A Blank Look

The freeway, shimmering like a dewy cobweb strand…

Ran John Boorman’s POINT BLANK for students this week. Apart from the use of Alcatraz, it also has THIS in common with Richard Lester’s PETULIA —


PETULIA — the disembodied bunch of flowers ascends diagonally, like Sharon Acker’s head in the Boorman film.

It’s conceivable that Lester saw POINT BLANK, which came out in ’67, around the time he was shooting his movie. There’s an amusing story about Lester bumping into Mike Nichols, who was shooting THE GRADUATE. The chatted briefly about their respective projects, and each left in a state of paranoid anxiety — “Oh no, we’re making the exact same movie!

False alarm.

Sharon Acker’s really good in this scene — a masterstroke by Boorman to cut half the dialogue so that she simply recites her side of the “interrogation” — Marvin, all post-coitally spent after firing all his bullets into the mattress (ahem) simply slumps.

Boorman rocks the Antonioni thing, colour-co-ordinating everything to within an inch of its life — see also Mike Hodges’ THE TERMINAL MAN, which repaints LA so that everything except the grass is black and white and gray and silver. The long scene in Sharon Acker’s apartment is starved of Technicolor to the point where a shot of smashed beauty products in a bathtub carries a visceral shock.

Bath gunk colours are picked up later by globular sixties club lighting…

And that’s Boorman’s genius here — every scene has it’s own strong visual and aural ideas, and they’re butted up against one another for max contrast and effect. It’s fun to see how Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson’s costume changes cue the interior design choices. Lee changes into a brown jacket, and suddenly we notice the brown curtains ~

And the bed he’s looking at suddenly has a brown sheet. And when he revisits Alcatraz, it’s brown too — it wasn’t when we first saw it, at the beginning of the film.

Just ridiculously beautiful.

James Sikking, as a pipe-smoking hitman, describes Marvin as “a brutal” — an adjective turned into a noun, and a word that returns in Boorman’s ZARDOZ, where Connery leads a tribe of brutals. That made me smile.

One of Boorman’s strengths/weaknesses is his lack of humour, the way he doesn’t think for a moment we’ll laugh — leading to Linda Blair doing Lullaby of Broadway and Sean Connery in a nappy and Helen Mirren in figure-hugging tit armour… but here, it all works: POINT BLANK is either a cold-blooded existential/Jungian revenge drama or a deadpan jet-black comedy. Or both. No contradiction is apparent.

Boorman, in that glossy Michel Ciment book, is very keen on the Incident at Owl Creek Bridge idea — each of his movies, it seems, could merely be fleeting by in the mind of a dying protagonist. In POINT BLANK that really does work, and is heavily hinted at in the opening scene. “A dream?” ponders Marvin, in VO, a bullet in his belly. The film’s convenient elision of how he escapes certain death and what he’s been doing before his return in a silvery suit adds weight to the fantasy hypothesis. Note also how the dialogue in any scene from which Marvin is absent has a stilted, B-picture quality, as if it’s the best he can come up with for the stuff he has to imagine happening when he’s not there.

Somebody pointed out the delicious, mysterious connection with Curtiz’s THE WALKING DEAD, in which gangster Boris Karloff returns from the grave to seek revenge, and those he’s after all get themselves killed without him laying a finger on them. He seems to be an embodiment of guilt, an abstract Nemesis. And Marvin’s character, “Parker” in the Westlake/Stark novel, is here called Walker.

(Westlake once said that if he’d know he was going to write so many books about Parker, he’d have called him something else, to avoid having to find alternative ways of saying “Parker parked the car.” Boorman’s Walker differs most markedly in that he’s very much a one-shot character. Walker will NOT return in POINT BLANK II.)

Boorman’s writers are an interesting gang — besides the source novel, he’s got the writer’s of WHERE’S JACK? which deals with the celebrated highwayman and escape artist Jack Sheppard (Hitchcock once proposed a biopic of this fascinating folk hero for Ernest Lehman to write) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION II. Alas, none of them seem to have done much else.

