Lee Marvin: A Sensitive 17-Year-Old Boy

Lee Marvin

“This film is really in one sense about Lee Marvin. It’s about him as a character. He went out to the war and he was a sensitive 17-year-old boy and you know, he was brutalized and in a way he was expressing himself through violence. He was always trying to recapture his humanity that he felt he had lost and that’s really what the story is about. It’s about a man who comes back from the dead and tries to find his humanity.”
– Director John Boorman on Point Blank (DVD commentary)

After appearing in countless war films, westerns and crime dramas, Lee Marvin won his first Oscar in 1965 for Cat Ballou and followed it up with a starring role in the extremely successful action-packed movie The Dirty Dozen. Hollywood was impressed with Marvin’s success and they offered the actor complete creative control over his next film. That film would be the stylish 1967 Neo-noir crime thriller Point Blank.

The film was directed by the talented British filmmaker John Boorman who Lee Marvin had met in London while filming The Dirty Dozen. Boorman approached Marvin with a poorly adapted script of a pulp novel called The Hunter written by Richard Stark (pen name for Donald E. Westlake) and expressed interest in making a film with him. Marvin hated the original script but he wanted to make the film with Boorman so the two men spent many long evenings in London working out the details and exploring creative concepts before finally plunging ahead with their proposal.

Point Blank (1967)

During this process Point Blank became a very personal project for Lee Marvin. He was involved in almost all aspects of the film including the movie’s development, story, staging, sound effects and stunts. Besides just making an entertaining film, Marvin wanted to use various metaphors within the movie to explore his deep-seated feelings about a career spent playing violent killers and a lifetime trying to come to terms with the horrible things he had experienced during WWII where he had served as a sniper for the U.S. Marines.

In Point Blank Lee Marvin plays Walker, a reluctant criminal who stumbles into a bad situation and pays dearly for it. After being convinced to join in a criminal heist with an old friend and his wife that takes place in San Francisco at Alcatraz Prison, Walker is shot “point-blank” by his friend who wants the money and Walker’s wife all for himself. Walker seems to recover quickly and afterward he decides to go after the $93,000 he is still owed from the job. As the film progresses we follow Walker on his quest to confront his would-be killer and recover his money while leaving a trail of dead and beaten bodies behind him. Of course there’s much more to this crime film once you start scratching at its stylish surface.

Point Blank (1967)

Lee Marvin has an incredible screen presence that can easily intimidate an audience with its animal intensity. In Point Blank the actor literally jumps off the screen at times but some of the films most poignant moments are its quieter ones, which critics rarely mention. Before Lee Marvin is transformed into the angry gun carrying Walker who dominates most of Point Blank he’s shown as a sweet love struck man. He enjoys romancing his wife and seems willing to do anything to help out a friend. We also see him nervously contemplating his crimes before and after they take place. Walker might be tough and dangerous but he’s also a thoughtful and sensitive guy with a big heart.

I think it’s obvious that John Boorman and Lee Marvin wanted to present Walker as a man who was transformed by violence and disappointment. Much like the innocent 17-year-old Lee Marvin who naively went off to war and was deeply effected by what he experienced there, Marvin’s character in Point Blank is not a naturally violent man. But he has no problem committing acts of violence once he experiences it first hand. Marvin’s Walker seems to rise from the dead as an angry angel of vengeance to pursue the money that’s owed him. But this vengeance is tempered by Walker’s complicated interior-life and throughout the course of Point Blank Lee Marvin’s character never actually kills anyone. Walker beats a few men senseless and threatens them with violence but he often acts more like an angel of mercy who has the ability to kill and chooses to offer people his understanding and a chance for redemption instead. Thanks to Lee Marvin’s powerful screen presence these gentler aspects of his character in Point Blank are continually overlooked by critics in their reviews of the film. They only seem capable of seeing Marvin’s character as a merciless and destructive man, willing to do anything to get back the money that’s owed him.

