Sunday, 15 December 2013

Blank generation... Point Blank (1967)

Sometimes you watch a film through a prism of its own influence… here I could see the works of Steven Soderberg, Quentin Tarrantino and numerous others whilst I could also feel the influence of the contemporary European new wave of the earlier part of the decade.

Point Blank is startling from the off as your mind clicks off a constant stream of “ah, so that’s where that came froms…”  It’s so stylishly constructed by British director John Boorman – a modern-day noir that also manages social commentary and to question the nature of crime and criminals.

Lee Marvin
Boorman dislocates the temporal narrative, so that you’re never quite sure “when” things are happening. His characters are constantly thinking intensely of past events that led to the pivotal moments in the story and the director shows their thoughts as flashbacks that may only last a second but still serve to underlie their emotional condition and the film’s real intent.

Every action is linked to other actions and the leads are all caught up in the narrative momentum of lives lived in exhaustion and fear. This may even reflect the existential theatre of the period: Waiting for pay-off perhaps?

The tone is set in a breathless opening that sees lead character Walker (Lee Marvin) shot apparently dead at the end of a heist gone right. He is persuaded to hi-jack a regular mob cash exchange by his pal Mal Reese (John Vernon) who is in debt to organised crime and need to cover the cost or bust.

Mal pulls a drunken Walker to the floor and holds his head as close as he can in order to communicate his plan. It’s a strangely tender scene that mirrors later male and female positioning: these guys are close enough when they really need to communicate.

John Vernon, Lee Marvin and Sharon Acker
The job takes place at disused Alcatraz where Mal shoots dead the two men with the money – not part of the plan by Walker’s shock reaction – and then proceeds to trim down the team he is to share the loot with. In front of Walker’s distraught wife, Mal shoots his pal down just so he can take his $93,000.

Lynne (Sharon Acker) hadn’t seen this coming even though she has been sharing Mal’s bed for long enough: betrayal doubled or even tripled as Mal takes the jackpot.

Walker crawls into the sea
But, here’s the twist… Walker doesn’t die.

Boorman’s shaky, unsteady camera follows him as he gently falls into the sea, intent on swimming from the Rock to the shore. Walker has become almost inhuman but he is a man driven by the need to balance the books than simple revenge – perhaps that’s just his way of dealing with such compound treachery.

Next we see Walker on a tourist trip back to the former prison. Deep in his own thoughts we hear details of how so few men have ever escaped from Alcatraz and none of those were carrying bullet wounds. A man approaches Walker – Yost (Keenan Wynne), who appears to be a law officer intent on catching the mob funding Mel: he says he wants to help Walker as they have joint objectives. He gives him Mel’s address, a house he shares with Lynne…

Keenan Wynn and Lee
But as Walker smashes the door down in one brutal movement knocking his ex-wife senseless whilst pumping bullets into the bedroom, it becomes apparent that his adversary is no longer there.

Lynne is living a half-life – exhausted by guilt and Mel’s subsequent desertion. She’s like an animal waiting for the kill and her surprise at finding Walker alive is overcome by her expectation that she will – deservedly – die at his hands.

Walker and Lynne - ending and beginning
But, here’s the twist, Walker doesn’t kill her… she does that herself.

Walker looks out in emotionless despair to see Yost outside… time flows over weeks as he waits for one of Mel’s underlings to deliver Lynne’s monthly allowance. From him he follows a lead to a used car showroom run by the obsequious Stegman (Michael Strong). Walker smashes up one of Stegman’s cars with him in it – searching for a new lead.

Walker discusses Stegman's options
Turns out Mel may have been seeing Lynne’s sister Chris (Angie Dickinson) who runs a club downtown… Naturally it’s a trap and admits the realistically-sleazy bump and grind of the club, there’s a brutal, desperate and entirely believable bathroom battle between Walker and two of the hired hands. Marvin maybe shows some of his military training here – he fights dirty and effectively.

Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson
He finds Chris who is disgusted by the suggestion she has been Mel’s lover and only mildly surprised by her sister’s death: "…you were always the best thing about Lynne…” she tells Walker. Walker has only one thing on his mind and enlists her aid in getting to Mel.

But Mel will take some getting. By this stage we have met his paymaster, Frederick Carter (Lloyd Bochner), a businessman hidden in a room protected by layers of security: keeping the outside world from tainting his commercial reputation.

Middle and senior management
He helps set a trap for Walker by using Mel as bait: there are men all over the place and Mel is in the penthouse of an apartment building… surely there’s no way he can be reached?

But Walker has an ace to play: Mel was only ever after Lynne to get to her sister and will not refuse her request to visit… Chris smiles her way past the admiring guards whilst Walker sets off a distraction in a neighbouring apartment block.

Walker confronts Mel as Chris makes her get away...
As the police swarm around Mel’s protectors back off enough to allow Walker entry further and further into the building. It’s the kind of daring that you can believe – military moves and cold, calculation… like Michael Caine in Get Carter, Terrence Stamp in The Limey or Clint Eastwood in any one of two dozen films…

Walker finds Mel in bed with Chris who pushes him away with revulsion, her bravery rewarded. Mel is dragged out to his fate: as certain as Lynne of what Walker is capable of. But Walker only wants his $93,000. He’s not out for revenge just balance. So, when Mel tells him that the money is with his business bosses, Walker knows the only way to get to them is by disposing of Mel…

Next up is Walker, who offers sophistication that could undo Walker but he is rising to every challenge and, when it turns out that there are still further layers to unravel in search of redress, you know he will not be found wanting…

It’s a labyrinthine plot in true noire tradition, but the difference is that Walker is driven by his sense of honour: all he has left. It’s not really about the $93,000... he's just making a point to the mob and to himself.

