by Jay Seaver
Lee Marvin's footsteps echo like gunshots on this movie's soundtrack. Bang, bang, bang, as he walks down the hall. It's a fitting image, because it demonstrates how the most fearsome weapon Walker (Marvin) has in his arsenal is his dogged persistence. Bang, bang, bang, Walker's not trying to sneak up on anybody. He's a simple man with a simple request - to be paid what's owed him. And don't be the guy who gets in his way.That's the story behind Point Blank. A year or so ago, Walker, Reese (John Vernon) and Walker's wife (Sharon Acker) pulled a big score. Reese shot his friend in the back, though, taking all the money along with the girl, leaving Walker for dead. But he's not, and now that he's healed, he's allied himself with a representative of some unknown agency who'll act as his guide through "The Organization" which Reese has joined. It's an arrangement of convenience, though, the partnership he strikes with Reese's old girl, Chris (Angie Dickinson), isn't that much warmer.
"Bang, bang, bang, bang."
If this sounds familiar, there's a good chance you've seen a later adaptation of the source material, Donald Westlake's novel The Hunter. Ringo Lam and Chow Yun-Fat did it Hong Kong style, while Mel Gibson's Payback updated it for a modern audience, which basically meant toning down the color and amping up the smartass remarks. John Boorman's version remains definitive, though. Even with (and sometimes because of) the movie's sometimes-garish design, there's a straightforwardness to Walker and his quest that will appeal to the audience.
Walker, you see, is a blue-collar thug at heart. Before his betrayal, he'd worked his way up to the point where he was his own boss, and he wears a decent suit, but when you look at him, you see a face that has head-butted its competition on occasion and has made no effort to outgrow that. He's good at violence, because it's his business. Unlike Reese and the Organization he has bought into, he has made no attempt to distance himself from the unsavory aspects of his work.
Reese and The Organization, though, have taken crime and gone corporate. They wear nicer suits, and when Walker stomps into their headquarters, he sees receptionists, offices, and intercoms. There's no sign of drugs, guns, or stolen goods; the Organization could be in any business, so devoid are they of a distinctive personality of their own. They try to negotiate with Walker, to stall him. They simultaneously tell him that the amount of money he wants is trivial and that they cannot help him. It's a feeling that most audience members will find familiar, even if their interaction with organized crime is limited - it's the frustration that anyone with a simple, fair request has when dealing with a bureaucracy, be it civil, corporate, or criminal. Usually, shooting bureaucrats until you get to one who is willing to help is frowned upon, but The Organization is lowlife scum.
Point Blank shows up in Thom Anderson's Los Angeles Plays Itself for a jab at its design sense ("the seventies apparently came early") and how crime stories often start in San Francisco but come to L.A. because that's where the real corruption is, but there's intelligence and structure to it. The film starts out at a shuttered Alcatraz Island, which is Old Crime - harsh and spartan, like Marvin's character, but also in ruins. As the action moves south, the design changes - slick corporate offices and glassy penthouses with soft, colorful decorations. There's still people with guns, but they're more discrete, hidden from view - and, ultimately, not as good at their jobs as Walker is with his. They're posers, pretending to be Walker's betters. Chris's apartment and workplace may be a little run-down, but they're honest.
Lee Marvin gives the most noteworthy performance. It's uncomplicated, leaning more on intensity than nuance, but also iconic. He is cold in a way that is almost sarcastic: If personal loyalty means nothing, his actions say, I can do that. If it's all about just doing what you need to do to get ahead, I can be perfectly ruthless, and you are going to regret setting those rules. Next to him, Angie Dickinson is not quite bland, but she doesn't have so rich a character, either. More entertaining are some of the people Walker goes through - Michael Strong as a craven used car dealer who didn't realize just how violent some of the criminals he was in bed with could be, or Carroll O'Connor as a guy high up in The Organization who can't believe he has to deal with a mere goon like Walker.
Boorman's direction is quite solid. He frames Marvin in big, empty spaces, and lets those footsteps echo, making his antihero a fearsome juggernaut. The action explodes, not unexpectedly, but suddenly, a half-second earlier than normal, and has it go quickly (if you get the upper hand, you can end it fast). He balances the colorful and drab scenes well, not letting either dominate or feel out of place.Point Blank is too colorful to be a classic noir; it's probably one of the first of the "neo-noirs", and defines its genre. It remains one of the best.
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originally posted: 05/12/05 13:31:56