Wednesday, October 03, 2007

45. British director John Boorman's US film "Point Blank" (1967): Alienation at its best surfaces in a Hollywood action film

The toast of the Cannes festival awards ceremonies on three occasions, director John Boorman has made films best forgotten and films that are unforgettable. Point Blank belongs to the latter category. Many critics have dismissed it as a Hollywood B-grade action film. Evaluate it closely and you will spot a gem. Arguably Boorman has made three other major films--The General, Deliverance, and Hell in the Pacific, but this film had material--visual, aural and philosophical--that made it stand out among the Hollywood productions of its day. The film was remade recently as a Hollywood action film Payback, a version that did not urge the viewer to think beyond its gripping action.

I first saw this movie when I was in college in the Seventies. I viewed the film again in 2001. The power of the film was the same on my senses. Several reasons come up: British Director John Boorman was at his best trying to outdo Don Siegel's The Killers (1967)-which also stars Marvin and Angie Dickinson in somewhat similar roles, and was based on an Ernest Hemingway story. I will really be surprised if Boorman denies that he was not influenced by the Siegel/Hemingway movie.

Why did Point Blank make an impact on me? Was it Lee Marvin's raw machismo? No. It was Boorman, who gave cinema a brilliant essay on alienation. When Dickinson's Chris asks Marvin's Walker `What's my last name?' after a bout of sex and gets a repartee `What's my first name?' you can argue the alienation is embedded in the dialog. It goes beyond the dialog, it is present in the entire plot and the open ending that urges the viewer to think as he or she leaves the theater. The screenplay was developed on a novel by American Don Westlake (whose large body of work is not noteworthy), by three intriguing Englishmen who I suspect made the difference--Alexander Jacobs and two brothers Rafe and David Newhouse. The Newhouses' only other screenplay was Where's Jack? an impressive British musical that desperately needs to be appraised beyond the obvious. My guess is that Point Blank owes much to the team of British screenplay writers and the British director for the film blossomiing into a thought-provoking work in the in the garb of an action film. And probably the stony look of Lee Marvin helped even more. Further, this was one of the early works of Boorman made while the flow of his creative adrenalin was peaking.

But Boorman's cinema includes the loud footsteps of a determined Walker on the soundtrack, very similar to the effect Jean-Luc Godard achieved in his Alpahaville, contrasting bright wide open spaces for the exchange of money that goes according to plan and closed dimly lit confines of Alcatraz for those that go wrong. There is laconic humour without laughter, pumping bullets into an empty bed, guards who narrowly miss Marvin going up the lift, the car salesman's interest in an attractive customer than in his job, the sharpshooter's smug satisfaction not realizing that he has got the wrong man…The list is endless.

The camerawork of Philip Lathrop is inventive, but was it Lathrop or was it Boorman that made the visual appeal of the Panavision format of this film come alive? If you look at Lathrop's body of work, my hunch is that the unusually fascinating visuals were prompted by the director. The use of shadows, open spaces, stairs, almost deserted streets, enhances the isolation and alienation of the main character, Walker.

Viewing the film in 2001, after a gap of decades, many aspects of the film were underlined and reassessed. Getting back his $93,000 was important to Walker (Marvin), nothing more nothing less. But was it money he was after or was it the value of an agreement among thieves? The open-ended finale runs parallel to the end of an Arthur Penn film (also built on alienation) called Night Moves made some 10 years later. What surprises me is how a good movie like Point Blank never won an award or even an Oscar nomination.

There is a strand of despair that links all the major Boorman films. The main characters are somehow isolated from the larger crowd. This clever amalgamation of alienation, humor, action and intrigue makes Point Blank remarkable. Reflect on what the film states--you are alone, you have fight for what is yours, and options in life are open-ended for you to choose. There is no black and white, only grey.


MM said...

***adds it to the must-watch list***

Derrick Ferguson said...

I've seen this movie maybe eight or nine times and it's one of those movies that I always find something new that I hadn't noticed before. That it didn't even get a nomination is indeed a crime.