Mr Lee Marvin
Lee Marvin is amazing in this role, a believable man of violence and yet with vulnerability that should be difficult to counterpoint this well. He even makes for a believable romantic lead not just in his early flashback encounters with Lynne but also as he and Chris are drawn together… filling the emptiness in each others' existence.

Angie Dickinson
Angie Dickinson is excellent as always… a fine actress with a great range who all too often got stuck in light comedy westerns or stuck as a beautiful adornment on the hero’s arm. Here she shows her own bravery as well as tenderness: her pity and passion mixed for her dead sister’s husband.

But the whole cast is uniformly on top form in what is deservedly regarded as something of a classic by one of the best British film-makers of his generation.

Point Blank is available from all good online retailers like Movie Mail as well as those with dodgy tax practices.

Dusty verdict: Recommended. Buy the DVD and you won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

What the World needs now… Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

Everything falls into place right at the end of this film. You get so used to hearing classic popular songs as the background to modern drama (sometimes ironically so…) but when Bacharach and David’s “What the World Needs Now” plays over the closing sequence you know it’s the real – sincere – deal. A sublime song, it acts as the perfect reflective enhancement of the theme of this film and the acting qualities that make its simple message a still resonant one.

Bob, Natalie, Dyan and Elliot
Paul Mazursky directed and co-wrote (with Larry Tucker) this tale of the times in which two established middle-class couples rediscover the truth about the difference between love and sex. In the Autumn of Love cynicism was rapidly crushing the flimsier ideals of the hippy era (some of them) as Vietnam raged on and change was all too slow in coming…

But I don’t feel that this is a reactionary film. It starts off in a new age retreat where a couple have gone to investigate the alternative therapies and ends up tuning in to the main thread of those practices: be open and honest but love the one you’re with.

Group therapy
The couple are a documentary film-maker Bob (Robert Culp) and his wife Carol (Natalie Wood). Bob is in his early forties and wearing the trappings of the younger generation – great casting of Culp who carries the masculinity of an earlier era even clad in beads and Peter Fonda’s flares.

They start their therapy Bob in confident professional mode and Carol laughing in a friendly way but soon they become lost in the collective emotion. They have their emotional epiphany and tell each other some home truths… is this actually helping them get closer or are they just getting a charge from the liberation from constraint.

Bob, Carol, Alice and Ted
They return home full of the experience much to the bewilderment of their best friends, Ted (Elliot Gould) and his wife Alice (Dyan Cannon). These two can’t take the “new truth” that seriously and cringe with the rest of us when Carol tells their regular waiter how much she loves and respects him. Her compulsion to tell the truth at all times is an addiction: the more truth she tells the more she needs…

But then Bob returns from a work trip to San Francisco and reveals that he has had a fling with a young blonde woman. Carol almost takes it in her stride and quickly compliments her husband on his honesty: it was just sex and meant nothing to their relationship.

Forgiveness is...
Bob, rather than delight at the let off, is mildly put out before getting hip to his wife’s scene: they have freedom because they have love.

But whilst Bob can handle the truth, Alice is less forgiving when, after a post-prandial toke, Carol reveals all.

Dyan Cannon
Now it is Ted and Alice’s turn to explore new feelings as they drive home and then, in one of the film’s most impressively improvised sections, confront each other in their bedroom. Ted is still stoned and very agitated whilst Alice is physically affected by her friend’s news. Ted wants sex but Alice is nowhere near in the mood. She is cross with both Bob and Carol whilst Ted feels his mate’s big mistake was in telling too much truth. Gould and Cannon are superb.

Alice cannot understand and ends up in therapy trying to confront her own feelings alongside a rather detached psychiatrist. Mazursky and cast play it for laughs but everything is so near the knuckle, you have to be on your guard.

Ted talks with his buddy and tells him how he came close to infidelity but couldn’t go through with it. Ted tells him that he’s missing out on an opportunity that may only happen once. It’s all very much self-actualisation for the sake of it: free love with no consequence.

But, when Bob gets another chance to play away, he turns it down so that he can return home. Arriving a day early he finds Carol in the midst of entertaining another man: Horst her tennis coach. Initially angry he soon calms down and is offering the confused young man a drink…

"Hey man, what's good for he goose..." he might have said...
The final section of the film sees the couples off to Las Vegas for the weekend. They get drunk and it’s Ted’s turn to reveal that, on a recent business trip, he too has had an affair. Carol’s initial anger is replaced by her “therapised” rationalisation that the pleasures of the flesh are divided from love and she attempts to initiate an orgy.

Bob considers Alice...
All parties agree to partner-swap but, after a promising start for Bob at least, left alone with Carol and Alice whilst Ted gets ready… everything fizzles out as they come to their senses.

The couples get dressed and walk out to join the throng headed to watch Tony Bennett and, as the Bacharach song plays in you finally get Mazursky’s point. The couples look intently at the other people but they only really have eyes for each other and that is the only truth that should guide their actions. The arc of their experience has only served to take them back where they should have started.

Not a complex story perhaps but an unusual one even now. Naturally some of the situations and fashions look of their time but the film still stands largely because of the performances of its leads. Roger Ebert noted at the time that Dyan Cannon was better than Natalie Wood who was better than he expected. In truth both are excellent as are the slightly uptight Robert Culp and Elliot Gould who plays Elliot Gould wonderfully well.

There’s also a super score from the outrageously talented Quincy Jones and that song from Burt…

Dusty verdict: Doesn’t quite carry the same impact in these jaded times but just imagine if you had to spend the weekend at a Scientology “de-programming” camp with your partner… Worth watching for the fine acting and, let’s be honest, Natalie Wood in skimpies