The Heavy Symbolism is very much Boorman, though. Walker’s wife has no maiden name (we see her gravestone) so that Angie Dickinson, his sister-in-law, can ask “What’s my last name?” and then Walker can ask “What’s my first name?” Geddit? Either nobody knows anybody, not really, in this alienated modern world — or else these are stock movie characters in search of an author or at least an ending (Boorman’s movie, like his HELL IN THE PACIFIC, deliberately fizzles out, classic bang/whimper stuff). “A dream?” Or a movie? Note the emphasis on sliding curtains, lenses, screens, an LA where nobody’s in the movies but everybody’s playing at being a gangster, and Angie’s jazz club is called The Movie House and the evil conglomerate is called Multiplex…

Lee Marvin’s posture is the film’s secret weapon. Here, he watches as the phony stash floats away into the storm drains where it will doubtless be eaten by giant ants.

Soderbergh interviews Boorman on the DVD commentary track! Buy it — Point Blank

20 Responses to “A Blank Look”

  1. Brilliant. I first saw POINT BLANK when I had a fever, and the hallucinatory narrative and the gunk in the tub scene were enough to make me decide that this was one of the best films ever.

  2. One of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve ever spent in the cinema was in Dublin about a decade ago – a screening of Boorman’s own pristine print of this, followed by a lengthy oration (you can’t call anything Boorman does a Q&A, he’s not really into questions) about the making of. He’s not a man it’s easy to warm to, but his genuine emotion when telling stories about Marvin was very moving. The way he tells it, the first time Boorman ran into studio interference with his way of doing things, Marvin went to the head guys and said “You remember after The Dirty Dozen, you said I could have complete freedom to do what I want in my next film?” The head guys said yes, they remembered. Marvin gestured towards Boorman. “Well, I’m giving it to this guy.” And Boorman had only, at this point, made Catch Us If You Can. What extraordinary commitment based on nothing more than instinct. No wonder Boorman loves him.

  3. I was forgetting how inexperienced he was. Some TV docs, and some pseudo-docs, and a Dave Clark Five film which has an atmosphere out of all proportion to its subject — a bit like Ken Russell’s French Dressing.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    Resnais is another major point of reference in POINT BLANK. In one scene, Marvin and Angie Dickinson enter a restaurant and it looks quite like the one in MURIEL where the two former torturers meet up. The film has the look and feel of an outdoor Marienbad where the labyrinth has enveloped the world. And of course Lee Marvin is a bad-ass hitman who is always thwarted from repeatedly thwarted from killing someone.

    John Boorman is trying to make an adaptation of Marguerite Yourcenar’s MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN, last I heard.

    In other news,

    Liz Taylor RIP

  5. A sad day.

    One could use Petulia and Point Blank nad Midnight Cowboy to argue that the New Hollywood was in part a British invention, adapting the techiniques of European art cinema to the American landscape…

  6. Arthur S. Says:

    Steven Soderbergh would support this thesis heavily being that he’s a champion of Lester and Boorman. There’s also Stanley Donen who adapted new wave techniques across the pond in BEDAZZLED and TWO FOR THE ROAD. Interestingly Altman was in the running to direct the movie. How he would have tackled it would have been interesting.

  7. Point Blank is a work of absolute collective genius.
    The collective elements: Donald Westlake (aka. “Richard Stark”), John Boorman, Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Johnny Mandel.

    Meanwhile, off-topic

    Latest FaBlog: Fait Diver — A Friend of Vito‘s Passed Away

  8. Fort Point in San Francisco is also common to both PETULIA and POINT BLANK (along with VERTIGO and THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF which Hitchcock had to have seen).
    Scott takes his boys to play there in PETULIA while Boorman uses it for the ending night drop in POINT BLANK where he cunningly zooms out then zooms into Alcatraz sitting across the bay—capping the dream.

