*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 29 – Point Blank


Point Blank

29: POINT BLANK: 1967. Director: John Boorman. US. Crime drama. Lee Marvin. Angie Dickinson. Keenan Wynn. Carroll O’Connor. John Vernon.
Producer: Judd Bernard and Robert Chartoff. Scriptwriter: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse, loosely based on the 1963 crime noir pulp novel The Hunter, by Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). Editor: Henry Berman. Screen-time: 92 minutes. Original MGM budget: $2million. Actual budget: $2.5Million. Box office takings US and Canada only: $9million. Despite this, it was not regarded as a success at the time, but is now a cult classic.
This was British-born director John Boorman’s first Hollywood movie. He was born in 1933 at Shepperton, then Middlesex. He and Lee Marvin met in the UK while Marvin was filming war movie The Dirty Dozen (1967, with Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland, at MGM’s British studio). Marvin invited Boorman to Hollywood, and the two subsequently became life-long friends. Marvin was even godfather to Boorman’s son, Charley Boorman (born 1966), the actor, television presenter, travel writer and motorbike enthusiastic. After Point Blank, John Boorman directed Marvin’s next war movie, Hell in the Pacific (1968, with Japanese actor Tohir? Mifune). Boorman’s later films include Deliverance (1972, starring John Voight and Burt Reynolds); the rather wacky sci-fi fantasy Zardoz, with Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling (1974); Exorcist II: The Heretic, with Linda Blair and Richard Burton (1977); and the comedy war drama Hope and Glory (1987). Currently his filmography is 1965 to 2019.
Again we have Chris Petit writing a review in the Time Out Film Guide: “One of the definitive films to emerge from Hollywood in the late ’60s, this hard-nosed adaption of Ricard Stark’s The Hunter owes much to the European influences that Boorman bought with him from England. People have noted the influence of Resnais behind the film’s time lapses and possible dream setting, but Godard’s Alphaville offers a more rewarding comparison. Both films use the gangster/thriller framework to explore the increasing depersonalisation of living in a mechanical urban world. Just as Constantine’s Lemmy Caution was a figure from the past stranded in a futuristic setting, so Marvin’s bullet-headed gangster is an anachronism from the ’50s transported to San Francisco and LA of the ’60s, a world of concrete slabs and menacing vertical lines. Double-crossed and left to die, Marvin comes back from the dead to claim his share of the money from the Organization, only to become increasingly puzzled and frustrated when he finds there is no money, because the Organization is the world of big business run by respectable men with wallets full of credit cards.” The, rather obscure, throwaway mention of ‘Resnais’, refers to the French film director/screenwriter, Alain Resnais (1922-2014), contemporary to, but not part of, the 1960s la nouvelle vague ‘New wave’, whose films were said to “explore the relationship between consciousness, memory and the imagination, and…was noted for deriving innovative formal structures for his narratives.”
Point Blank is sunlit film noir with a touch of Godard New Wave surrealism. I’ve not been a Lee Marvin fan – neither for nor against, and I’ve watched only a few of his films. Here he is Lee Marvin playing Lee Marvin the hard-nosed gangster and professional killer. What sets this apart from any other gangster/crime/revenge movie is its air of underlying mystery and ambiguity. Walker himself is an enigma. He seems to have no other name – not even to his sexy sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson). The film starts and ends at Alcatraz Island. Walker is shot following a stitch-up over heist loot by his friend Reese, who also then sleeps with Walker’s wife, Lynn. Everything that follows could be Walker extracting revenge on the ‘Organization’, while seeking to claim his share of the money due him, or it could all be Walker’s dream of revenge, the dream either of a dying man, or – like washed-up scriptwriter Joe in Sunset Boulevard – a man already dead. Is it real? If real, how did Walker survive, or swim from Alcatraz? We next see him on a San Francisco ferry or tourist boat as it passes the island. Thereafter, systematically, one by one, he eliminates members of the Organization who try to obstruct him, buy him off with packets of fake money, or attempt to assassinate him, although he seems strangely invincible now. He moves in and out of the shadows, and even perhaps through time – we see his wife Lynn’s apartment several times over, furnished, then unfurnished. He is not just the out-of-time, left-over 1940s/early 50s anachronism of Petit’s review above, but like a automaton, a pre-programmed robot, emotionless and single-minded. Only the bare outline of plot links it to the ‘Robert Stark’ (Donald E. Westlake) novel, The Hunter, which featured an unlikeable gangster/killer named Parker. The outcome is different, the ending less ambiguous. Originally written as a one-off, Westlake’s editor persuaded him to change the ending, and the character lived on, for another 23 novels over 46 years. The setting, too, has been moved from New York to LA, and again one thinks of the similar relocation of Spillane’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. The Marvin/Boorman movie is a visual film of memorable set-pieces – of Marvin taking the crooked car salesman for a ‘test drive’, pre-seat-belts, and smashing up the vehicle under the flyover; Marvin and Angie Dickinson looking at Reese’s rooftop penthouse suite through the tourist telescope; Marvin at the LA River concrete drainage channel, made famous by the 1954 science fiction movie Them! Then there is Dickinson in seductive mode, having sex with Reese as a distraction for Walker to sneak up on him in the bedroom. In the cinema version I recollect seeing she wore red panties. In the television broadcast version that was edited out, but at least one other version has her scurrying naked out of the bed as Walker threatens Reese with a gun. Walker doesn’t actually intentionally kill anyone, as I recollect – unlike Westlake’s murderous thug. Instead, Walker set up the bad guys to kill each other, in the mistaken guise of trying to kill him. As for Reese – one time friend, who took both his money and his wife (she took an overdose soon after Walker reappears) – he goes tumbling over the parapet of his penthouse terrace, landing on the roof of a passing car.
