...one of the best, toughest, and most grimly cold-blooded mystery noirs Hollywood has given us.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

This is the film Mel Gibson was hoping he could duplicate. Sorry, Mel.

John Boorman's 1967 crime thriller "Point Blank" and Gibson's 1999 crime caper "Payback" are about criminals shot by their partners and left for dead, both of whom live to exact their revenge. But with Mel Gibson in the title role behaving in his usual lighthearted "Lethal Weapon" manner, we knew from the outset that everything in the remake was going to turn out all right in the end. Consequently, Gibson's movie was not as tense or as taut as the original.

With Lee Marvin in the lead, it's a whole other story. He stars in this noir gangster-land classic, part of Warner Bros.' latest batch of noir releases on DVD, which also includes the highly regarded "Dillinger" (1945), "Born To Kill" (1947), "Crossfire" (1947), "The Narrow Margin" (1952), and "Clash By Night" (1952). Incidentally, the latter five, but not "Point Blank," are also available in a box set, "The Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 2." However, Warner Bros. must have figured "Point Blank" was too much newer than the others or still too popular to be included in the box.

In any case, "Point Blank" is one of the best, toughest, and most grimly cold-blooded mystery noirs Hollywood has given us, thanks in large measure to Marvin. Lee Marvin had spent most of the 1950s playing rowdy, mean-spirited fellows, second-string bad guys and heavies, until his big break in the 1965 Jane Fonda release "Cat Ballou," where his broken-down comic gunfighter won him an Academy Award. From then on it was starring or co-starring roles in things like "The Professionals," "The Dirty Dozen," "Hell in the Pacific," "Paint Your Wagon," "The Emperor of the North," and "The Big Red One." But in my humble opinion his very best role was right here, in "Point Blank."

To some extent, Marvin's role is similar to that of Michael Caine in "Get Carter" (1971). Both actors play gangsters, villains in the ordinary sense, for whom, nevertheless, we root. They are, in fact, quintessential antiheroes, the bad guys we love. And, interestingly, I've never heard that either of these films was ever considered by average moviegoers as among the two actors' best work. Yet both pictures are classics of their kind and some of Marvin's and Caine's finest achievements. Like "Get Carter," "Point Blank" is a small, largely overlooked gem.

Based on the novel "The Hunter" by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake), "Point Blank" is about a hood named Walker (Marvin), just Walker, no first name to give him any more individuality or humanness, who is shot and left for dead by his so-called partner, Mal Reese (John Vernon, later of "Animal House" fame), after a heist gone wrong. The two men and Walker's wife (Sharon Acker) were supposed to pick up a money drop on Alcatraz Island, but Reese shoots the two couriers and then shoots Walker, taking the money and Walker's wife for himself.

A year goes by. Walker miraculously recovers and becomes obsessed with getting the money back that's owed him, $93,000. He doesn't seem overly concerned about revenge, about Reese, or about his wife. He just wants his money, and if anyone should get in his way, it's their bad luck. A number of people get in his way.

In his quest Walker enlists the aid of a cop named Yost (Keenan Wynn) who is after the Organization, presumably a pseudonym for the Mafia. Since Reese is now involved with the Organization and Yost wants to bring the outfit down, Yost is more than happy to have Walker do his dirty work for him. Yost is a mysterious fellow, always providing Walker with bits of information on where he can find certain people and then hanging around the periphery of the action.

The other person Walker finds to help him out is his wife's sister, Chris (Angie Dickinson). Chris was also briefly involved with Reese, knows his whereabouts, and can help Walker get close to him. Dickinson has several good exchanges with Marvin, but one stands out where she attacks him and, according to the audio commentary, actually puts bruises on the actor. The players were encouraged by the director to make their performances look as realistic as possible, and Dickinson did.

