“Somebody’s gotta pay…”
Revenge is a fruitful story subject; there’s good reason The Count of Monte Cristo has been adapted to film numerous times and inspired countless knockoffs and variations. Monte Cristo was a righteous man wronged, but it’s just as much fun to see a flawed or outright bad guy get double crossed, become sort of heroic by gaining your sympathy as they deal out revenge on their own kind, and John Boorman’s 1967 movie Point Blank is one of the best movie examples of that type.
It only takes about 5 minutes of disordered but cleverly assembled shots, stunning visuals and brief snatches of dialogue for the viewer to figure out what’s gone on to this point and what the movie will be about. John Vernon talks Lee Marvin into a heist of the regular “Alcatraz Drop,” immediately after which Vernon shoots Marvin, leaves him for dead in one of the cells and makes off with Marvin’s share of the loot and his wife Sharon Acker. You see, Vernon had estimated a much larger take and needs all the money to pay his way into the “organization.” Many months later, Marvin comes back for revenge, stepping through a minefield of destruction, making his way first to his wife, then her sister Angie Dickinson, Vernon and all the steps up the ladder to the top of the organization, and somehow right back where he started.
Point Blank has so much going on you hardly know where to begin talking about it. For starters, its look is amazing. Its heavy, constant fixation on impressive man made construction makes buildings and architecture a character in the movie, and also uses them to remind you that the story is itself an intricate structure that clicks together like a set of Lego, making a tight and solid and colourful structure. Like the imposing cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the crime “organization” increasingly seems a impenetrable hive-mind, an immovable bureaucratic structure, set against Marvin as one man with a simple, instinctual desire: “Do you mean to say, you’d bring down this immense organization for a paltry $93,000?” Marvin covers almost the whole city, constantly interacting with imposing architecture and famous landmarks but wait: does he really ever make it out of the inescapable Rock?
The look of Point Blank is dreamlike, it’s gorgeous and creative without arty excess, it’s stark with harsh, drastic and dizzying angles and long, intimidating perspective. The players are seen disappearing behind walls and filmed through grates, down ramps and halls, pictured from and into ascending elevators, along rooftops, tunnels and bridges, in bright sunlight at the famous aqueduct, or hidden in ink dark shadows. The fashion and decor are obviously very much of the era but still, very little is laughably dated, and most remains stylish and attractive.
The dialogue is pithy and pointed, necessary, thrifty, just facts. The scenes are cut to match, efficient, so the instant Dickinson says “Huntley House,” your eyes are on that very building’s facade, and when she describes the penthouse, you’re looking at it. When Marvin listens to the spiel meant for tourists, about how nobody escapes from Alcatraz, you see him flashing back to how he (maybe) did just that.
Sounds abruptly punctuate cuts and introduce new scenes, colours are matched and themed to sequences of events, like the yellow of Dickinson’s dress and coin operated beach telescope, which is brought through to Vernon’s penthouse decor and Marvin’s outfit. Of course the most famous of these combos of audiovisual is the part with Marvin walking (so he’s named Walker, get it?), his hard soled click-steps echoing through a long colourfully tiled hall at LAX, then clicking all the way through the next long sequence of scenes, the unbreaking stride that signals his relentless approach and determination while his targets obliviously go about their usual business. Another nice example is the brawl set to the nightclub act; as the band improvs a call and response, it continues frantically while Marvin beats up a couple of henchmen in the club’s bathroom.
Marvin, always the definition of movie cool, is downright chilling here, like an unstoppable horror movie figure, like a ghost version of himself. Just when you think he’s emotionless, he almost tells Dickinson to take care of herself, but instead says, “don’t get lost out there.” With the most stoic bearing he sneaks right past a horde of security into Vernon’s place, stands like a marble statue absorbing Dickinson’s beating until she can swing no more, and we can’t forget how completely he wrecks a really nice Imperial convertible, as well as its salesman, during a hilarious test drive– “Most accidents happen within three miles from home.” He gets only momentarily, only slightly ruffled when he’s left clutching a bedsheet on a balcony (won’t spoil), hardly even fazed by having to go through the house unplugging all the appliances and electronics Dickinson has switched on, and turns it to his advantage when she clubs him upside the head with a billiard cue. As he says repeatedly, he’s just “Walker” and he just wants his money. He practically ceases to exist once he gets within reach of it.
John Vernon, here first introduced to audiences, is great as a chiseled, brash, bombastic huckster who turns on his partner in crime. Watch as he starts to show stress cracks, having to ask slimy crime organization head Lloyd Bochner for help in repelling Marvin (which also means having to suffer Bochner’s smirking and barely concealed mockery of Vernon for letting this happen). That he faints when Marvin finally catches up to him is a great touch, as are the mix of his first begging scenes “you’re my only friend!” with him now begging for mercy. There are many more familiar faces, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Connor (“You’re a very bad man Walker a very destructive man!!”) Kathleen Freeman, James Sikking, to name a few. They get to be brilliant in just one line or scene. But once you’ve enjoyed the path of destruction left by Marvin and then tried to understand his decision at the end, stop to think a bit about whether he actually killed anybody, or was ever really there to begin with. Then go watch it again.
“How do you like that?”
“I like it.”
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