Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Point Blank (1967) - Classic Film Review

John Boorman's Hypnotic Neo-Noir Rewards for Repeated Viewings
From the outset, Point Blank makes it clear that this isn't going to be a conventional crime movie.

Double-crossed by brother-in-arms Mal (John Vernon), Walker (Lee Marvin) is shot twice in the chest. As he falls against the decaying walls of a prison cell, recent events flash before his eyes.

They were hiding out on Alcatraz, the abandoned prison complex off the coast of San Fransisco. Mal's plan to audaciously steal laundered money from a covert drop on the island looks simple enough, until Mal gets trigger-happy and kills the goons instead of simply knocking them out.

Mal needs the money to pay off a debt to the mob. Only, once he gets to count the spoils, he finds it short and decides to keep Walker's share. So, in front of Walker's wife - also present at the caper - he shoots Walker, leaving him for dead. With Walker out of the way, Mal gets to take the whole pie.

Memories begin to overlap in Walker's dying mind. He falls against the wall, just as before - a sequence that will repeat several times.

Point Blank - The Main Plot

A year or two later, a tourist boat circles the penal isle. A tour guide gives a detailed account of the prison, including descriptions of escape attempts, back when the facility was in use. None of the escaped convicts were ever found, she says - such is the nature of the perilous waters surrounding the island, nobody was considered to survive; those that tried fleeing it's confines most likely got washed out to sea.

Against this narration, staccato shots of Walker appear, stumbling out into the murky sea, holding his chest. He wades waist-deep into the cold shoreline. Escape looks impossible. Yet, a cut back to the boat reveals Walker in the present, dressed in a suit, looking out to the island.
So begins Walker's quest for revenge; and as he works his way up the food chain of The Organisation, our perception of what has happened - and what will happen - is constantly challenged.

Fractured Storytelling

The innovative, fractured story presents characters both before and after the shooting at Alcatraz. A dreamlike quality prevails as Walker's memories come flooding back. We learn how his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker) became drawn initially to him, then to Mal - moving in with him after Walker was left for dead.

Later, her sister Chris (Angie Dickinson) enters the frame and characters begin to blur - in his memories, both he and Mal, Lynne and Chris appear to swap places with each other; Bodies press against each other at different times, either in drunken stupor or in coitus as roles, loves and loyalties continually shift.

Stark cinematography is carefully framed and blocked, showing California as a dusty, bleached landscape of concrete by day, or as bruised violet and magenta brickwork by night.

Shot in Metrocolor, the film cleverly resembles classic Film Noir; skin tones look like they are painted in, with colour drained out of everything else, save for careful colour pops.

When Dickinson is on screen, vibrant canary yellow outfits seem to radiate hues to the rest of the shot: suddenly, Walker is dressed in matching shades, and even a coin-operated telescope mirrors the colour.

Boorman punctuates the film with menace, even in what should be mundane scenes - one of many memorable shots has Walker marching down a long corridor, his footfalls striking like a metronome. As his flashbacks increase (sometimes, these seem to predict events), his steps echo like pistol shots.

One by one, Walker encounters the soldiers of The Organisation. Serendipity intervenes at several stages so that when bodies begin to fall, Walker is never the one with blood on his hands. He seems to witness events rather than influence them, an observer looking in. If Walker orchestrates the just desserts of his opponents, he is merely a guiding force.

A Challenging Finale (Contains Spoilers)

A tense finale places Walker in the exact location where events began. And yet, in the final shot of the movie (a pan up and across the bay), we observe Alcatraz on the horizon - suggesting events aren't what they seem at all.

The challenge then for the audience is to unravel what they've just seen. Did Walker ever leave Alcatraz in the first place? Is he some kind of avenging angel? Were the encounters all part of a dying man's fantasy?

Walker's only motivation seems to be to collect his share of the loot. So when it is finally laid in front of him, he doesn't take it. Just why he can't isn't made clear - but perhaps the offer of it is closure enough, an honour amongst thieves, the matter now laid to rest.

Summing Up

Point Blank was incredibly innovative, inspiring several other successful films to explore similar territory - most notably Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973), as well as Mike Hodges' Get Carter (1971).

Marvin is at the peak of his game here, delivering a performance that reveals some tenderness amongst all the hard-boiled stuff. One astonishing scene has Angie Dickinson literally attack him with repeated blows across the face and chest; he stands, impassive, like an oak. eventually, she collapses, exhausted. He goes to watch television.

This was Boorman's calling card to America - a Brit director who would go on to team up with Marvin again on Hell in the Pacific (1968), as well as shoot the seminal Deliverance (1972).

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