Filmmaker Firsts: John Boorman

#26: Point Blank (1967) – dir. John Boorman

I watched this on the first day of my “American Films of the 1970s” graduate class on Tuesday morning. I had barely gotten any sleep, maybe 2 or 3 hours, and the night before I didn’t sleep at all. So as I was sitting in this 11:45 am-3:15 pm class, struggling to keep my drooping eyelids open, this film seemed to happen in a series of colorful flashes, kind of like Impressionist-painting blurs. (Perhaps I should also mention that I tried watching Point Blank with my mom about a year ago and we actually decided to turn it off after 20 or 30 minutes; finding out that I would have to watch it in class created a big question mark in my head as to how I should feel.) In the end I sort of enjoyed Point Blank, although it remains a soupy mass of images in my head rather than a complete, coherent product.

There is no doubt that Lee Marvin is an icon of cinematic cool. Whether playing a hero (The Dirty Dozen) or a villain (The Big Heat) he could make any scene, like the one in Point Blank when he walks down a corridor with the sound of his footsteps reverberating louder and louder with every click-clack, instantly memorable. The editing of this scene by Henry Berman is particularly good, showing Marvin making his way back to his weak-willed, cheating wife. (It should be noted that Marvin’s character is named “Walker,” going by one name like Cher or Madonna.)

There is some striking use of architectural exteriors as well. Cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop does a great job examining physical space and how buildings and people occupy the frame. Stylish buildings like the one in the shots above dominate the landscape.

Outer beauty exists in Point Blank, but there is none of the inner variety. None of the characters is likeable. Lynne (Sharon Acker), Walker’s wife, seen on the right in the shot above, does not have any discernible personality and the only thing we see of her daily life is her constant usage of makeup. Mirrored surfaces are on display throughout the film, not only to reflect images but also to lend an avant-garde sensibility to the shots. The film is already quite unusual thanks to its achronological sense of time, zig-zagging through past and present events, but the visuals create an even more pronounced distance between Point Blank and what other films from the same era or right before it usually looked like.

Women don’t get much power in this film. The male gaze is always focused on women to sexualize them, either by looking up and down the lengths of their bodies or by separating out body parts (like Lynne’s thighs and legs in the shot above). There is one shot, late in the film, when Lee Marvin walks around shirtless, but somehow I doubt that Boorman was thinking democratically about skin. Inherent appeal aside, Marvin is not photographed as an obvious sex object in the same way that Sharon Acker is, or Angie Dickinson later on in the film.

Dickinson provides eye candy, but why do we care that her character is in this movie? She exists solely to provide Lee Marvin’s “Walker” with clues as to his target’s whereabouts. She is expected to be able to provide sex (or at least kisses) as a weapon against Marvin’s enemies, luring them into her good graces in order to get information out of them. True, Dickinson’s character owns a nightclub, but it becomes clear that she doesn’t have any power over how the place is run. As one might expect there is a love scene between Dickinson and Marvin, despite the total lack of chemistry or even civility between the two. (The realization of their lust may be more truthful than if they had suddenly and randomly developed caring feelings for one another, but it’s silly.) Still, it’s a mark of how much the detached coolness of the French New Wave and they way that French films depicted relationships must have influenced Boorman in telling the story.

As the film neared its conclusion I continued to fight the good fight (staying awake). This shot and the scene that it’s in impressed me as a kind of forerunner of Polanski’s neo-noir Chinatown. (Both films take place in the San Francisco area, so maybe they both feature the same viaduct.) Yes, Point Blank is beautifully photographed. Yes, Lee Marvin is pretty great. But did my mind/body state hold me back from fully understanding the plot? Definitely. I need to revisit this film when I am functioning at 100% wakefulness.


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