Point Blank (1967)

As we follow Walker on his violent odyssey the film often veers off in abstract directions that follow no clear narrative structure but there are plenty of visual and verbal clues that tell us a lot about the journey Marvin’s character is undertaking and his real goals. And what are these goals? If we take Boorman’s comments about the film at face value it’s clear that the money Walker is hunting for is actually a metaphor for his lost humanity, which seems forever trapped in a sort of prison of his own making. Like Lee Marvin himself, the character of Walker has been transformed by the violence and disappointment that he has suffered in his life. Unfortunately he discovers throughout the course of the film that nothing, including the love of a beautiful woman and the destruction of his enemies, can return his innocence and restore his humanity. Walker can only accept his transformation and imprisonment, and learn to live with it.

Point Blank is an incredible looking film that uses bold color schemes and creative camera work in ways similar to Antonioni’s arthouse dramas Red Desert (1964) and Blowup (1966), as well as Seijun Suzuki’s neo-noir crime thrillers Youth of the Beast (1964), Kanto Wanderer (1964) and Tokyo Drifter (1966). John Boorman has expressed that Antonioni’s films and classic noir inspired the overall look and feel of Point Blank, but I haven’t come across any indication that the director or Lee Marvin were aware of Seijun Suzuki’s early films before making their movie. Much like Suzuki, as well as the French director Jean-Pierre Melville, John Boorman injects his crime film with an overall sense of malaise and turns Lee Marvin’s Walker into one of cinema’s greatest existential anti-heroes alongside Jo Shishido’s Jo Mizuno in Youth of the Beast and Alain Delon’s Frank Costello in Le Samourai.

Point Blank (1967)

There is very little dialogue in Point Blank,but what is extremely powerful and often very telling. Even Walker’s one word name tells the audience a lot about his character. One of the films most important moments comes towards the end when Walker finally confronts the man who seems to hold the key to his fortune.

Brewster: You’re a very bad man, Walker, a very destructive man! Why do you run around doing things like this?
Walker: I want my money. I want my $93,000.
Brewster: $93,000? You threaten a financial structure like this for $93,000? No, Walker, I don’t believe you. What do you really want?
Walker: I – I really want my money.
Brewster: Well, I’m not going to give you any money and nobody else is. Don’t you understand that?
Walker: Who runs things?

Brewster: Carter and I run things. I run things.
Walker: What about Fairfax? Will he pay me?
Brewster: Fairfax is a man who signs checks.
Walker: No, cash.
Brewster: Fairfax isn’t going to give you anything. He’s finished. Fairfax is dead. He just doesn’t know it yet.

20 years ago today on August 29, 1987, Lee Marvin left this earth. Unfortunately like many young men who find themselves on bloody foreign battlefields far from home, a part of Lee Marvin had died many years before. Through countless roles as a ruthless killer and movie heavy, Marvin had expressed the violence that had eaten away at him in various creative ways. Point Blank was an accumulation of Marvin’s previous roles held up to a prism and projected back to the audience in a kaleidoscope of colors and action. Underlying that is the echoing silence that permeates Point Blank and seems to cut right to the very core of Lee Marvin’s character.

Point Blank (1967)

I personally think Point Blank is one of the greatest American films produced during the sixties but it received a cold critical reception when it was originally released. American critics weren’t ready to see Lee Marvin as an existential anti-hero and the film’s themes and creative ideas were just too complex for many viewers who preferred to see the actor in simpler action films like The Dirty Dozen. The movie has slowly gained a cult following over the years thanks to numerous theatrical re-releases in Europe and its DVD release, which has allowed critics of Point Blank the opportunity to re-examine the film. If you want to see a terrific film and experience one of Lee Marvin’s best and most important performances, do yourself a favor and watch the brilliant Point Blank.

If you’d like to see more screen shots from the film please visit my Point Blank Gallery at Flickr.

You can also read a bit more about Lee Marvin and his film work with John Ford in a previous post I made earlier this year.

Point Blank is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

Richard Harland Smith is commemorating the 20th anniversary of Lee Marvin’s death over at TCM’s Movie Moorlocks blog today with a Blog-a-thon. Since Lee Marvin is one of my favorite American actors I couldn’t resist contributing to his terrific tribute with some thoughts on Marvin’s pivotal role in Point Blank.

