Towering visions: Point Blank

Films by Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and Nicolas Roeg all bear the influence of John Boorman’s strikingly modern 1967 thriller, says Geoff Andrew.

Geoff Andrew

Point Blank (1967)

Point Blank (1967)

Far be it from yours truly to take issue with another writer’s opinion of a film – as if I’d ever do such a thing! – and in fact I for the most part agree with Tom Huddleston’s very  favourable assessment, in Time Out, of the BFI rerelease of John Boorman’s classic Point Blank (1967). But I mention his review here because, intriguingly, it raises as its one reservation something which I happen to feel is one of the film’s great strengths.

Tom suggests that Boorman’s “New Wave-inspired direction” is a little overdone and so hasn’t aged well. Reading his review just minutes before I was about to start this piece, I found this interesting precisely because I was (and still am) going to suggest the exact opposite. To me, Point Blank still feels amazingly modern – which is both good, of course, and saddening, in that very few films made today feel as sharp, brave, urgent, original and properly thought through.

The fragmented narrative, with its sudden, sometimes disorienting jumps back and forth in time and place, the very expressive use of sound, the carefully angular ’Scope compositions and the subtle colour coding – all these, far from being superfluous stylistic flourishes, are a wholly integral part of the film. They’re as essential to its mood and meaning as Lee Marvin’s widely acclaimed performance – which, with respect to Tom, is just as stylised as anything else in the movie.

And therein may lie the key to the film. As Walker, the old-school hood left to die in Alcatraz by his treacherous partners in crime, Marvin does an awful lot of what might be called ‘understatement’; he says very little, listens and observes a lot, and mostly has a profoundly impassive expression on his face. Indeed, it’s only in his short bursts of violent, vengeful action against the folks who stole his share of the loot from a heist that he seems to come alive.

Otherwise, the aptly named Walker (he’s Parker in Donald Westlake’s source novel, The Hunter) gives the impression of being a dead man walking. Bear that in mind when you watch the movie. Basically, the film’s various sonic and visual elements, and the way they are conjoined to create the narrative, mirror Walker’s thinking as he embarks on – or plans? – his rough quest for justice.

Shot and unconscious at the film’s very beginning, he needs to try and make sense of what’s happened to him and why; hence the initial plethora of shots, like jigsaw pieces awaiting repositioning so that a clearer picture will emerge. As the film proceeds, it gradually becomes more linear, albeit still with strange, dreamlike disjunctions – with Walker suddenly just turning up at the right place, as if out of nowhere – which make one wonder whether what we’re seeing is ‘real’ or simply taking place in his murderous mind.

Which means, of course, that Point Blank, for all its expertly staged action sequences, is no ordinary crime thriller. Indeed, it has at least as much in common with Citizen Kane (1941) or Last Year in Marienbad (1962) as it has to do with crime films like Little Caesar (1931), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) or even Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Point Blank (1967)

Point Blank (1967)

The world it depicts is very clearly something filtered through the individual sensibility of its protagonist, a construct consisting of memories, fears, anxieties, desires and fantasies born of betrayal – which is why its portrayal of Los Angeles is one of the most memorably vivid and distinctive in all cinema. Boorman was lucky enough to bring an outsider’s eye to bear on Tinseltown, its environs and its culture. In places the locals may have taken for granted – the storm drain, for example – and in the southern Californian style of corporate business practice, the writer-director found a strangeness suggestive even of dream.

That’s why Point Blank was groundbreaking. In its play with time and place, subjectivity and politics (and yes, it does have a political dimension too!), it went beyond genre, and anticipated in various ways films like The Conformist (1970), The Godfather Part II (1974), Once upon a Time in America (1984) and Goodfellas (1990) – not to mention the collected works of Nicolas Roeg and Christopher Nolan.

Appropriately enough, the film itself feels timeless, as fresh today as when it first appeared. And because it’s not simply a genre film but something far more ambitious, complex and ‘different’, it’s complex and entertaining enough to amply reward repeated viewings. That’s what I call ageing well.

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