Short Takes: Point Blank (1967) John Boorman

This week’s Short Takes consist of one film. I have been working on this review, on and off, for a long time and could never get anything I was satisfied with. It was starting to feel like an albatross around my neck and I just wanted to toss it into the circular file. Instead, I put it away and only just the other day took another look at it again. I decided to chop and chop and chop dropping paragraphs all over the place and continued to chop until I ended up with what we see here.

Though dressed in suits and working out of corporate offices, John Boorman’s underworld characters in “Point Blank” are as treacherous, back stabbing, conniving group of low life’s as treacherous as gangsters of the Al Capone and bathtub gin era in the 1920’s. But as slick as they think they are, they meet there match in Walker (Lee Marvin) a relentless, life long criminal, doubled crossed out of his share of money from a robbery and left for dead. More than revenge… Walker wants his damn money.

Right from the very beginning the film has a dreamlike quality to it that gives the impression everything we have seen unfolding is exactly that, a final dream of a dying man. We first see a severely wounded Walker bleeding badly in a Alcatraz jail cell, the result of a betrayal of a friend and his own wife. Then, still wounded, we see Walker swimming across the San Francisco Bay away from Alcatraz toward San Francisco, an almost impossible task for a healthy human being, never mind someone badly injured. The dream like quality continues through to the film’s finale back on Alcatraz where a helicopter drop is made with Walker’s money, and one of the organization’s honchos, a man named Brewster (Carroll O’Connor) standing next to the package telling him to come and get it. Off to the side standing in the shadows Walker watches the drop.  He does not come out; he stands back hidden and slowly fades into the darkness of the prison as the film ends.

The film is based on the novel, “The Hunter,” the first of twenty three hard boiled paperbacks about a career criminal who only goes by the name of Parker. It was written by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, one of the great crime fiction writers our time.  In the film version, Parker’s name was changed to Walker. This was came about due to author Westlake’s refusal to let the filmmakers use the name Parker unless they agreed to make a series of films based on his Parker novels. They did not and subsequently the name was changed.

“Point Blank” was a revelation when it first came out in 1967 one of the most stylistic and earliest films, along with “Bonnie and Clyde” released the same year,  to reflect the influences of the French New Wave. Boorman uses flashbacks, intercutting, off beat camera composition to create the paranoid universe Walker travels in attempting to collect the $93,000 owed him.

In 1999, the film was needlessly remade with Mel Gibson as Parker/Walker, only now he is called Porter. In comparing the two films, “Payback” is more straight forward, and certainly much more sadistically violent. It has the kind of over the top gratuitous movie violence that in real life no one could live through, yet Gibson’s Porter somehow does. Porter is also a much nastier version of Starks’ anti-hero, robbing, pick pocketing one person on the street to get false identification. He even steals some chump tip change off a sandwich shop counter for no reason other than he’s low-life. Porter is less anti-hero and more just a crude gorilla dressed up in false modern day movie cool. The film as whole has no heart or soul. It’s mindless pulp, a cartoon. Give me Lee Marvin over Mel Gibson and “Point Blank” over “Payback” any day.

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14 comments on “Short Takes: Point Blank (1967) John Boorman

  1. One of my favourite films of the sixties. Lee Marvin is the epitome of stone-cold cool in this film. The books are wonderful, but Boorman – who has always been hit and miss as a director – really puts a very European spin on the ‘hard-boiled’ Americana. I like the fact you talk about the French New Wave influences, as I think Boorman himself even talks about borrowing visual ideas from Godard. Along with Escape from Alcatraz and Birdman of Alcatraz, it’s also one of the finest films to utilise the prison as a backdrop for part of the narrative. I’d say that Gibson’s risible effort can be easily forgotten, particularly when considering Soderbergh’s far more substantial part-homage in the Terence Stamp vehicle The Limey (another crime film with a hypnotic and fractured dream-narrative).

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Rohan! Stark/Westlake is terrific. I read two of the Parker novels and would like to dig into them more at some point. As for Lee Marvin ‘stone cold cool’ is as accurate as it can get, pure anti-hero unlike in PAYBACK where Mel Gibson comes across as just a thug.

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  2. R. D. Finch says:

    John, I’m glad you decided to spotlight this wonderful film. I didn’t see it until many years after it was released, but I now rank it as one of the best American films of 1967, probably the best after “Bonnie and Clyde,” and my favorite film of Boorman’s. You point out how the film is tough (the revenge theme) and dreamy (that fragmented, highly visual style) at the same time, and that’s certainly how I saw it and what I think makes it so affecting. It’s also my favorite Lee Marvin performance, his Walker almost a modern-day version of the sensitive thugs Humphrey Bogart used to play. With its betrayal/revenge theme it could almost be remade as a Western.

    When I saw it, I just went along with the dream-like (and admittedly in some ways improbable) plot. Later I read David Thomson’s interpretation, which is similar to the one you mention as a possibility, that it’s a sort of gangster equivalent of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the hallucinatory dream/fantasy of a dying man in the last moments of his life. I don’t know if I’d go along with that. It seems awfully detailed for such a dying dream. Boorman does leave the ending and interpretation open, but maybe that enigma just makes the film all the more intriguing. I wonder if David Lynch ever saw this?

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    • John Greco says:

      The ambiguity of the ending adds to the dream like quality. I agree with ou on Boorman, I don’t think he ever made a better film. Lee Marvin was on a hot streak during this period with this film and THE PROFESSIONALS and THE DIRTY DOZEN. Interesting point on David Lynch, the film does have a bit of his quality.

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    I can’t blame you and R.D. for citing this as your favorite Boorman John. For me it’s close, but I’d ultimately go with 1987’s HOPE AND GLORY. It’s a taste thing of course. But this is an often breathless and dreamy stylistic film with some buffo set pieces and a particularly memorable eerie Euro art sounding score by Johnny Mandel. You have framed the film’s attributes admirably and have offered your readers a worthy call for a re-visit!

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam,

      HOPE AND GLORY is a wonderful film and without hesitation my second favorite film from this director whose work overall is erratic. Thanks!!!

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  4. KimWilson says:

    Lee Marvin does mean and brutal well, so Walker was the perfect character for him. Angie Dickinson is also a revelation here. You are right to lump this in with Bonnie and Clyde, as they are both stark, violent, and atmospheric.

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  5. There’s been debate over the years about Sharon Acker’s performance in Point Blank. Many fail to understand the surreal, dreamlike nature of many scenes, especially the one when Lynne (Acker) is talking with Walker.

    I always viewed that scene as Lynne’s final moments confessing to Walker her duplicity in the shooting at Alcatraz. She’s waiting for her drug overdose to kick in and her thoughts and words are disembodied, fragmented as she’s clearly drifting off into death. Walker may or may not be in the room with her (depends on how you view his role here), but she’s confessing and admitting via the info dump who was behind the act of treachery. Remember, she’s at the hair salon getting herself all glammed up as some women do before they commit suicide…watch Lynne as the nail technician is gabbing to her; Lynne is totally disinterested because she’s preoccupied with her own impending end.

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  6. John Greco says:

    The entire movie has a dreamlike feel to it. Lee Marvin’s character is dying at the beginning, there’s no way an injured man could swim the SF and survive. It’s hardly been done by healthy guys. Interesting though what you say about Lynne, I did not think of that.

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  7. […] way to the movie screen. In 1967, the first Parker novel, The Hunter, appeared under the title Point Blank (1) with Parker’s name changed, inexplicably, to Walker. The film featured Lee Marvin in the lead […]

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