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22 thoughts on “Lee Marvin: A Sensitive 17-Year-Old Boy

  1. Joe D says:

    Great post on a great film, I didn’t know about Marvin’s relationship with Boorman or about his military record. Your piece shows this film in a new light like a sudden snap focus effect. Exciting, informative and sensitively written. I also am reminded of the Combat episode Lee was in, no wonder it was so powerful.

  2. Adam Ross says:

    Awesome post about one of my favorite movies. There’s so many oddly beautiful moments, like the obscenely crowded party where Walker and Reese meet — what the hell is that place?

    I love how ambiguous the passage of time is in “Point Blank,” for instance how long is he in his old house in L.A. after confronting his wife? It could have been weeks waiting for the money man to come, and cleaning out her furniture, or it could have been hours — with his wife’s identity and belongings simply vanishing with her life.

    Keenan Wynn is great in this as well. His character is like Walker’s “M,” who also lives in the same plane of reality (there’s a line about him being dead, but “not knowing yet”).

  3. martin s says:

    Yes, Seijun Suzuki’s 60s films are definitely in the same spirit. I’ve never been to San Francisco Kimberly, but I’d love to think it hasn’t changed much from Walker’s time. Right, so I guess I should just avoid the disappointment and just never go.

  4. Jonathan Lapper says:

    We rarely intersect on posts (and didn’t really here, not completely) but the movie is fresh in my mind as I just wrote in my most recent Oscar post, when referring to the nominations of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Dolittle that “Bedazzled, Cool Hand Luke, Far from the Madding Crowd, Point Blank, The President’s Analyst and Reflections in a Golden Eye were all available and they went with these two? What?” Sometimes Hollywood is mystifying. Point Blank is the perfect choice if you’re doing a post on Lee Marvin. I was very happy to see that you chose it. I think it’s a real shame that Marvin won his Oscar for Cat Ballou a film where Marvin could just ham it up as obiously as the guy who played the drunk on Bewitched without having to really call upon his acting prowess. Here he gets to use it fully in the best role of his career. He could have won for this and Steiger could have won for The Pawnbroker (well the first half of the movie at least) and that would have worked out a lot better than the way it ended up. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Marvin was bad in Cat Ballou it just didn’t require much from him.

    I also think it’s too bad when any actor who gets labeled a “tough guy” is relegated to mediocre roles in mediocre films as happened with Marvin for most of his career. Studios or fans or both decide what the want to see an actor in and that’s what he gets. But he took what he got and made it exhilirating. His career was far too short and had far too few challenging roles. I have always wanted to see his version of Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. He received fantastic reviews for it and if what the reviews say are true it just proves that Marvin was capable of a range that the studios never touched on. They put him in things like Paint Your Wagon instead (and how shocking to see Paddy Chayesky’s name on that one, huh?).

    And it’s no surprise that one of the best American films of the sixties was directed by a Brit. It’s as if the native filmmakers in this country took an extended holiday during the decade, leaving England, Europe and Asia to keep things covered until they returned.

    Boorman was probably the perfect director for Marvin as he seemed to work well with strong men struggling for survival, whether it be Deliverance, Zardoz (and how can one not like Zardoz?) or even Excalibur.

    A great review Kimberly. You continue to run the most unique movie blog out there, covering and highlighting the underrated, underappreciated and underseen.

    P.S. Slightly off topic but did you ever hear Boorman tell the story of hiring Nicol Williamson for Excalibur. It’s hilarious.

  5. Robert Monell says:

    That’s the best writing I’ve ever read on Lee Marvin and POINT BLANK, Kimberly! One of my favorite American films which redifined the film noir. It also reminds me of Suzuki’s BRANDED TO KILL in many ways. Watch that double bill. As nonlinear as LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and, yes, as abstract as Antonioni, it’s an amazingly quiet film at times and you are so right on when you point out his reflective qualities, Walker seems to mainly listen to the environments and people he comes into contact with. He is almost like a still life which can suddenly explode into an action painting. It’s genre cinema as Art. I’ve read the Westlake novel, THE HUNTER. It’s pretty damn good and even more terse than the movie. Worth reading. Some favorite Lee Marvin roles are the thug in THE BIG HEAT, the hitman in Don Siegel’s THE KILLERS and the Sergeant in THE BIG RED ONE.

