Point Blank (1967) starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson
What’s it about?
This John Boorman-directed adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s novel The Hunter features Lee Marvin as a heavily-built crook named Walker. His best buddy Mal Reese (John Vernon) persuades him and his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) to participate in a heist on a helicopter money drop-off due to take place on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. However, things take a violent turn when, rather than simply incapacitating the money men as initially agreed, Mal shoots them in cold blood. To make matters worse, he decides to turn the gun on Walker and leave him for dead, thus enabling him to take all of the money for himself.
By some miracle, our protagonist survives and manages to swim all the way back to shore. Flashing forward sometime later, a mysterious contact of his named Yost (Keenan Wynn) informs him that Mal has used the money to buy his way back into a crime syndicate known as The Organisation. Moreover, he reveals that Mal has moved in with Lynne. Understandably sore at losing both his share of the cash ($93,000) and the love of his life, he makes a beeline for her house in Los Angeles. He bursts through the door and into her bedroom - to empty several rounds into what is clearly an empty bed.
Lynne tells Walker that Mal has moved out months ago. She also reveals the circumstances that drew her towards a relationship with the latter behind his back. Unable to live with the fallout of her decision, she then commits suicide by overdosing with pills. Walker decides to continue his violent quest - for both revenge and his “rightful” share of the money.
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Why is it significant?
British director John Boorman got his big Hollywood break with this film, after befriending actor Lee Marvin on the set of The Dirty Dozen while it was shooting in London. While it wasn’t a major box office hit on release, its popularity has only grown over the years and it is now widely considered to be one of his finest films, as well as featuring one of Marvin’s most iconic roles. Boorman is known for his arthouse-influenced directorial approach. However, the results have tended to veer from brilliance (1972’s Deliverance) to unintentional hilarity (Zardoz from 1974, Exorcist II: The Heretic from 1977).
It is notable for being one of a string of American crime thrillers made from the mid-1960s to early-1970s which steadily upped the ante in terms of the level of graphic violence and brutality. These included Don Siegel’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers (1964) - featuring Marvin himself in his first starring role, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Peter Yates’s Bullitt (1968), William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971).
It was the first production to be allowed to shoot on the infamous Alcatraz Island, a former state penitentiary which was decommissioned around four years earlier on the 21st of March 1963. Its location, just over 2 km offshore from San Francisco, made it extremely difficult to escape from and thus ideal for housing some of America’s most notorious criminals such as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. 36 inmates in total made escape attempts and all but five have been accounted for as having failed, variously due to being recaptured (23), shot dead (6) or having drowned attempting the long swim to freedom (2). The remaining five had long been presumed to have drowned. However, some evidence has come to light more recently that at least two escapees (The Anglin brothers - John and Clarence) survived the experience and relocated to Brazil. Nonetheless, the fact that Marvin’s character (presumably) manages to swim from the island back to shore despite receiving two bullets is rather incredible.
The Hunter, the original novel by Donald E. Westlake (published under the pen name of Richard Stark) upon which Point Blank was based, was also adapted as the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback (1999). However, the latter is a rather less well-regarded version of the source material.
How does it hold up?
It could be argued that Point Blank is a case of style over content. After all, the script is rather generic antihero revenge potboiler stuff which is based around a rinse-repeat formula. Our protagonist roughs up guy A, who divulges information about guy B. He then locates and roughs up guy B, who divulges information about guy C… and so on, and so forth. Narrative-wise, it has some overlap in this respect the aforementioned Marvin-starring adaptation of The Killers. However, criticising it for its standard storyline would be to miss the point; the style IS the content.
The film has a distinctively dream-like feel to it. Indeed, some critics have read that it is all taking place inside Walker’s head as he lies dying on a bed in a disused cell. There are a lot of flashbacks which seem to occur randomly within scenes - e.g. a scene involving him making love with Angie Dickinson’s character is intercut with him imagining Mal doing the same with Lynne. Sound is often used to haunting effect - e.g. while an early sequence involving Walker making his way to visit Lynne intercuts shots of him walking down a colourful airport corridor to vignettes of the latter at home, the sound of his footsteps remain an intimidating constant feature of the soundtrack throughout. When various bottles of liquid are smashed in a bathroom, the camera zooms in on the different colours of liquid swirling together amid shards of broken glass while avant-garde noise plays over the top.
It conveys the discomforting feel of a man going through a state of shell-shock, and thus unable to process things in a rational manner. The trauma of the events that he has experienced keeps bleeding through into his relentless quest for $93,000 he believes he is due, making such a sum feel like paltry compensation for damage that will probably haunt him for the rest of his life (assuming that he does, indeed, live for much longer). Indeed, the hollow absurdity of his mission is further highlighted by the fact that, as he batters his way further and further up The Organisation’s food chain, the buck is continually passed onto the next man in line. It ultimately reaches the point where (in more ways than one) he is right back where he started.
One foot in arthouse, the other in pulp
Judging from my previous two paragraphs, you might be fooled into thinking that Point Blank is some kind of esoteric piece of work that can’t be enjoyed on a purely pulpy level. However, the film only spends a minority of its runtime being “arty” and the majority of it just being a satisfyingly violent action-thriller. There are standout scenes throughout: Michael Strong’s slimy car salesman is given the test drive of his life in a memorable freeway underpass smash-up, Angie Dickinson thumps and slaps the über-stoic Marvin over and over until she is completely worn down, and one of the major bad guys ends up falling naked from his top-floor penthouse onto the tarmac below. Even a fairly standard bit of fisticuffs in a nightclub becomes immeasurably more interesting than it might have been - due to the fact that it is framed against some psychedelic back projections and soundtracked by a funky black singer who invites his predominantly white audience to participate in a singalong.
Marvin is as laconic and larger-than-life as he ever was on screen. However, he is also matched by a lively rogue’s gallery of character actors playing the various villains whom he makes his way through as the film takes its inexorable course. John Vernon plays one of those charismatically arrogant antagonists which would become his stock and trade. While he is given an “introducing” credit here he had, in fact, been working as a screen actor for over a decade prior to this film, albeit mostly on television. Carroll O’Connor is also a standout as an unusually jovial man named Brewster from high up in The Organisation.
Point Blank is one of those classic, iconic movies which begs to be watched again and again, if only to savour its memorable highlights and ponder, deep down, what the hell it all actually means.
Runtime: 92 mins
Dir: John Boorman
Script: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse, from a novel by Donald E. Westlake
Starring: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, Michael Strong, John Vernon, Sharon Acker