a tremendous team and got on so well.'

Marvin, incidentally, was one of Hollywood's best ever tough guys both on screen and off. He witnessed horrors as a US marine fighting the Japanese in World War Two and, despite an extreme fondness for alcohol, reflected deeply on his role in his country's overseas wars.

His two movies with Boorman can be seen as the artistic highlight of his career. Both films were much more than simple entertainments.