  6. Ed Hardy, Jr. says:

    Thanks for writing about this brilliant film. My favorite Lee Marvin moment of all time is in this film: he’s seeing his wife, Lynn, for the first time in forever. There is great tension in the air and you just know it’s going to explode into violence. Then he simply sits down on the couch. And the whole story is in his eyes and in his posture. He doesn’t say anything, but Lynn keeps talking. She’s answering the questions that he’s not asking.

    I’ve heard that in the script, Lee’s character, Walker, had lines. He just wasn’t saying them. Sharon Acker didn’t know what to do, so she kept spitting out her lines. And Lee keeps staring her down with those remarkable eyes.

    I loved your piece so much I posted a link to it on my blog,
    ShootTheProjectionist.blogspot.com, and said a word or two about how much I’ve been enjoying CINEBEATS of late.

  7. cinebeats says:

    Joe D – Thanks a lot! I’m happy that my post could shed a little more light on Lee and Point Blank. Lee Marin is a fascinating man.

    Adam – I’m glad that my piece appealed to fellow Point Blank fans. Since it’s one of my favorite films too I can write about it forever. My post could have easily turned into a college thesis, but I tried to show a little restraint.

    Like yourself, I love the way Boorman plays with time in Point Blank. The edits are often startling. As Robert pointed out below, in some ways it’s reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ films in this regard. And I agree that Keenan Wynn is terrific! He’s perfectly low-key in the film and pretty intimidating at the same time. His whole “angel of death” bit is really well played.

    Martin – It’s fascinating how Suzuki’s early work seems to be reflected in Boorman’s film, but as far as I know Boorman was unfamiliar with it when he and Lee made Point Blank. As far as I know the San Francisco scenery scene in most of Point Blank was actually shot in and around L.A. so I have no idea if the areas still look the same. On the other hand, I can confirm that Alcatraz is still an incredibly menacing place.

  8. cinebeats says:

    Jonathan – I agree that it is a shame that Lee won an Oscar for Cat Ballou when he delivered a lot better performances throughout his career. It seems like the Oscars are often handed out to people for their lessor work.

    I hope you get a chance to see The Iceman Cometh soon! It’s a really good film that features one of Lee’s best and most complex performances. The Blog-a-thon has encouraged me to watch Prime Cut soon which Richard wrote about at the Moorlocks blog today. I’ve read bits about the movie before, but I never managed to get around to seeing it and it sounds fascinating.

    I totally agree that Boorman seems like the perfect director for Lee. I really like Boorman and I’ve enjoyed just about all his films (including Zardoz and the even the much maligned Exorcist II!). I’ haven’t heard his story about the Excalibur casting but now you’ve got me curious about it.

    Last but not least, many thanks for your kind words about my blog! I really appreciate your feedback and I’m glad you can enjoy my posts.

    Robert Monell – I can’t thank you enough for the nice comment about my Point Blank piece. You made me blush! I haven’t read The Hunter but after writing this and reading your comment about it, I really would like to. There is a Resnais quality to Point Blank and many thanks for pointing it out. Point Blank features my favorite Lee Marvin performance, but I also liked him in The Killers and The Big Red One a lot too. He’s really also terrific in The Iceman Cometh which Jonathan mentioned above, as well as The Wild One, Emperor of the North Pole, Pocket Money and the other terrific Boorman/Marvin film Hell in the Pacific.

    Ed Hardy Jr. – I have to agree with you. That terrific moment in Point Blank is one of my favorites as well. Lee’s silence is staggering! And many thanks for linking to my post and the nice words about Cinebeats. I’ve added your blog to my blogroll.

  9. Keith says:

    Hey Kimberly. What a great review of “Point Blank.” It is the best I’ve seen on this brilliant film. Lee Marvin is one of my favorite actors of all time. He’s one of the tough guys that I always admired. This film, while having its share of violence, showed a different side to him. I love that about it. War does change a man. Sometimes it might be for the better, but more often it changes him in ways he’s not comfortable with. It’s an ugly part of life. Marvin was great here. One of his best.

