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Early in John Boorman’s Point Blank, the stoical hero, Walker (Lee Marvin), visits the grave of his newly buried wife in the middle of a vast hillside cemetery in Los Angeles. But his moment of quiet observance is interrupted when a canary-yellow mechanical excavator, kicked noisily into gear, begins to bang and clatter its way through a nearby plot. Forget sanctity: apparently that’s a luxury funerals in L.A. can’t afford. It’s significant, I think, that this scene does not appear in Point Blank’s screenplay, written by Alexander Jacobs, nor in the Richard Stark novel, The Hunter, on which the film was loosely based. Rather it was introduced by Boorman when he stumbled upon one of these excavation machines while scouting for a graveyard set. He later explained its importance to his biographer: “It used to be that, no matter how useless your life had been, it would at least give a gravedigger a day’s work to dig your grave. For me, that summed up American life. It struck me as the greatest of all betrayals: digging a grave in ten minutes with a mechanical spade.” And that more or less sums up Point Blank.
Thinly veiled cynicism of this sort looms over the film, and it has lead many critics to the describe the atmosphere of the picture, both in praise and in condemnation, as distinctly nightmarish, even vaguely Kafkaesque. As the film arrives on Bluray for the first time it isn’t difficult to see what they mean. The influence of Boorman’s lingering contempt for contemporary American life can be felt in everything from his use of composition (which flattens Los Angeles into an unflattering widescreen sprawl) to his experiments in color (which drove the art director to swiftly walk out on the production, and which critic and filmmaker Thom Andersen later described as contributing to “astonishing tableau of grotesque interior decorating schemes”). Though this loathing is apparent perhaps nowhere more than in Boorman’s rather pointed departures from his source text — which he’s admitted he never read. The story itself could hardly be simpler. As in Stark’s book, Point Blank concerns one man’s ravenous quest for vengeance against the friend and wife who together turned against him, shooting him in the back after a successful robbery in order to collect his $93,000 share. And, also as in Stark’s novel, the hero’s vendetta soon expands to include a cabal of executives whose mysterious organization houses the money he believes he’s owed.
The similarities pretty much stop there. And the differences, meanwhile, fundamentally transform the dime-store paperback material, perhaps unsurprisingly accounting for what has proven most distinctive and memorable about the film. The bulk of The Hunter takes place in New York City. Point Blank, by contrast, is a Los Angeles film through and through, refracted through the eyes of a British tourist-auteur as a sun-bleached purgatory teeming with vacuousness and hostility; it’s impossible to imagine it taking place anywhere else. (The film briefly opens and closes in San Francisco, but only, you sense, so that Boorman could make use of the city’s most famous offshore island prison, with all of its richly appealing built-in symbolism.) All of the film’s major set pieces are based around locations Boorman hand-selected to cohere with his vision: a gaudily billboarded used car dealership on the strip; a high-rise’s top-floor bachelor suite, from which a villain quite spectacularly falls to his death in the nude; a vibrant jazz club throbbing with light and sound; the miles-long channel of one of L.A.’s iconic concrete storm drains, where a sharpshooter homes in on his distant target. These locations feel essential to the character of the film. Not one figures into the novel.
When Point Blank was released theatrically, in 1967, much of the criticism emphasized the ways in which Boorman had restyled not so much the shape or direction of Richard Stark’s story as the tenor of its action. The common charge was that a self-styled artiste had gone and made a “European” picture out of a hardboiled bit of American pulp: he had, in other words, scaled back on the conventions of genre and doubled down on the trappings of art, which lead to the film being dismissed, in some quarters, as superficial and “overdirected”. Certainly Boorman had been inspired in part by then-emergent French filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and especially Alain Resnais, and, indeed, the film’s highly stylized mis-en-scene and fractured, recursive editing do seem to have more in common with nouvelle vague work like Alphaville and Last Year at Marienbad than the more traditional exponents of Hollywood film noir. And yet it’s important to remember that noir itself was no less highly stylized by design, only in ways that by 1967 been much longer and more widely ingrained in the popular imagination; Point Blank simply took as its blueprint aesthetic modes that, while all the rage in Italian and French cinemas, hadn’t quite made their way into the American mainstream yet. Surely this was less a sign of Boorman’s pretentions than his desire to embrace the cutting edge.
Point Blank is a film whose dreamlike qualities are meant to suggest a world filtered through a character who is practically a walking ghost.
“Critics”, Boorman once said, “are very fond of displaying their erudition. If they’re hostile to a film, they maintain that this or that was stolen from Antonioni; if they like it, they point out the wonderful allusion or homage to Rene Clair.” True enough, and we ought to remain skeptical of any attempts to castigate the director for mere thievery. But Boorman, in any case, had very good reasons to adopt the styles of the European vanguard: he wanted to make a film which criticized the monotonous decadence of American culture, which, he felt, made it “very vulnerable to primitive forces”, and in order to articulate this idea he needed a language outside the norm. And for a director possessed of a distinctive vision, Boorman in fact proves remarkably capable of self-restraint: Point Blank’s most ostentatious flourishes — the looping of sound and image in the opening scenes, certain efforts to layer and juxtapose, the almost hallucinatory use of color throughout — are not indulgences for their own sake, but rather are occasioned by the needs of the film in the moment. Point Blank is a film whose dreamlike qualities are meant to suggest a world filtered through a character who is practically a walking ghost; the film needs to seem off-kilter in order to reflect the perspective of Walker, who has the tunnel-vision of a man obsessed to the point of half-crazed.
I’m hardly the first critic to observe that the first thing we see in Point Blank is Walker being shot down and left for dead, and that, moments later, we find him making a rather inexplicable recovery, whereupon he swims with ease from the apparently inescapable Alcatraz to the safety of the San Francisco shore. Are we to conclude that the film is a dream? That would doubtless account for many of the film’s seemingly coincidences, strokes of luck, and otherwise baffling machinations of plot. Boorman is quoted as saying that “one should be able to imagine that this whole story of vengeance is taking place inside his head at the moment of his death”, though he’s quick to remind us that this is just “one possible interpretation”. This theory, though appealingly novel, has always struck me as altogether too simplistic to be worth entertaining seriously. Point Blank is a film with too much going on intellectually to be reduced to that kind of trickery, and it would be a disservice to the film to regard its complex interrogations of contemporary culture and society as nothing more than the last-minute imaginings of a man consumed by the need for revenge. We see the oppressions and frivolities of this world through Walker’s perspective. But we also see Walker himself: we have the distance to understand that his quest for vengeance has no meaning.
Point Blank works best, for me, as a work of searing criticism: against corporate monoculture (whose insidious blankness seems both cruel and absurd), the hippy-dippy counterculture of the ‘60s (which Boorman depicts as superficially transgressive but ultimately facile), and even the modern cult of masculinity (here rendered as a myth that leads to a lot of unnecessary suffering). Walker, after all, is after $93,000 — a pretty measly sum, all things considered, and hardly worth the damage and destruction he brings to bear to get it. Boorman wants to impress upon us the pointlessness of it all and in so doing makes the very idea of this sort of revenge narrative seem ridiculous. Point Blank surveys the world and sighs and says, Look at what we’re doing to this place. Everything is in ruins around us. The blank office towers, the mindless clubs, the endless sprawl of fast-track highways and suburban housing developments: it’s all worthless, as is, and it’s only going to get worse. And the ultimate sin, for Boorman, is the devaluation of death: not even the final act has meaning anymore. All we’re worth at the end of it all is a ten-minute excavation and a lot of noise.