|by Peter Sobczynski
In which your faithful scribe discusses classic noir, waxes about the genius of Lee Marvin, weeps at what happened to the former genius of Robert De Niro and offers up a pun so horrible that he should be dragged from his fortified shack and beaten with logs.
About fifteen years or so ago, I was trolling the aisles of America’s finest video store, Chicago’s world-renowned Facets Multimedia, and I began to gradually notice the unfamiliar film that was playing on the in-store monitor. In it, the always-cool Lee Marvin was trying to muscle some information out of a sleazy car dealer in the most direct way possible–while ostensibly taking going on a test drive with the man in question, Marvin proceeded to smash up the car in order to scare the guy into giving up what he knew. This was strange and funny but it was nothing compared to what I saw a few minutes later; in a hallucinatory scene set in a trendy late-60's nightclub, a cool funk singer was ripping up the joint on stage while Marvin was savagely beating the crap out of a couple of thugs while a strange light show played over the brutality. This was the kind of scene that all film fanatics long to encounter and so rarely do–a bit of film weirdness so visually stunning and compelling that all you can do is stare at it slack-jawed and immediately try to find what in the hell the title is.<
The film, as many of you have probably guessed, was John Boorman’s 1967 neo-noir masterpiece “Point Blank” and those scenes were only the tip of the iceberg that was one of the most stunning American films of the 1960's. In it, Marvin plays Walker, a laconic tough guy who is double-crossed by his former partner (John Vernon) and wife (Sharon Acker) and left for dead on the then-abandoned Alcatraz–all over the sum of $93,000. Somehow, Walker survives and makes his way back to the mainland and begins to slowly and methodically smash his way up the Organization–a crime cartel as cold and emotionless as any ruthless corporation–in search of someone who will give him the $93,000 that he is owed. This absolutely confounds the members of the Organization, who cannot believe that any individual would attempt to destroy such a vast moneymaking empire over such a comparatively small sum.
Throughout Boorman’s long and acclaimed career as a filmmaker, he has endlessly explored one key theme over and over again–a stranger enters unfamiliar surroundings, gamely attempts to learn the rules of the land and inevitably winds up either destroying it (“Zardoz,” “Excalibur”) or being destroyed by it (“Deliverance,” “The General”). In “Point Blank” (not coincidentally his first American film), the intruder both destroys and is destroyed by the Organization–or maybe not. Although one doesn’t notice it the first time around, Walker doesn’t actually kill anyone during the course of the film. At the same time, there are plenty of indications–the speech that Walker’s wife delivers explaining her actions without actually facing him is a key example–that Walker himself may not actually be there either and that the entire film may be the dying fantasy of a betrayed thug as he lies bleeding to death from a wound delivered by a former friend. It is a fascinating conceit and it makes the film one of those things that still inspires passionate debates among film fans almost forty years after its initial release. (As Boorman reveals in the commentary track that he recorded with “Point Blank” fan Steven Soderbergh, the then-unknown director got away with such a conceptually bold approach to the material because of a stroke of good fortune–Marvin, then a star because of “The Dirty Dozen” and “Cat Ballou” had ultimate script approval and basically said that whatever Boorman wanted was fine with him.)
What isn’t debatable is the stunning work by Lee Marvin as the ice-cold Walker, easily the greatest work of his entire screen career. He is, of course, ferociously convincing in the action scenes but he is even better in the quieter moments when he just stands there and we realize that literally the only thing that is driving him is his quest for his $93,000. Beyond that, he is an utter blank and nothing else–not reason (at one point, the bad guys offer him even more money to go away and he refuses), not love (with Angie Dickinson as the sister of Walker’s former wife), not hate (an incredible scene where Dickinson repeatedly slaps him in an failed effort to get through to him)–is going on behind those dead eyes. This is not the easiest thing for an actor to pull off–there is always the temptation to throw something in there in order to show off the skills–but Marvin never breaks character for a moment and the result is one of the great performances in the history of tough-guy cinema, one just as unforgettable as the film it graces.
Written by Alexander Jacobs and David Newhouse & Rafe Newhouse. Directed by John Boorman. Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner and Michael Strong. 1967. 92 minutes. Unrated. A Warner Home Video release. $19.95.
NEW AND NOTABLE
BRIDE AND PREJUDICE (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.98): What happens when a completely resistible idea for a film–a Bollywood-influenced musical version of Jane Austen’s warhorse “Pride and Prejudice”–throws a completely irresistible ingredient–the ravishing Indian superstar Ashiwarya Rai in her bid for Western exposure–into the mix? You get a generally unwatchable film (with a performance from Martin Donovan, as the Mr. Darcy equivalent, that plunges depths not seen since Cary Elwes in the last reel of “Saw”) that you can’t take your eyes off of whenever Rai is on the screen.
COOL SURFACE (Ardustry Home Entertainment. $14.99): Once again, the presence of brief, barely glimpsed celebrity nudity (in this case, a not-quite-so-desperate Teri Hatcher) allows another bit of barely-remembered direct-to-video crapola to wear out pause buttons across the country.
FILM NOIR FILM COLLECTION: VOLUME 2 (Warner Home Video. $49.92): In this long-awaited sequel to one of last year’s most highly acclaimed DVD releases, Warner Brothers once again digs through their archives for another sampling of classic example of film noir from their archives. This time around, the titles include Robert Wise’s 1947 cult classic “Born to Kill” (in which tough guy Lawrence Tierney marries dowdy Audrey Long but has the hots for sister Clare Trevor instead), Fritz Lang’s 1952 film “Clash By Night” (featuring both another romantic triangle–this one involving Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas–and a brief appearance by Marilyn Monroe), Edward Dmytryk 1947 cop thriller “Crossfire” (which contains a daring-for-the-time indictment of anti-Semtism and a killer performance from Robert Mitchum), Max Nosseck’s 1945 gem “Dillinger” (perhaps my favorite title of the bunch) and Richard Fleischer’s original 1952 version of “Narrow Margin” (still one of the most exciting and fast-paced noirs ever produced.) All come with commentary tracks from noir scholars and fans (“Dillinger” features filmmaker John Milius, who made his directing debut in 1973 with his own impressive Dillinger biopic) and all are essential viewing for anyone slightly interested in the genre
HIDE AND SEEK (Fox Home Video. $29.98):Okay, if Robert De Niro is so hell-bent on showing us how far he will lower himself for a buck, couldn’t he stop doing crappy movies like this unbelievably silly and predictable “shocker” and just make an appearance on “Fear Factor” instead? I guarantee that seeing the former World’s Greatest Actor eating a cow’s anus beats anything on display here. Only recommended for those who thought that “Godsend” was too intellectual for their tastes.
NADINE (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $24.98): When it premiered in 1987, this film, in which a recently divorced 1950's couple find themselves falling in love again while enmeshed in a caper involving real estate deals, nudie pictures, mistaken identity and murder, was dismissed by many as a silly and forgettable trifle. However, it is a lot better than its reputation suggests–writer-director Robert Benton demonstrates an easy wit and a keen sense for the period setting and Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges, as the quarreling couple, are a lot of fun to watch. Not an essential title by any means but the perfect thing to watch when you are in the mood for good mindless entertainment and nothing more.
PROZAC NATION (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): Watch for yourself as Christina Ricci’s film career goes from bad to Wurtzel.
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originally posted: 07/08/05 13:51:17
last updated: 07/23/05 08:40:27