  10. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for the comment Keith! I’m glad you liked my piece on Lee. War is a nasty business and I can’t agree that it ever changes anyone for the better, but I do agree that it’s an ugly part of life.

  11. Mr. Peel says:

    While reading your description of Marvin’s portrayal of Walker, in my mind I flashed on that shot of him in the parking garage…then I scrolled further down and there it was. Perfect.

    Does he want his money or something else? “I pay my debts!” screams Keenan Wynn, but maybe his character never fully understands what debt is really owed. And what can never be paid back.

    This is a great piece on a brilliant film. It was a true pleasure to read. Keep ’em coming.

  12. Neil says:

    Great article. This is one of my all-time favorite movies. I’m not even much of a Boorman fan, for whatever that says about me or him or whatever, but, as far as I’m concerned there’s not a thing less than brilliant in Point Blank.

  13. Jeremy says:

    It’s funny one of the reasons that I didn’t join this blog-a-thon is that I wanted to do “Point Blank” but I knew that someone who could blow me out of the water would cover it…glad it was you Kimberly.
    This is a really astonishing look at Marvin and this film. I knew a lot of this stuff but the way you connected the dots between his life, this role and this film was incredible.
    I first saw “Point Blank” in my teens and it is easily one of my favorite American films of the sixties. It is one of those rare American films that did match much of the inventiveness of the Italian and French new waves and it remains so incredibly fresh and haunting.
    Everything about it, from the cast to the music to Boorman’s direction, blows me away. There is a real mystical quality to the film as well that makes it much more resonant than almost any other American crime film from the period I can think of.
    Thanks Kimberly, you really got to the heart of this film and Lee Marvin. I’m glad I didn’t attempt a write up of it yesterday (although I do wish I would have covered Lee in “The Wild One” but I thought of it after midnight)…Awesome post.

  14. Rick Ryan says:

    I just want add my voice to the chorus of well deserved compliments you’ve received on your Point Blank post. As odd as this may sound, I take great comfort that a man as talented as Lee Marvin is still being celebrated, and that his work continues to be discussed and debated by film buffs. Maybe it’s the narrow mind-set of a baby boomer, but I sometimes despair that we may never see the likes of Marvin, (and for that matter Bogart and McQueen), ever again.
    I’m just beginning to familiarize myself with your blog. The wealth of information to be found and the original way you present it is nothing short of amazing.

  15. William Smith says:

    Thanks for the great post on Lee Marvin and Point Blank. I haven’t pulled out that disk in way too long.

    I recently saw Marvin in a Budd Boetticher picture called 7 Men from Now. He plays one of the most ambiguous and charismatic heavies I’ve ever seen in a western. In the film Randolph Scott is on a revenge ride to kill the men responsible for his wife’s shooting death in a hold-up and to recover the money that was stolen. Marvin’s character tags along. He knows who killed Scott’s wife but he isn’t saying, just that he himself “would never sink so low as to murder a woman” and though he helps get Scott out of a number of tight spots, he’s quite open about the fact that he’s waiting for an opportunity grab the money and kill Scott if he has to.

    Also Marvin wears a very flamboyant green silk scarf through the whole film (Marvin’s idea), I guess signifying his character’s individuality and romantic spirit.

    The comments seem generally down on Marvin’s earlier westerns but this is definitely one to check out.

  16. Aaron W. says:

    A wonderful review, Kimberly. Alongside EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, POINT BLANK is my favourite Lee Marvin film, but it’s the one I feel is most quintessential in creating the Marvin legend that lives on to this day. I had no idea that Boorman and Marvin worked so closely on this project together, so thanks for elucidating.

    On a side note, I’d love to get my hands on the Alex Jacobs draft of the screenplay, which apparently was the biggest influence on Walter Hill’s early writing style.

    And at the risk of shameless self-promotion (well, not really), I thought I’d offer up a Marvin interview that I posted on my blog a couple of months ago:

    http://awcgfilmlog.blogspot.com/2007/07/lee-marvin-and-google-video.html

  17. cinebeats says:

    Thanks a lot for all the positive feedback! Point Blank is one of my favorite films and Lee Marvin deserves a lot of praise for making the film, so I’m happy I could share my thoughts about the movie with others who also enjoy it.