With Carter eliminated by a sniper at the LA river, the next in the chain of command, Brewster, arranges with his superior, Fairfax, for a money drop at Alcatraz. It is another set-up, and the sniper shoots Brewster instead of Walker, who remains out of sight, in the shadows. As he dies Brewster reveals Fairfax’s true identity of Yost, who then steps forward, claiming he has used Walker to eliminate troublesome underlings, and offers a partnership. The movie ends with Yost leaving, the packet unopened, Brewster dead, Walker just a face in the darkness, before the camera pulls up and away, a night-time view of Alcatraz, back where we started. Even Boorman refused to explain or unravel the ambiguity. But this was very much Marvin’s movie also. At a pre-production meeting with studio executives, Marvin demanded complete control of the script and cost, then handing his authority over to Boorman, as director. But Marvin remained hands-on in shaping the picture and its central character. This was his creation, as much as Boorman’s. He was to appear in another 18 movies, but in the 1970s moved away from the tough bad-guy roles, his last role being in 1986.
Lee Marvin (1924-1987), after service in the Marines, 1942-45, in Asiatic-Pacific front, got his first acting break on stage in 1949, appeared on television in 1950, and his first film role in 1951. Thereafter, he moved, seemingly effortlessly, back and forth from film to television, appearing in numerous long-running series such as The Virginian, Dr Kildare, Wagon Train, Route 66, Dragnet, Bonanza, even in The Twilight Zone. From 1957-60 he played Detective Lieutenant Frank Ballinger in the NBC TV series M Squad, set in Chicago. Over the three seasons it featured Charles Bronson, James Coburn (who I always think is of the same ilk), Burt Reynolds, Leonard Nimoy (before he found fame in Star Trek), and Angie Dickinson – who would herself eventually star in a police TV series, as Sgt Suzanne ‘Pepper’ Anderson in Police Woman, 1974-78. In film, Marvin had a small part in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, with Spencer Tracey); Not as a Stranger (with Robert Mitchum, also 1955); I Died a Thousand Times (Jack Palance, 1956); Seven Men From Now (with Randolph Scott, again 1956); The Rock (Paul Newman, 1956); The Comancheros (1961, with John Wayne); The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, with Wayne and James Stewart); Donovan’s Reef (1963); top billing in The Killers (1964, with Ronald Reagan and Angie Dickinson); then comedy, Cat Ballou (1965, with Jane Fonda); Ship of Fools (1965, with Vivien Leigh); The Professionals (1966, with Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan). His 1970s period films were less successful, and he declined a role in Jaws (1975), apparently on the basis of upsetting his fishing friends. In 1983 he was in Gorky Park, with William Hurt, and his last movie was Delta Force, 1986, with Chuck Norris. He was married twice, to Betty Ebeling (1951-67), and Pamela Feeley (1970-87), while lived with Michelle Triola (1965-70).
Angie Dickinson (born Angeline Brown, 1931), continued to use her first married name, to Gene Dickinson, from 1952 to 1960. She later married musical composer/arranger Burt Bacharach (1965 to 1981). Her filmography was from 1954 to 2004. Her television appearances are from 1954 to 2009. As we can see from above, she and Lee Marvin had a history of performances together, perhaps the reason she got the part. The story goes that, whilst filming at Alcatraz, Angie and Sharon Acker (who played Lynne Walker) modelled fashion shoots for Life magazine.
I loved the movie even back when I first saw it, on original cinema release. Many critics at the time were less enthralled, or were simply baffled. Others were suitably impressed – “A brutal melodrama…intermittently dazzling.” – “Film noir to stylistic taste of European nouvelle vague.” – “Ignored in the 1960s, now regarded as the top film of the decade.” Another story is the studio executives wanted to do reshoots, but supervising editor Margaret Booth told John Boorman, “You touch one frame of this film over my dead body.” It is said many of the visual metaphors and colour tones were directly suggested by Lee Marvin himself. It is another time capsule of LA, but now in the 1960s.
Here are my comments as written 06/03/1988:
Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin (as ‘Walker’) and Angie Dickinson – I remember seeing this years ago at the time it first came out, but two of the most vivid memories of the film were either false or (more likely) for whatever reason edited out – in the penthouse scene Angie D. strips to her red panties as Walker’s latest victim Reeves prepared to seduce her, and when Reeves goes over the roof terrace we actually saw him hit the roof of a passing car in the street, and I recollect someone screaming…Even at the time I suspected that a body going it from however many floors up the penthouse was, would not be very solid on impact. In retrospect the film is rather ghastly and surrealistic. Is the whole thing a dream fantasy evoked in the last minutes of Walker’s life when shot down by Reese at the film’s beginning? Is he a ghost bent on vengeance, or did he really survive and swim back from Alcatraz? The film uses flashbacks, flashbacks on flashbacks, Walker moves in the shadows, a pro killer, but sometimes lost, directionless, really a puppet being manipulated by the mob to eliminate each other. This, we are told, is the time in American films when the so-called heroes got lost, killed or seem confused. It reflected the feeling of a nuclear age USA. Walker is a Mike Hammer type, but (despite the body count) the film lacks the mean nastiness of Kiss Me Deadly. The setting is L.A. again, but in colour and sunshine. We see downtown, high-rise hotels, the Hollywood hills and the famous storm-drains of the L.A. River – setting for Them! and several other movies, it seems. But overall a rather strange sense of nothing. Boorman, the producer, was British and another contemporary film very similar in mood (though not in content!) is Blow Up – in the same surrealistic mood, the same drifting anti-hero, the same casual sex.

