Point Blank Review

Point Blank begins with two gunshots. Entirely appropriate, because this film blows apart mainstream American filmmaking in a way which was revolutionary back in 1967 and still looks pretty radical now. John Boorman, in his first American film, begins with a perfectly straightforward narrative, based on a novel by Richard Stark - The plot is incredibly simple. Walker (Marvin), a hired thug, is double-crossed, shot and left to die in a deserted Alcatraz prison by his associate Mal Reese (Vernon) and his wife Lynne (Acker). Apparently surviving the experience, Walker escapes from the island and begins a process of revenge with one simple motive - to recover the $93,000 which is owed him. However, Boorman refuses to treat it as a simple action movie, beginning by breaking the narrative into pieces to create a phantasmagoria of insinuations and implications that fundamentally undermine notions of genre and heroism. Later on, when the storytelling becomes more conventional, Boorman’s stylistic flourishes ensure that Point Blank remains a film unlike any other.

This review contains spoilers for the film. Please proceed down to the review of the disc to avoid these

In its essentials, Point Blank is what we might describe as a post-noir. It takes the thematic elements of film noir – the amoral universe, the isolation of the hero, the nihilistic sense of despair and the yearning for moral certainties – and places them in a completely different context. For one thing, it’s shot in gorgeously rich and heavily stylised colour by the great Philip Lathrop. For another, the film is never remotely claustrophobic or expressionist – instead of the locations bearing down on the characters there is a constant feeling of light and space, reinforced by the spectacular Los Angeles locations. Yet the noir elements refuse to lie in the background. Walker’s perpetual struggle to comprehend his surroundings and situation makes him a classic noir hero (or perhaps protagonist would be a better word) and his inability to entirely connect links him to both classic noir characters such as Robert Ryan’s Jim Wilson in On Dangerous Ground and Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past, as well as post-noir characters like J.J.Gittes and Harry Caul.

In the commentary track, Boorman refers to his use of the Arthurian legend and it’s an interesting way of looking at the film. Walker is a fallen knight searching for his holy grail – the money – in order to bring back stability to his corrupt world but unlike his Arthurian forebears he realises during the course of the film that his world is irretrievably lost. The overwhelming irony of Walker's search for the money is that, even if it was there for him to take, he wouldn't know what to do with it. He is defined by the search and once the search is over, the film ends. We see something similar in Arthur Penn's Night Moves which ends at the point where Gene Hackman's Harry Moseby has all the answers but discovers that they are meaningless when you never really understood the questions.

The idea of the fallen knight is particularly appropriate because to some extent, this is a film about Lee Marvin and he’s used by Boorman in a way which is very unusual. Most directors approach Marvin through his reputation as a booze-swilling tough guy and, particularly in his fallow mid-1970s period, Marvin lives down to their expectations. But Boorman sees through this to the man beneath the myth. As Walker, Marvin is huge and tough but he's also weirdly vulnerable and imbued with an inner sadness which makes him a good deal more than the avenging thug which he might have been in other hands. There are moments when Walker simply sits there looking hopelessly lost which sum up the essential futility of his quest. The line which everyone remembers – when asked by Lynne’s sister Chris (Dickinson) “What’s my last name”, he replies “What’s my first name” – marks him out as an essentially tragic character and his sense of confusion when told that the money doesn’t exist – Carroll O’Connor’s mob boss informs him “I got $11 in my pocket” – in a form which he can take makes him poignantly absurd. When Chris breaks down and starts attacking him with her fists, he simply stands there, stolid and unemotional, until she exhausts herself. What else can he do? It's not unintentional that the ending, when Walker seems to be controlling events for a short while (and the money appears to turn up), seems particularly unreal.

The games with narrative time are apt because, like many of Boorman's films up to and including The Tailor of Panama, this is partially a study of the ways in which people are broken by time and left with a profound sadness for the past and things done or undone. Boorman’s heroes are often men out of their time with nothing left to lose – and if they don’t begin that way, they frequently come to the realisation by the final reel – and Walker is one of the most memorable. The editing style – jagged, fragmentary – reflects his state of mind, particularly in the opening half hour of the film. But Walker is more than simply a man out of time, he’s a man who gradually loses his identity the closer he gets to fulfilling his pointless quest. He begins to take on the colours of his surroundings and eventually fades into the background. It’s notable, incidentally, that Boorman manages the neat trick of ensuring that this lost soul never actually kills anybody. People die but it’s often despite Walker’s efforts and not because of them. Walker is, ultimately, impotent and ineffectual. This is, ironically, what makes him a good deal more sympathetic and likeable than he perhaps should be. He’s not a Charles Bronson figure dispensing justice in all directions. He’s a pawn in a game which is controlled by forces beyond the edges of the frame. The same could be said of other Boorman protagonists; the city boys playing river gods in Deliverance; Father Lamont trapped between the symbiotic forces of God and Pazuzu in Exorcist II: The Heretic; Merlin struggling to define himself in the period between magic and reason in Excalibur.

