Point Blank (1967)

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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. Continue reading

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Lee Marvin: Point Blank – Interview with Author Dwayne Epstein – Part Two

If you have not read part one of my interview with Dwayne Epstein, author of the new biography Lee Marvin: Point Blank, just click right here and you would be directed right to it. The book is available at Barnes and NobleAmazon and bookstores everywhere. In part two we discuss “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Killers,” Robert Aldrich, Angie Dickinson, The Inglorious  Bastard Sons Lee Marvin and much more.

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John: Let’s jump over to John Wayne. They made three films together; two of course were with John Ford. How did they get along?

Dwayne: Oh, they got along very good, they liked each other. In terms of their persona and screen chemistry, Lee Marvin’s first wife told me something great. That if you watch them on screen, “they both do what they do, they have their own thing, but,” she said, “John Wayne was like a big old bear, the way he appeared on screen, and the way he acted. Lee was more like a panther; he was sleek, he could pounce on a moment’s notice with coiled energy and with that in mind they kind of danced around each other and they had that great chemistry.” I like that image of them, one’s a bear and one’s a panther. They got along great. They really liked each other. There’s a story that didn’t make it into the book that I can tell you real quick. This was told to me by Kennan Wynn’s son, Ned Wynn or Tracy Wynn, I don’t remember which one because I interviewed them both. Anyway, Kennan Wynn was Lee Marvin’s best friend. When he was between films and not having a project lined up; he would drink and he and Kennan Wynn were drinking buddies. I believe it was Tracy who told me that that generation of men were pretty tough and he said, “John Wayne was probably the toughest of them all. My father and Lee got drunk and went down to Mexico and partied on John Wayne’s yacht and John Wayne took it to a point and then said, ‘that’s it’ and threw them off the yacht and into the Gulf of Mexico.” He only took crap from them up to a point. Continue reading

Lee Marvin: Point Blank – Interview with Author Dwayne Epstein – Part One

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According to biographer Dwayne Epstein, Lee Marvin made it possible for future action stars like Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood to blast their way on to the screen. It was Marvin who brought the level of violence to a new and realistic level that had never been seen before. Think Vince Stone in “The Big Heat” when he tosses a hot pot of boiling coffee into Gloria Grahame’s face. Oh sure, there was screen violence before, Paul Muni machine gunning his way to the top of the crime world in “Scarface” and Cagney blasting his way through “The Public Enemy,” famously smashing a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face. But Lee Marvin made it look real and dangerous, it was never fun.

The Big heat1I recently had the opportunity via telephone to interview Mr. Epstein, author of the new Lee Marvin biography “Lee Marvin: Point Blank.” The interview was conducted on March 5th.  As you read you will see Mr. Epstein is admittedly a big fan. That said the book is a well balanced look, both public and private, at the rugged actor and World War II Marine veteran. His filmography reads like a list of essentials. A partial list includes “Bad Day at Black Rock,” The Big Heat,”  “The Wild One,” “Attack,” “Violent Saturday,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Killers,” “Cat Ballou,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Professionals,” “Point Blank” and “The Big Red One” among many others. Continue reading

The Big Heat (1953) Fritz Lang

By 1953, Fritz Lang’s career was a rocky road forced to make small studio or independent films one after another. He also spent the last few years clearing himself of accusations, made by the House of Un-American Activities, he was a communist. By the time he signed with second tier Columbia studio the commie accusations had been cleared and Lang was heading toward the final phase of his career in America before heading back to the homeland, Germany.

With Glenn Ford, a poor man’s James Stewart, in the lead, Lang was still floating in less than grade A film waters. At this point in his career Ford was mostly making programmers or second features, films like  “Plunder in the Sun,” “Time Bomb,” “The Redhead and the Cowboy,” “Framed” and “The Undercover Man” with the occasional more expensive production  added in (“Gilda”). Quality varied, some were good, some not, most as mentioned were not “big” pictures. Columbia did not consider, “The Big Heat,” a major motion picture.

“The Big Heat” is based on a serialized, in the Saturday Evening Post, novel by William P. McGivern, a novelist (Odds Against Tomorrow, Rogue Cop and Shield for Murder), screenwriter (The Wrecking Crew, Brannigan) and TV writer (Kojack, Adam-12, Banyon) with a screenplay by Sidney Bohem (Side Street, Union Station, Violent Saturday). Continue reading

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) John Sturges

Spencer Tracy can act better than most others with one arm tied behind his back! He proves this in John Sturges terrifically well paced and tense film, “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Sturges paints a picture of a town that is barren, both physically and psychology. It’s a town with a dark secret cancer called hatred and it is slowly eating away at everyone in it.  Into this dust bowl comes John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a one armed stranger dressed in a black suit and tie which only accentuates his difference even more from the rest of the town. Like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in “High Noon,” or Alan Ladd in “Shane,”  Tracy’s John Macreedy is one lone man who has to face evil alone. The film takes place shortly after the end of World War II when, for some, the Japanese were still seen as the enemy. Racial hatred simmers underneath the surface of the entire town. Like most racists it is their own fear and insecurities that drive them to action.

