“The current cycle of crime films is a vicarious way to participate in the crime wave without committing a crime. That feeling is latent within each of us. Everybody wants to get even with somebody.” – Lee Marvin
Lee Marvin was a World War II veteran that utilized acting as a way of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. For him, it was a cathartic experience and this was particularly true with Point Blank (1967), a stylish crime film that bridged the gap between classic film noir and neo-noir. This adaptation of the 1962 Donald E. Westlake novel The Hunter also marked a close collaboration between Marvin and then-up-and-coming British filmmaker John Boorman, realizing that this film was a personal passion project for an actor whom used his clout within Hollywood to push this very experimental effort through the system.
The film begins jarringly with Walker (Marvin) shot and left for dead in Alcatraz Island, wondering how he got there. The rest of the film is an audacious collection of fragmented memories from the past mixed with the present as he exacts revenge on his partner-in-crime, Mal Reese (John Vernon) – and his duplicitous wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) – whom set him up. This is summed up beautifully in a visual metaphor early on of Walker viewed through a screen door that is initially out of focus, only to become clear. It’s all done in a way that suggests an extremely subjective view of what happened – that of Walker – as evident in odd, out of context scenes like a crowded party where Mal physically tackles and hysterically begs Walker to pull the ill-fated heist job.
Logically, how could Walker, shot twice at point blank range, survive the blood loss and swim back to civilization – a feat that was rarely achieved by perfectly healthy inmates? Logic dictates that he died on Alcatraz and the scenes set in the present only exist in his mind just before death. Point Blank isn’t necessarily concerned with logic but with inner workings of a dying man. To that end, we get a haunting image of Walker wounded, wandering the empty spaces of Alcatraz.
This is the only the beginning of the many bold, stylistic choices Boorman makes. There’s the establishing shot of Walker purposefully striding down a corridor, the sound of his footsteps continuing to play over a montage of his Lynne waking up, getting dressed and going about her day until he comes bursting through their front door, gun in hand, ready to kill Mal. It’s a New Wave aesthetic married to Marvin’s no-nonsense persona with exciting results.
As the film progresses, more of Walker’s backstory is fleshed out as he plays back in his mind. His friendship with Mal, courting Lynne and how they fell in love. This is all conveyed in a radical editing scheme that plays around with time. One moment, Walker is shoot up he and his wife’s empty bed. The next moment, he wakes up and Lynne is on the bed, dead from an overdose. Then, he wakes up again and the bed has been stripped, the body gone with only a white cat remaining. How long has he been asleep? How much time has passed? Boorman captures the unusual nature of time passing in one’s mind, It jumps around and isn’t always linear.
In a stylistic nod to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), Walker goes looking for Mal in a nightclub, rife with psychedelic imagery, and an energetic rhythm and blues band playing in the background. Like, in Blowup with the Yardbirds, it is an audio-visual assault on the senses as we get close-ups of the singer, a patron enthusiastically enjoying the music, and Walker bathed in phantasmagoric lights. Even the fights are chaotic as he is attacked by two thugs in the nightclub. It is a knockdown, drag out fight complete with dirty shots done to put a man down and keep him down. By the end, Walker is a disheveled, triumphant mess.
For a film obsessed with death it isn’t relentlessly grim. There are amusing set pieces: Walker interrogates a car salesman with knowledge of Mal’s whereabouts by taking out one of his cars – and wrecking it while he’s in it – all the while one of his dealership’s commercials plays on the radio. This is an amusing, cheeky bit of humor that lightens things up briefly.
At the time, the presence of the Organization eschewed the traditional, family-based organized crime often depicted as the Mafia in many crime films for a corporate mentality. In Point Blank, there is no longer one figurehead controlling everything, rather a faceless collection of people – and Walker works his way up the corporate criminal ladder to get his money. Their solution to dealing with him? Pay him off. The amount he wants is chump change in the large scheme of things. For him – it is a matter of principal carried to an extreme. The Organization can’t understand why he only wants $93,000. What does he really want? For him it is personal; for them it is just another business transaction. His fight is man against system. For all of their so-called sophistication and fancy digs, they are still simple crooks obsessed with money.
John Vernon plays Mal with perfect, icy, reptilian charm. He’s an arrogant crook now that he’s advanced up the ladder in the Organization, only out for himself. Vernon oozes smug superiority, also used effectively in later films like Animal House (1978).
Angie Dickinson plays Walker’s beautiful sister-in-law Chris who helps him in his revenge mission. The actress has an excellent scene where, upset at her life needlessly put in danger, finally explodes on Walker, battering him with a barrage of slaps and punches, which he just stands there and takes until she finally runs out of energy. Dickinson gives everything she has in this scene and plays well off of Marvin’s remorseless crook.
Lee Marvin certainly has the steely-determination-of-a-man-bent-on-revenge look down cold – no one has done it better. There’s more to it, however, as he delivers a minimalist performance with a complexity in how he conveys so much through a look or through body language. There is the haunted, defeated look on Walker’s face after surviving being shot and left for dead by Mal, or his body language that conveys the same vibe. He’s a physically and emotionally wounded man, adrift in life. He is also able to convey the notion that there is more going on behind his eyes, that he is always thinking and planning what to do next. There are also significant stretches in scenes where Marvin says nothing, allowing the other actor to say everything. He’s a gracious performer and one with an economic style. There are no wasted looks or lines of dialogue in Point Blank – everything he says or does means something.
