Point Blank (1967)

Directed by John Boorman

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Lee Marvin works on autopilot, but in a good way, in John Boorman’s Point Blank.  He scowls and leers his way through a revenge mission, playing the part of the ghost everyone assumes him to be after he was once left for dead.

Marvin plays Walker, a man who is a little bit of everything and yet nothing in particular.  He’s a violent sort of detective whose strength is his ability to restrain himself.  He’s defined by a strange zen-like passivity even as he trudges down the line of people who wronged him and who owe him his $93,000.  The way Walker moves, it’s more like some kind of karmic force is taking its revenge on a variety of criminals with Walker as its enforcer.  You get the sense that when the story ends, Walked might finally wake up with little to no memory of what he’s done, kind of like the Hulk turning back into Bruce Banner.

The entire story of Point Blank unfolds as in a dream.  We’re not exactly sure where we are when the story begins because we’re jumping between two memories, uncertain which, if any, is the present.  In one, a tormented Walker, in the midst of some celebration, falls drunkenly to the ground while another man whispers into his ear.  In another, Walker is coordinating a burglary during a money exchange with his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker) and his friend Mal Reese (John Vernon).  They steal a boatload of money, with Walker’s share coming out to $93,000, before Reese shoots Walker and leaves him to die in one of the cells of Alcatraz, the prison on which the exchange took place.

When the film’s plot begins, a man named Yost (Keenan Wynn) helps get Walker back on his feet.  It’s his encouragement which pushes Walker to seek revenge on Reese, and it certainly feels like Yost is the Victor Frankenstein to Walker’s Frankenstein Monster.

Once awoken, so to speak, Walker is on a mission to find Reese, and nothing will stop him.  About midway into the film, Walker accosts Reese in a penthouse, and in a matter of minutes he has thrown him off a balcony to his death.  It’s the moment you think the entire film is working towards, and yet, with half the film still to go, it’s dealt with.

It’s at this point that Walker changes in our eyes.  He doesn’t want revenge, an understandable if extreme human emotion, but he wants his $93,000.  After he kills Reese, he grows a little more distant from the audience, harder to understand.  Is $93,000 really worth all of this?  Someone else will pose this question to him after he has worked his way through a few more men, Reese’s higher ups.  A female friend he uses to get to Reese, Chris (Angie Dickinson), will tell him that he died that night on Alcatraz, making literal the subtext to the entire film.

Reese, thanks to his betrayal of Walker, is a part of some corporate criminal activity.  The men above Reese, all made to look innocent through nice haircuts and stiff suits, are the men Walker has to go through for his money.

He claims to want his share of the money he stole alongside Reese and his wife (who’s now dead, by the way, that happened really quickly), but he acts with such cold, almost robot-like analytical thinking that he must surely be driven by something else.

Walker doesn’t kill these men, but he puts them in situations in which they kill each other.  When Reese’s direct superior realizes Walker is after Reese, he sets a trap for Walker to fall into.  Instead Walker works his way around it, killing Reese.  Later he will circumvent similar traps which lead to the organization killing its own men (with a distant sniper), believing the man to be Walker.

This all leads to a culmination at Fort Point, the old military base under the Golden Gate Bridge.  Walker wants his money and has it delivered to a drop off point with the head honcho of the organization.  Walker lurks in the shadows and rather than retrieving his money (which we’ve seen him neglect in an earlier scene), he waits until the head honcho is shot by that sniper from earlier.

We then see Yost who is really Fairfax, the head of that mysterious criminal organization.  He tells Walker his job is done, everyone Fairfax wanted dead is now dead.  So then Walker walks away, leaving behind the money and Fairfax’s offer of an enforcer position.

Walker was never really in control, even as he demonstrated a strange omniscience throughout the story.  He knew his way around certain traps, and he could barge his way into corporate offices in broad daylight with no repercussion.  Walker is cruel, maybe even soul-less, and the point seems to be that he did indeed die that day on Alcatraz when he was shot and left for dead.

Whoever Walker was before the movie began is a far cry from who he is now.  He only ever smiles in the flashbacks that show how he met his wife, but when they meet in the present he only scowls while she openly yearns for death.  Though Lynne ran away with Reese after betraying Walker, she is shown to be just as helpless as he is, a pawn in whatever game is being played.

The way this story begins, we expect Walker to be driven by a broken heart and absolute rage, but every step forward subverts this expectation.  Walker tracks down his wife, but instead of a huge confrontation she quickly wilts under a pressure she’s been feeling for quite some time.  Later he tracks down Reese only for the man to cower before being thrown off a balcony.  Then there’s another man who bows to Walker’s pressure to give him the money and is shot by his own organization.  Then there’s another man and so on until the end of the film, when it is confirmed that Walker was only ever a tool used by Yost/Fairfax to eliminate the higher ups in his own criminal organization.

Yost/Fairfax simply weaponized Walker’s grief, turning him into Jason Bourne.  Despite the heartless, emotionless revenge tour, the story is imbued with a strangely tender heart.  As Walker marches on he continually remembers his past life with a strange detachment.  Whether the memories are happy or sad, it never seems clear whether Walker feels that joy or sadness.  He observes what once was and continues onward.  Characters will lash out at him because of that lack of emotion.  When Chris thinks he might have a romantic interest in her but learns otherwise, she tries to physically assault him, leading to a moment in which she smashes a pool cue over his head.  In another moment, one of the crime bosses wonders how Walker could go through all of this only for $93,000.

The beginning and end of the film is filled with dream-like imagery.  It’s as if new Walker is being born into this emotionless Frankenstein monster, and at the end, just before his mission is completed, he is slowly dying once more.  We’re constantly jumping back and forward through time during the film as Walker recalls not so distant memories which now feel like recollections of another life entirely.  He is the Frankenstein Monster remembering life before becoming the monster.

Though Walker acts with such callousness, it is a callousness instilled into him by the people above him.  He is or was an emotional human being who is turned into a killing machine, his grief becoming something much more muted and yet volatile.

Walker drifts and yet breaks down thick walls like the Kool Aid Man.  He’s supremely destructive and casual, and the effect is like hearing those insane death statistics from a large-scale war.  Walker might as well be a soldier suffering from PTSD, sent to die in Vietnam.  In this analogy the criminal organization is the U.S. government, and is this grasping at straws since I’m 27 hours into a Vietnam War audiobook?  Maybe.  I tend to assume every movie made in the 60s or 70s has some kind of Vietnam War subtext.  I mean, the violence is certainly reflective of the time, right?  Movies were much more violent later into the 60s than they were before, though that being said, Bonnie and Clyde was considered one of the most violent, radical films upon its release, the same year as this film.

So what do I know?

The violence here says something, but I can’t yet be sure exactly what.  The nature of Walker’s character reminds me of a John Frankenheimer political thriller, whether, specifically The Manchurian Candidate, though the message feels much less political and more in the name of entertainment.

Maybe all of this is just a way to make Walker somewhat honorable, to show that he’s not driven by greed or even really revenge.  He just restores order in a chaotic world, even if it’s because the motives were whispered into his ear by another man.  Point Blank shows how hard someone can pursue something when shoved into motion by another force.  Walker goes from drifting to sprinting in a matter of minutes, and all it took was a push.

Up Next: The Cooler (2003), Secret Honor (1984), Lost Highway (1997)

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