50 Years Ago This Week – Point Blank

On August 30, 1967 John Boorman’s Point Blank premiered in San Francisco. It was a fitting choice for a movie that begins and ends at the abandoned island prison of Alcatraz, even though Boorman, in an inspired move, shifted most of the film’s action from tie-dyed, summer-of-love San-Francisco to the cold, impersonal monochromes of Los Angeles.

As a studio pitch, Point Blank sounds like a garden variety revenge picture about a man named Walker (Lee Marvin) who, double crossed after a heist, is shot and left to die by his wife and his best friend. But he somehow survives (it would appear), to seek vengeance against Lynne (Sharon Acker), Mal (John Vernon), and various gangland adversaries that get in the way as he seeks to recover his share of the loot. And that accurately describes the source material, and the first draft of the screenplay. But Boorman and Marvin (who forged a close friendship during the production), ultimately could not care less about Walker’s $93,000—as the movie’s enigmatic ending suggests. Boorman saw the film as motivated by betrayal, not revenge, and was keen to explore Walker’s “emptiness, desolation, [and] alienation.” The director and Alex Jacobs engaged in a wholesale revision of the screenplay; Marvin’s improvisations during production shaped the finished product as well. Among other basic changes, the Boorman-Jacobs version eliminated the police, introduced two new central characters – Chris (Angie Dickenson) and Yost (Keenan Wynn) – and renounced the standard “happy” ending associated with the genre.

Boorman’s approach was wildly ambitious and commonly misunderstood. The director had nothing but conflicts with the suits at Metro-Goldwin-Mayer, who were, by his own account “bewildered and dismayed” by the production-in-progress. At meetings, in memos, and after screenings, studio executives were clearly baffled by the elliptical exposition, dismayed by the downbeat tone, and deeply disapproving of the non-traditional color schemes. They moved to kick Boorman off the picture, but were blocked by Marvin, then at the height of his star power. And once released, the film was vilified in many quarters for its brutal outbursts of violence, often sadistically meted out by the movie’s outlaw protagonist and breaking taboos previously enforced by the Production Code. Guardian of good taste Bosley Crowther at the New York Times was predictable in his dismay, but on this one he was by no means alone. “All right, we live in violent times” Richard Schickel conceded in Life magazine, but he saw Point Blank as nothing but a “blend of gratuitous violence with gratuitous artiness.”

The movie’s detractors simply did not realize what they were seeing: one of the first major statements of the New Hollywood. Both director and star, reflecting the ethos of that emerging American New Wave, were attracted to the material not for its plot points, but because it touched on issues of profound personal meaning. For Boorman, the key theme was one of betrayal—and the elements of secrecy and infidelity resonated with experiences that shaped his own upbringing. For Marvin, it was the bleakness of the character, which he related to the action he saw in the Pacific during World War II, and his fear that “he had lost some element of his humanity in that brutal experience.” (At one level Boorman saw the film as a character study not of Walker, but of Marvin, and his return from a war in which he should have died.) 

Point Blank also pushed boundaries with its hints of a sexual fluidity in the relations (seen in flashback) between Walker, Lynne, and Mal, an element acknowledged by Boorman and which gives meaning to several otherwise puzzling shots featuring the two men (such as when they roll on the floor at a crowded party, and echoes of that shot later). More subversive still is Boorman’s presentation of the mob as just another sterile, impersonal, bottom-line-driven modern corporation. Once again, this was a change that the director introduced—instead of the standard-issue gangsters that populated the original material, Boorman “wanted to make it the business world,” where the organization has both legitimate and illegitimate business interests that are virtually indistinguishable. As such, he “wanted to make a statement about America,” an effort not lost on the French critic Michel Ciment, who compared the film to Mickey One in that it is “possible to interpret it as a more complex allegory, as a symbolic portrait of the United States.”

Point Blank was also of the New Hollywood in that it is much more heavily invested in character and mood than plot and resolution, and has no interest in pausing to provide definitive answers. Thus the film, gratifyingly, lends itself to a number of plausible readings. A popular one – which Boorman told Ciment was “a possible interpretation” – is that Walker actually never leaves Alcatraz; rather the entire film represents the flickering of his dying thoughts. Such an interpretation is consistent with the eerie nature of some of Walker’s interactions and Boorman’s dream-like disruptions of temporal continuity, and, especially in retrospect, gives additional meaning to some pieces of dialogue. “I dream about you, and how good it must be, being dead,” Lynne comments early on.  Near the end, and more pointedly, the disembodied voice of Chris suggests to Walker, “Why don’t you just lie down and die?”

Regardless of the particular interpretation, Boorman, inspired by the French New Wave, was eager to experiment with the cinematic manipulation of time. “Every single scene was echoed in another scene,” Boorman explained, which gives the feel of being trapped in a revolving door, an effect “we associate  . . . with Resnais.” This is clear throughout the film, but established from the start, as Walker bursts into Lynne’s apartment, empties his gun into the bed where he expected to find Mal, and retreats to the living room, where he sits silently as Lynne impassively carries both sides of their conversation. Then things get even more unsettled, as a series of flashbacks (and flash-forwards?) include those that find Lynne dead of an overdose (or not, soon enough she is gone and the bed is stripped bare), and Walker sitting on a corner of the emptied living room (a shot designed to echo the cell at Alcatraz), followed by the appearance of a messenger to the house again fully furnished.

Ultimately, Walker is a mythic figure navigating a dreamscape, in Boorman’s words, “trying to find his humanity,” and Point Blank is a tone poem, with changing hues substituting for shifting musical keys. That which so vexed the studio – Boorman’s decision to assign each sequence a dominant color – is at the heart of the film’s visual expression. Point Plank starts out with cold grays and blues, moves on to yellow, and then green, and continues on to a muted, rusty red, before Walker finally fades into the dark shadows of Alcatraz. 

Gray

“I dream about you, and how good it must be, being dead"

 

Yellow

Checking Things Out With Chris (Angie Dickenson)

 

Corporation

Walker Confronts the Modern Corporation

 

Green

Gangster Green

 

Red

Nearing the End