The movie uses a cool, no-nonsense, jazz-inflected score by Johnny Mandel similar to the one Lalo Schifrin wrote for "Bullitt" the next year, as well as using a similar cool, low-key approach to most of the action. This understated style makes the fight scenes all the more violent and explosive, especially when they come out of a good deal of silence, and it points up the violence in Walker all the better.

Walker is a fellow who uses his head to get what he wants but uses his gun and his fists when necessary, too. There's a great scene where he persuades a baddie to give him information by getting the guy into a car with him and then battering the car to pieces between two concrete highway pillars. Most of these action scenes seem to come out of nowhere, unexpectedly, and when they do, they are brutally realistic. In fact, the movie is so realistic, even the most hardened criminals in it can faint dead away, and the hero is not above punching a villain in his most vulnerable spot or even throwing him off a roof.

Yet, while Walker is a tough, brutal guy, he sometimes appears to have a head on his shoulders and at other times is pretty dense. All he seems to care about is getting his money. The fact that the whole Organization is standing in his way doesn't bother him. He's obviously a man on a mission.

Incidentally, it's fascinating to see Carroll O'Connor ("All in the Family") in an early role as a Mob boss, as well as to spot Bill Hickman (who would later show up as one of the hit men in "Bullitt") doing some uncredited stunt work. I was never quite sure why one of the Organization's top operatives (Michael Strong) was a used-car dealer, though.

The movie was directed by Englishman John Boorman, who had done only a couple of films before this one. Still, it set the stage for a fine career that would include "Hell in the Pacific," "Excalibur," "Hope and Glory," and the pick of the litter, "Deliverance." His only two outright duds were "Zardoz" and "Exorcist II: The Heretic," but we can excuse the occasional mind fade in anyone. With "Point Blank" he more than makes up for the lapses.

The film's wide Panavision dimensions (OAR: 2.35:1) are mostly preserved in Warner Bros.' anamorphic transfer, which measures a ratio about 2.20:1 across a standard television. The colors are appropriately bright (this is a late 60's film, after all, when garish colors were all the rage), but they are a tad dark on facial tones. The bit rate used is fairly ordinary, so I supposed WB thought the colors and contrasts of the original print could take care of themselves. The picture is slightly soft in spots, and slightly grainy as well, lending an overall roughness to the image that perhaps complements the jagged edges of the script.

I was not too pleased with the Dolby Digital rendering of the 1.0 mono soundtrack. It's undoubtedly as good as it can be, but that isn't saying much. The audio is quite dynamic, but it often appears overly bright, hollow, and pinched, with a touch of background noise intruding on the quiet moments. In its own distorted way, it, too, may complement the movie with its cold, aggressive stance.

The outstanding feature here is the audio commentary with director John Boorman and filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh. Soderbergh introduces the older director by saying he'd stolen from "Point Blank" so many times it was a pleasure to be able to talk with the director about how it all came about. So what we get is a series of questions and answers between the two men. In one case, for instance, Soderbergh asks Boorman what it was like to shoot a noir film in color. Boorman replies that Hollywood noirs developed out of the experience of German Expressionist cameramen who migrated to America before the Second World War, bringing with them the kind of black-and-white lighting techniques that he tried replicating in nighttime color shots.

The other bonuses are not as advantageous. There are two related vintage featurettes, "The Rock Pt. 1" and "The Rock Pt. 2," seven and eight-minute promos for the movie telling a little about Alcatraz as a shooting location and hyping the film along the way. In addition, there are twenty-four scene selections, but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
It's hard not to like "Point Blank," yet it's not the kind of film a viewer can get very close to, either. It's rather chilly, emotionless--its characters, its plot, its look, its music. Marvin is perfectly cast as the obsessed tough guy, who is at once brilliant yet slow, dispassionate yet warmhearted. The character and the movie are fraught with contradictions, which, of course, is just the way its fans like it. Watch it back-to-back with Caine's "Get Carter" and/or McQueen's "Bullitt" for a real treat in effectively minimalist, crime-caper filmmaking.


Film Value