  9. Thanks for mentioning The Man WHo Cheated Himself, which I must now see.

    Maybe the most dreamlike moment of the film is when Marvin asks how he can get to the safehouse to find the man he’s looking for, and “Bat” Guano tells him he’s already there. Leading to Marvin looking around wonderingly. Try imagining the conversation they must have had en route and you realize how surreal that scene is, depending entirely on movie editing to exist.

  10. Lee Marvin is the best Parker next to Anna Karina.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    “Stop all the clocks…”

    Liz Taylor has just died. I for one am speechless with shock.

  12. @ Arthur S (My late father was “Arthur S,” which makes this a bit disconcerting) Not entirely sure which film you refer to, in connection with Altman, but that does provide an excuse to say that PETULIA started out as a Robert Altman project, with a script written the wife (Barbara Turner) of COMBAT! friend Vic Morrow.

    As for Boorman and humor … sometimes I wonder whether the humor is non-existant or just very VERY poker-faced. Makes me think of a Time Out London *bon mot*, one I wish I could find again, where a midieval epic (one of the Stephen Weeks Gawain films?) was described as possessing the humor of EXCALIBUR combined with the mystic sense of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.

  13. David Boxwell Says:

    Carroll O’Connor’s character, and his interaction with Lee Marvin’s, memorably embodies the “meta” theme: who’s in charge here? Who do I blame? Where can I get justice? Who has the real power? POINT BLANK is perhaps the first truly post-modern Hollywood studio flick.

  14. I love Carroll O’Connor’s performance — “You’re a very bad man!”

    Somehow Point Blank can play as funny and serious at once without it being ever a problem, whereas the sillier bits in some of his other films (maybe almost ALL of them except Deliverance and maybe Hell in the Pacific) feel awkard, embarrassing.

  15. His Irish films (The General, A Tiger’s Tail) are self-important, banal and pointless all at once. The last time I recall feeling intrigued b a Boorman film was the enormously weird Emerald Forest, but even that didn’t seem to hang together. His most representative film of recent years was the made for peanuts I Dreamt I Woke Up, which combines genuine freshness with teethgrinding whimsy. I recall watching it through clenched fists, but it had something that stuck to me despite the air of wrongness. And it’s a sight better than his other attempts at getting Ireland right.

  16. I Dreamt I Woke Up is indeed cheap as chips. The problem isn’t purely a lack of budget, but Boorman’s apparent helplessness in the face of it, inability to know when something looks inadequate, The nature goddess in the green leotard is the perfect example: she didn’t have to look so terrible, even if with no money.

    In his diary of the making of it, Boorman writes about shooting the scene where Nature is despoiled, and having the idea of shooting it through thrashing branches. He observes that, in spite of all planning, the final touch that really makes something work often arrives at the last moment before filming it. The filmmaker must remain open to this last-minute inspiration.

    And that’s one of the wisest and truest things ever said about movie-making. The trouble is, the branches look ridiculous, blatantly puppeteered from offscreen…

    Still, since The Tailor of Panama doesn’t feel like a Boorman film at all, we should be somewhat grateful for IDIWU’s defiant loopiness.

  17. Great review, David E, am looking forward to this one.

  18. “Defiant loopiness” is exactly what I responded to in IDIWU, it has the same sort of almost-car-crash quality that his earlier Where the Heart Is. For an Irish viewer, Boorman’s extraordinary portrayal of himself as a kind of Powell/Pressburger aristo/mystic connected to the land, who really GETS the yokels on a very deep level while being amused/bemused by their strange little ways, is hard to take. He’s like a self-serious version of this Charlie Higson character from The Fast Show:

  19. Have never seen Where the Heart Is, but the idea of a Boorman-Dabney Coleman collaboration is enticingly wrong. I recall Katzenberg saying with regret that it was “more a Boorman film than a Katzenberg film” (!)

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