Film 2022: Excalibur


Excalibur

I dunno. I enjoyed this film so much when I saw it in the cinema forty years ago, and again in later years when seen on television at least once, but this morning’s viewing was very different. Excalibur, an adaptation of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur directed by John Boorman, came over as a terrible mess, ill-lit, with implausible dialogue, at least one case of a WTF accent, and definitely overlong. Which latter was an irony in that my DVD was of an edited version, a thing of 134 minutes duration, as opposed to the film’s original 160 minute length.

Which was in itself somewhat confusing, as the edit, to get a PG rated Certificate, is supposed to be 119 minutes long, according to Wikipedia. Either way, the film struggled to hold my attention and I must have paused it nearly half a dozen times, not all of them to deal with a bit of a tummy bug.

The film’s inherent problem, which the script, by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, never even came close to surmounting, was that thestory of King Arthur and the legendary sword, Excalibur, is not a story, but a cycle. It’s a myth-cycle, the only serious British one around and, like similarly mythic cycles, such as the Norse myths, it is actually a series of stories, strung together like beads on a wire, with an ultimate progression but without the direct connective tissue between episodes that informs a story. As such, it bumbles along from tale to tale: Uther Pendragon rapes Igrayne under the disguise of her hudband, the Duke of Cornwall. Merlin takes away the baby, Arthur. Arthur is fostered by Sir Ector until he pulls the Sword from the Stone. Guinevere. Lancelot. Morgan le Fay, here called Morgana. Mordred. Throwing the sword back to the Lady of the Lake.

