John Boorman’s 1967 neo-noir Point Blank is based on the novel, The Hunter, the first of twenty-three hard-boiled paperbacks about a career criminal who goes by the singular name of Parker. The series was written by Richard Stark, one of many pseudonyms used by Donald E. Westlake, one of the all-time great crime fiction writers our time. Westlake’s career spread across novels, screenplay, and television. Several of his many books have made it to the big screen including The Split (1968) The Hot Rock (1972), Cops and Robbers (1973), Bank Shot (1974) and Two Much among others. Westlake’s screenplay credits include The Grifters (2000), adapted from famed pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson novel, and The Stepfather. Two of my own personal favorite works of Westlake books are both standalone novels: The Hook and The Ax.
In the film version of Point Blank, Parker’s name is changed to Walker. This 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 refused, and subsequently, the name changed.
Lee Marvin had a long cinematic career. In his early years, in supporting roles, Marvin played characters who lived on the wrong side of the law: The Wild One, Shackout on 101, Bad Day at Black Rock, Violent Saturday, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Gun Fury to name a few. After the success of Cat Ballou, The Professionals, and The Dirty Dozen, Lee Marvin’s star status grew; he now had the right to final script approval which he used on Point Blank. Marvin’s first move was to immediately hand the power over to director John Boorman whose only big-screen directorial credit at that point was 1965’s Having a Wild Weekend, starring the English pop group, The Dave Clark Five. Boorman and Marvin together turned Point Blank into an arty New Wave gangster film with the quirky idea of apparently killing off our anti-hero at the beginning of the film.
Though dressed in suits and working out of corporate offices, John Boorman’s underworld characters in Point Blank are as treacherous, backstabbing, and a conniving group of low life’s as gangsters of the Al Capone and bathtub gin era in the 1920’s. But as slick, as they think they are, they meet their match in Walker (Lee Marvin) a relentless, lifelong criminal, doubled crossed out of his share of money from a robbery and left for dead. More than revenge, Walker wants his damn money.
Walker’s left for dead in an Alcatraz jail cell, the result of a betrayal by Mal Reese (John Vernon) his friend and Walker’s own wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker) who is Reese’s lover. Our anti-hero survives the shooting and recovers with the help of a mysterious man named Yost (Keenan Wynn) who encourages Walker to eliminate as many of the organization’s men as possible. Walker heads to Los Angeles in pursuit of Reese and his money. Reese, however, spent the money paying back the debt he owed to the mob, AKA The Organization. Along with others, Reese goes down, he literally goes down after Walker forces him off a balcony. Walker gets help from Chris (Angie Dickinson), his sister-in-law, who hated Reese. Walker’s hunt for his money comes full circle back to Alcatraz, but with a surprising twist.
Point Blank was a revelation when it first came out in 1967 as 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, inter-cutting, unique camera composition to create the paranoid universe Walker travels in attempting to collect the $93,000 owed him. Despite Point Blank having it visual cores in the world of art house cinema, it was and remains a perfect neo-noir thriller.
In 1999, the film was needlessly remade with Mel Gibson as Parker/Walker, only now he’s called Porter. In comparing the two films, Payback plays out more straightforward, and certainly more sadistically violent, though Point Blank was considered violent for its time. Payback is filled with the over top gratuitous movie violence that in real life no one could live through, yet Gibson’s Porter somehow does. Gibson’s Porter is less anti-hero than a crude gorilla dressed up in false modern day movie cool. The film as a whole has no heart or soul. It’s mindless pulp, a cartoon. Stick with Point Blank.
If you like Lee Marvin you may want to read author Dwayne Epstein’s biography on the actor, Lee Marvin: Point Blank. I interviewed the author right after the book was published, You can read the interview here.
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