Tuesday, November 23, 2010

POINT BLANK (1967): Film Noir?

We’re inundated with jargon.  Terms and concepts such as synergy, legalese, out-sourcing, co-sourcing, or thinking outside of the box have become as much a part of our language as terms with real substance such as bread or water.  Critics in particular like to use such words or phrases because it disguises a lack of precision.  The 92 minute film, Point Blank, is often described as film noir because there is so much about the film that cannot be easily described.  Film Noir I suppose could be used to describe a stylish crime drama except that Point Blank is not always so stylish.  The dream sequences in the movie may lead the viewer to the conclusion that it is stylish, but many of the film’s action sequences could just as easily be described as cheesy (especially when one considers this movie was released in 1967).  The film includes scenes in strip-clubs, features loud car crashes, lots of gun play, and plenty of graphic sex scenes thrown in (at least as graphic as it could be for that time period).  But setting that aside, the problem with describing this movie as film noir is that it downplays the film’s borderline exemplariness.   The supporting cast, and especially Angie Dickinson, John Vernon and Carroll O’Connor, admirably underplay their roles.   Lee Marvin, who had already played a number of significant roles, may have played his best part here ever as Walker, the loner and existentialist with no first name.

In the beginning of the film, Walker lies in an Alcatraz prison cell having what is either a flashback or a bad dream (and even at the film’s end we are not sure which it is) about a crime spree that went badly wrong for him.  In a heist for money in the amount of $150,000 – of which $93,000 is supposed to go to Walker – which was to take place on the island of Alcatraz , Walker is double-crossed by his partner Mal Reese (John Vernon) and by Walker’s wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker).   Reese subsequently shoots Walker after Walker has returned to his prison cell.  How this all happens with the absence of guards at the infamous facility is never clear.  Realism shouldn’t be assumed here.  Unfortunately for Reese and for Walker’s wife, Walker does not die from the gunshot wound (unless, of course, Walker is dreaming the whole revenge thing up).  Lynne, when confronted by Walker and out of feelings of guilt for her alliance with Reese (that included more than the simple shooting of her husband), commits suicide.  Walker, through the help of Lynne’s sister, Chris (Angie Dickinson) -  who also had a dalliance with Reese, but who now comes to fall in love with Walker – then comes back to kill everyone in the crime syndicate organization, from Reese on up, that is responsible for what had happened.  Reese only happens to be one of the lowly players in the entire scheme.   Others in the organization include Stegman (Michael Strong), a used car salesman, Frederick Carter (Lloyd Bochner), who is killed along with Stegman by a hit man (James Sikking) – a hit man that does not seem particularly disconcerted that he shot the wrong two people – and finally Brewster (Carroll O’Connor), who runs his crime organization like it was a corporation.  All of these individuals (and many more) die because of Walker’s intricate plan.  The irony is that Walker never gets his $93,000 back.  Since the crime syndicate is run like a corporation with millions of dollars in assets, the $93,000 is basically all on paper and is not readily available in dollar bills.

What Point Blank is ultimately about is only slightly less complicated than the plotline.  As much of a thug as Walker proves himself to be as evidenced by the number of individuals that he has killed or bludgeoned throughout the movie, he seems to have exhibited more integrity than any other major character in the film.   Walker is up front concerning his motives.  He wants money in dollar bills.  To the other characters in the movie, $93,000 is a mere pittance and would bring none of the major players any satisfaction.  Stegman enjoys the prestige of hearing his add for his car lot on the radio and wouldn’t show up at the job at all if not to eyeball attractive female clientele.   Reese attempted to kill Walker only because it was a way of moving up in the crime syndicate and provide him with a penthouse where he could entertain his female companions – including Walker’s wife, Lynne, and her sister, Chris.  Carter was willing to set-up and to kill any individual that would affect his prestige in the syndicate.  Brewster only paid attention to ledger sheets and account balances without any concern that the numbers also reflected people killed.  As much as Walker was familiar with a life of crime, he was completely at a loss to understand a crime syndicate as heartless and impersonal as a corporate conglomerate. 

In Point Blank, Director Boorman not so innocently juxtaposes corporate culture and organized crime – fairly successfully.  Walker as anti-hero is still not the real villain in this film.  The real villains have become number crunchers and live the life of executives attending cocktail parties and flying all around the country for business meetings.  They don’t talk like prototypical criminals and are even offended when having to witness the conduct of an old-style gangster like Walker.  What Boorman is trying to say with this film is both amusing and valid.  Corporate executives in this nation have been at least since the 1960s posing as something they are not.  All the talk about entrepreneurship and carrying on that dynamic frontier spirit of the 1800s notwithstanding, these moneymakers have been in many respects the very antithesis of the romantic trailblazers we hold so dear in American mythology.  In truth, corporate culture has high-jacked the definitions of individualism and autonomy, and in claiming these concepts for  their own have turned the American Dream into something unseemly and uninspiring  – like having an insurance actuary posing as an operator of an oil derrick.  Corporate executives thrive in a culture of organization and bureaucracy and have no backbone to succeed where one has to go it alone.  This is precisely why such characters as Brewster and Carter and Stegman and particularly Reese are so ineffective in dealing with Walker directly.  Yet it is because society is now so dominated by such individuals that someone like Walker feels so completely alienated from a society where he once played such an important part.  What sets a loner like Walker apart from other men of the modern era is his capacity to feel real human emotion.  As cold and ruthless as he may seem, he was capable of caring for people like his wife and her sister.  He was tough, courageous and loyal – if the company he kept might not always been worthy of loyalty. 

Director John Boorman also directed Deliverance.  It was probably the only other movie in the director’s long and ongoing career that was as unusual as Point Blank.  Yet both movies contain masculine themes, involve unusual characters, and concern violent circumstances that go beyond the key characters understanding.  Boorman seems obsessed with viewing modern society (and especially America) as evolving in a way that is not for the better.  Both films involve men wanting to live by codes of conduct that go beyond living by the strict letter of the law.  Yet in Deliverance the four main characters were friends of each other.  They trusted each other, and in the end the trust was deserved.  In Point Blank, Walker has no friends.  His one friendship with Reese, who he had trusted, ended in disaster.  Walker was forever condemned to go it alone save an occasional woman that he took to bed.  Walker was a man in a world that was otherwise devoid of men.  And so long as the world was impersonal and was ruled by profit motive and corporate protocol, he was forever condemned to go it alone.

May 19, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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