After the commercial failure of big budget movies like Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Hollywood studios began entertaining the idea of cashing in on the popularity of modestly budgeted “art house” films from Europe. Hollywood producers started looking in London as there was a notion that younger European directors knew how to appeal to an audience. Producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler saw British director John Boorman’s first film Catch Us If You Can (1965), and set up a meeting between him and Lee Marvin while the actor was making The Dirty Dozen (1967), and pitched him the idea for Point Blank. The actor was interested. The two men stayed in contact, working out the details, including setting up a meeting between them, several film producers, the head of MGM, and Hollywood agent Meyer Mishkin. At the time, Marvin had enough clout in the industry to have final say over crew and cast selection, which he surprisingly gave to the director. Boorman remembered, “Making my first picture in Hollywood, I was fortunate enough to have the gift of freedom. And he backed me all the way with a belief and loyalty that was inspiring.” This was quite a leap of faith on the actor’s part as this was only the director’s second film and first one for a Hollywood studio starring a movie star.
David and Rafe Newhouse faithfully adapted the Donald Westlake novel but Boorman and Marvin found their screenplay to be mediocre and cliché-ridden, although liked the idea of the protagonist’s pointless quest for revenge. Boorman felt that Walker “had been emotionally and physically wounded to a point where he was no longer human [and] that this made him frightening, but also pure.” Marvin agreed and told Boorman that he’d only make the film if they tossed the script out the window and started over. The actor had a limited time of availability and to save time, had the screenwriting, production design, and casting occur simultaneously.
Boorman hired BBC colleague Arthur Jacobs to rewrite the script. In four weeks, he wrote it and then rewrote it completely. He and Boorman wanted to do “…something completely fresh. We wanted to make a film that was a half reel ahead of the audience, that was the whole idea.” Jacobs wrote a second version that was an amalgamation of phone conversations and letters between the two men. With each subsequent draft they cut out dialogue – the final draft was a lean 92 pages long.
Jacobs went to San Francisco for the first two weeks of shooting and wrote a completely new beginning and ending. At the end of the day, Boorman would consult with Marvin and found his responses were “always allusive, oblique. He leapt from metaphor to metaphor, and when he was drinking, the leaps got wider.” Marvin’s drinking was legendary and Boorman observed, “I would follow him as far as I could, and there was always wisdom there, deep dark thought that touched on our enterprise – but beyond a certain level of vodka, he sailed out on his own into deeper waters where no mortal could follow.”
During filming, Marvin managed to confine his drinking to weekends, starting in on Friday afternoons as he finished his last shot of the week. That being said, the actor knew when to use it for his own advantage. He looked out for Boorman during filming. One night, the director couldn’t figure out what the shot should be for one of the Alcatraz scenes. Sensing he was in trouble, Marvin faked a drunken outburst, which gave Boorman time to figure things out. “I went over and told Lee I was ready. He made an immediate and total recovery and we made the scene and the day.”
According to co-star Angie Dickinson, Boorman and Marvin “were constantly working on the script,” and found the production, “constantly challenging.” The director found his lead actor, “endlessly inventive, constantly devising ways to externalize what we wanted to express.” Despite being given complete creative control, the director was still worried that the studio would try to recut Point Blank and shot as little footage as possible so that it couldn’t be dramatically changed. He even stopped filming in the middle of a line of dialogue where he knew there would be a cut so there would be no other choice in post-production.
Several of the film’s scenes were drawn from Marvin’s own life, like Lynne’s suicide mirrored his live-in girlfriend Michele Triola’s suicide attempt. The scene where Mal tackles a drunken Walker and begs him to a pull heist job was based on an incident in a Malibu bar where a drunken Marvin was approached by a friend who demanded he loan him money. Looking back at the film years later, Marvin acknowledged how personal it was: “That was a troubled time for me, too, in my own personal relationship, so I used an awful lot of that while making the picture, even the suicide of my wife.” Boorman saw Marvin as a man wracked with guilt:
“The young Marvin, wounded and wounding, brave and fearful, was always with him. The guilt at surviving the ambush that wiped out his platoon hung to him all his days. He was fascinated by war and violence, yet the revulsion he felt for it was intense, physical, unendurable.”
After assembling a rough cut of the film, Boorman was advised to show it to Margaret Booth, head of the studio’s editing department and a legend that had started in the silent era as well as Louis B. Mayer’s editor of choice. She had a notorious reputation for re-editing films she felt weren’t good enough, but after screening Point Blank only offered a few minor suggestions. The film was then shown to chief executives who did not understand it and called for reshoots. Booth defended the film defiantly and it was released without any further edits.
Point Blank is one of the most fascinating cinematic laments of a crook’s troubled past ever put on film. It is full of visual echoes, with gestures that occur in the present, mirroring a past event, like the way Walker opens a curtain in a room or makes love to Chris like he did with her sister. These are echoes that exist in his mind. The film ends on a deliciously ambiguous note: does Walker get the money? Is he still alive? Did any of this really happen? The last we see of him is disappearing into the shadows of Alcatraz, which begs the question, did he ever leave?
Boorman, John. Adventures of Suburban Boy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2004.
Epstein, Dwayne. Lee Marvin: Point Blank. Schaffner Press, Inc. 2013.
Farber, Stephen. “The Writer II: An Interview with Alexander Jacobs.” Film Quarterly. Winter 1968-1969.
Hoyle, Brian. The Cinema of John Boorman. Scarecrow Press. 2012.
“Playboy Interview: Lee Marvin.” Playboy. January 1969.