Black Rock is a small dusty whistle stop of a town where the railroad (the Streamline) always passes through, never stopping to pick up or drop off anyone. This time, the first in four years, it does stop and the folks in town are suspicious as to who this stranger is and what he wants. Small towns can be curious little places where local folks remain distrustful of outsiders and the outside world. That’s the way it is in Black Rock, it’s an inhospitable desolate place, where it can be cold in many ways other than the weather. Continue reading

The Wild One (1953) Laslo Benedek

The Wild One may have been the first film to exploit the misunderstood youth vs. the establishment gap. As you watch the film you realized how ingrained so many of the images of Brando with his sideburns,  his leather jacket, jeans and a cap have become over the years. Before Wyatt and Billy in “Easy Rider, before Elvis in Jailhouse Rock and before James Dean in anything, the image of the young rebel without a cause was cemented in the 1953 Stanley Kramer production.

“What are you rebelling against, Johnny.”

“Whatta got.” he answers.

Under the layer of the post war white picket fence traditionalism of the Eisenhower years, the white collar, nine to five, man in the gray flannel suit conformity laid a slow ticking bomb that would explode into the youth culture revolution of the sixties. In New York’s Greenwich Village, artist like Jackson Pollack and DeKoonig were upheaving the status quo in the art world. Jack Kerouac and the Beats were on the road living and writing life’s experiences, the Weavers and other folk musicians were filling the coffee houses, white teenagers were beginning to listen on the radio to black music stations, and in Memphis a young white kid named Elvis signed a contract with Sun Records. Parents, glad the war was over were happy to sit at home with a fairly new invention called television watching and trying to emulate families, like Ozzie and Harriet, x they saw on the boob tube.

In New York in late December 1953 and in theaters across the country in 1954 a new picture premiered. The screen opens up on an empty country highway. The camera is low to the ground.  A written prologue appears saying what you are about to see really happened in a small town and the public needs to not let it happen again. Then we hear the voice, Brando’s voice, he says “it began for me on this road…it couldn’t happen again in a million years…Maybe I could have stopped it early. But once the trouble was on its way, I Just went with it.”

Slowly in the distance  we see a hazy vision and hear distance a roaring sound. As the visuals come closer, the camera becomes engulfed by forty to fifty members of a motorcycle gang. The bikes and its riders seemingly roaring over us. Leading the way in dark sun glasses and sideburns is Johnny Strabler (Brando).  The close up of Brando on his bike is the first of the many now iconic images of the brooding sullen itinerant rebel that have been embedded into  our pop culture consciousness.

The Wild One plays like a later day version of a western. A group of outlaws come into town and cause havoc. The town’s people decide to take things into their own hands when they believe one of the young women, in this case young Kathy Bleeker (Mary Murphy), has been assaulted. The town’s men beat Johnny up, however. he manages to get away and back to his cycle. Heading out of town, the vigilante crowd chases after him. A tire iron is thrown. It hits Johnny who falls from his cycle. The out of control bike hits and kills one of the kinder townsfolk. The county sheriff (Jay C. Flippen) and his men arrive and immediately arrest Johnny for murder. The townsfolk are so blood thirsty they are ready to practically send Johnny to the electric chair until it comes out that it was the throwing of the tire iron by one of their own town people that caused the death of the old man. The sheriff lets Johnny go, but not before spewing a morality lesson on the young delinquent.

If the young in the film are wild and rebellious, the adults are shown as violent reactionaries too willing to take the law into their own hands to fight for right, or at least their version of what’s right.

The Wild One is first film to directly deal with disaffected youth and the motorcycle culture. It was controversial for its time. Conservative groups saw the film as a plot to undermine America’s youth and fear grew in some towns that some youth gangs would imitate what they saw on screen. In England, the film was banned by the British censors and not released until 1968!

This was Brando’s fifth appearance on the screen and he acting is still powerful to watch even today. Just watch the little nuances in his performance. They fill the screen each second he is on screen. Brando agreed to do the film after reading the original script. Always on the side of the underdog he, along with producer Stanley Kramer, saw the film as an indictment on society’s response to the increasing problem of violence among the youth in America.

Problems with the film began after the script was first turned down as unacceptable by the Breen Office. The censors viewed the story as too sympathetic toward the motorcycle gang. Gang members and glorified and the violence was excessive. The script was changed most evident in the introductory narration Brando now had to say at the opening of the film where he would utter the words that this only happened once and could never happen again effectively obliterating  everything that followed.

The film was not a huge success at the time of its release but over the years has gained an influential reputation beginning with Brando’s wardrobe. That young Memphis singer with the odd name of Elvis found an image to go with his music, leather jacket sales exploded across the country and posters of Brando became best sellers.  Also in the cast was Lee Marvin, still in the early phase of his career. Here he appears as Chino the gang leader of a second gang. Many of Marvin’s parts at this time were brutal low life’s (The Big Heat, Shack Out on 101) though here there are bits of humor in his performance that are missing from just about anything else he did up to this time but  point to his comedic ability that would shine later in Cat Ballou.

The film was based on a real incident that happened in Hollister, California in 1947 over the 4th of July weekend. A story about the incident appeared in a 1951 issue of Harper’s Magazine called The Cyclist’s Raid by Frank Rooney. The screenplay was written by john Paxton and was directed by Laslo Benedek who previously worked with producer Stanley Kramer on the 1951 film version of Death of a Salesman.