Many words have been wasted in trying to answer a question which Boorman deliberately refuses to answer – is this simply Walker’s fantasy as he lies dying on the stone floor of Alcatraz? Some critics very smugly assure us that it has to be – they tell us that plot details don’t make rational sense otherwise, that people can’t survive the swim from Alcatraz to the mainland, that Walker “resembles a walking corpse”. But if the filmmaker refuses to pin this down – as Boorman does once again on the commentary - then who are we to second-guess him? It seems to me that the question is irrelevant. The film takes place in Walker’s mind and we see everything from his privileged, if splintered, point of view. Perhaps this is a fever dream in the moment of dying, perhaps it’s a fable in which realism isn’t the prevailing factor, perhaps we’re simply in the focalisation of a man who no longer understands either himself or his surroundings. There’s no question that Walker is descending into some kind of underworld, accompanied by the ambivalent figure of Yost (Wynn), but I don’t think this has to necessarily mean he’s dreaming. There are many people walking around who are spiritually dead but forced to go on living day in and day out. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t know – and I don’t trust anyone who thinks he does know.

This is one reason why Point Blank is such a rich film and so rewarding to watch again and again. Boorman suggests so much yet tells so little and every viewer is required to come to his or her own interpretation of the film. For me, it’s a tragedy about a broken man defined solely in terms of his quest for answers. For other people, it’s an absurdist comedy or an exciting revenge picture. Whatever you think of it, it’s impossible to deny the sheer thrill of watching something so brilliantly well made, the product of MGM in the last few days before the barbarians invaded. Every element is in place for a classic studio picture and Boorman uses these resources to undermine the expectations of both studio and audience. He brought the methods of French filmmakers such as Godard and Resnais slap bang into the middle of the American mainstream and, as such, was hugely influential on what followed. It seems to me that Point Blank is just as influential a film as Bonnie and Clyde in defining what followed – comparable in its brutality to Penn’s film and considerably more adventurous in narrative technique. It’s a great movie.

The Disc

We’ve waited an eternity for Warners to release Point Blank on DVD but the wait has been worthwhile. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is very good indeed. The most important elements – contrast and colour – are particularly impressive. Indeed, the colour palate which is at the heart of the film is represented beautifully. There is some artifacting in places but given the detail and richness of the transfer I don’t think this is a major problem. Grain is certainly present but fans of the movie will be pleased to note that this gives it a suitably film-like appearance. I’m becoming more and more dubious about transfers which are rendered preternaturally smooth. I want a little bit of roughness here and there. It’s a fine line to walk but I think, most of the time, Warners get it just about right.

Thankfully, the mono soundtrack has been faithfully transferred to disc and it sounds superbly clear and crisp. Walker’s footsteps travelling down that seemingly endless corridor have never sounded so good.

This release isn’t packed with extras but the main bonus feature is excellent. It’s a commentary track in which John Boorman is paired with Steven Soderbergh – who did similar duty with Mike Nichols on Paramount’s Catch-22 disc. Soderbergh is a huge fan of the film and prompts Boorman to come up with some fascinating stories and many details about his intentions and the experience of making the film. Admittedly, the younger director is a bit puppyish in his enthusiasm for the film but the results are generally fascinating. It’s notable that Boorman refuses to be pinned down about some of the more controversial points about the film and, in my opinion, he’s quite right to be evasive. Explaining Point Blank would be as pointless as providing a plot summary of “Finnegan’s Wake”.

We also get two short period-pieces; twin documentaries called “The Rock” which are about the shooting of the film and the history of Alcatraz. These are interesting and engaging, telling you a lot about how MGM were trying to sell a film which they didn’t quite understand. The same goes for the theatrical trailer.

The film is fully subtitled for the hard of hearing but the commentary and documentaries are not.

To some extent, this is a missed opportunity and it would be nice to see Warners giving this wonderful movie the full 2-disc special edition treatment. But the quality of the transfer and the commentary are enough to make this an essential DVD.

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