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.

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