If you’re British and were fed these myths as an elevated form of fairy story, you know all these touchpoints, even if only from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, thugh for this version of the legendarium you can substitute the Carmina Burana for Bibbity Bobbity Boo. And Boorman ticks these off in more or less the order they crop up. This does to some extent dminish the dramatic tension one expects from a film, since the audience knows what they’re getting in advance. That was exactly the same for The Lord of the Rings, the difference being that Peter Jackson brought that to life and John Boorman, who ironically developed the look of the film out of an aborted wish to film Tolkien’s big book, doesn’t begin to do so.

Part of this is the uncertainty of tone throughout the film. It begins with a deeply unwise dimly lit introduction to Uther Pendragon, which is so dark that it’s very difficult, if not impossible at times, to work out what is actually happening. In fact, one of the few things that can be made out with any real clarity are the breasts of Katrine Boorman, playing Igrayne as she’s being shagged enthusiastically by Gabriel Byrne as Uther, in full armour. Even in 1981, and substantially more shallow then than now, this was so improbable – I mean, the discomfort, for him as well as her, as well as the lack of facility for fucking of doing it in body armour – that the reality of the film slipped sideways quite a bit. It must also be said that whilst these were breasts that were pleasant to view, they were the breasts of the Director and Co-scripter’s own daughter, which does cast something of a disturbing pall over the scene.

The armour is also a fundamental part of the film’s inability to decide on a consistent approach. Boorman is depicting a High Romance look, literally Knights in shining armour, full body, bright, bulky and a bit clunky, but instead of the elegance, fantasy and unhindred grace of the look, he layers this with mud and grime and blood, not to mention clumsy, staggering, visibly exhausting fights. Monty Python did this in their Holy Grail, but they were aiming at a deflating comic opposition, whereas Boorman isn’t directing a comedy.

Though you’d be forgiven for wondering as soon as Nicol Williamson turns up as Merlin. Dressed in blacked, with a close fitting silver skullcap he never takes off, stomping around on a staff topped by two stylised snakes, not to mention what looks like an oxy-acetylene torch in one night scene, Williamson is a joke from the moment he opens his mouth and starts talking in an accent that is by itself a tour of the regions, not to mention a collection of inflections, speeds and oral mannerisns that would have made him a shoo-in for a guest spot in The Goon Show, if that had still been going. Williamson sounds like someone who is making it all up as he goes along, whilst simultaneously being unable to believe what he’s being asked to say.

But that could be said for the whole film. There isn’t a line of dialogue that sounds as if it could be spoken by a normal human being, yet it also fails to convince as high fantasy by failing to make itself into a convincing alternative. And it should also be remarked that Nigel Terry, who plays Arthur from his teens to what should be his late fifties whilst being 35 himself, starts off with a comic West Country yokel accent that gradually flattens itself out the longer, and more ragged, the film becomes.

Given that this DVD is approximately 25 minutes shorter than the theatrical version I originally saw, there didn’t seem to be any holes in the ‘story’. The only thing I actually noriced that had been cut out was a brief shot of Helem Mirren’s breasts through a very translucent lace top in the scenewhere she, as Morgana, seduces her half-brother Arthur to conceive their incestuous son, Mordred (played as a young boy by another Boorman offspring, Charley).

I have to admit that the casting was good, full of young actors and actresses whose careers were just beginning. Not just Byrne and Mirren, but Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds and Patrick Stewart had roles to play, whilst Guenevere was played by the lovely Cherie Lunghi, who did her best with a role that was weak and wet, with the substance of tissue paper. And, when you could see it, the landscapes – in #ireland – were enjoyable, though the age of the print did suggest that if it was worth someone’s economic while to do so, which I doubt, it would greatly benefit from a digital remsastering.

No, what once attracted me to this film, has, with the exception of Mesdames Boorman, Lunghi and Mirren, wholly evaporated. The silliness of Williamson’s accent, his complete detachment from anything to do with the rest of the film, was criticised at the time, and now I can see how destructive it is to the appeal of what, it the right hands, could still make a bloody good epic film. Mr Jackson?