    Mr. Peel – I find it amusing that so many critics always point out what an “animal” Lee is in the film, when in fact Point Blank has lots of quiet introspective moments (like the one the parking garage) and the guy never kills anyone. I think that says a hell of a lot about his film career in general and how he was typecast. Lots of critics and viewers just can’t get past it.

    Neil – I do think Point Blank is a product of the times it was made (and typifies why the 60s is my favorite film decade) and Boorman was in top form here, but Lee had a lot of creative control over the film as well. In many ways it’s sort of a co-Borrman/Marvin film.

    Jeremy – I wish you would have written about Point Blank too because I’m sure you’d have some interesting ideas to share about the film. Since I love Lee so much and Boorman, I couldn’t pass up the chance to contribute to Richard’s tribute. Point Blank really seems inspired by the Japanese New Wave in my opinion, as well as French and Italian cinema from the same period. I’m sure Boorman also brought an edgy British New Wave sensibility to the film as well. His European influences are really on display so it’s hard for me to view Point Blank as an “American” movie even though it was made and produced here.

    Interestingly enough, Boorman and Marvin made Hell In the Pacific next with Mifune, who Lee has called his favorite actor. It makes me wonder how much Japanese cinema Lee had seen before making Point Blank? I haven’t been able to find any info about this, but if anyone else happens to know anything more about the possible influence of modern Japanese cinema like Suzuki’s films on Point Blank, I would love to hear about it!

    Rick – I have to agree that I’m not sure we’ll see the likes of guys like Marvin, Bogart and McQueen on screen again. I suppose someone could say that they were products of their time, but these men often brought their experience in the world of hard-knocks into their roles. Todays actors seem to come from the school of no-knocks. In other words, I find that their bland and often sheltered lives (not to mention plastic surgery looks) make them utterly boring to watch on screen. They just seem to have nothing going on inside. Half of them are the privileged kids of wealthy actors so I guess that says a lot, but I don’t know… I just find 85% of todays popular actors and actresses incredibly boring, dull and predictable since they seem to “mimic” instead of bringing anything original and exciting to their roles.

    William – Thanks so much for posting about 7 Men from Now. It’s a movie I haven’t seen and now you’ve got me wanting to watch it. It sounds really interesting!

    Aaron – Glad to see another Emperor of the North fan! That movie is really something. Robert Aldrich made a lot of good films. Alex Jacobs also wrote some interesting scripts, but I didn’t know that he was a big influence on Walter Hill.

    I actually linked to those Lee Marvin videos on my post a few months ago that I mentioned above for the John Ford Blog-a-thon. They’re really insightful and terrific! If anyone is interested in Lee Marvin, they’re really worth a look.

  18. Bruce says:

    Great article about the a great film taken from a great book. Lee Marvin just oozes bad ass all over. But where the love for Prime Cut folks.

  19. Lenny says:

    Before reading your excellent piece, I wasn’t aware of the degree to which Lee Marvin was involved creatively on POINT BLANK. However, I now wonder if his involovement was to an even greater degree than thought?. One of the frustrating things about the POINT BLANK DVD commentary track, featuring both John Boorman and Steven Soderburgh, is the frequent lack of information Boorman is able to provide concerning the motivation for certain editing choices, or even for entire scenes. He had recall, on the other hand, for why certain locations were used, etc. Is it possible that the fractured narrative of POINT BLANK was the conception of Lee Marvin, with Boorman simply carrying out his wishes?

  20. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Lenny!

    I have to agree that the DVD commentary for Point Blank is frustrating. Boorman did seem rather vague at times and Steven Soderburgh seemed to constantly cut him off in mid-sentence which I thought was really annoying and rather rude. I really wish Boorman had provided the commentary alone since too much of it seemed to focus on Soderburgh himself.

    Since Lee Marvin had creative control over the film I think it’s safe to say that he was really involved in all aspects of it. From the information I’ve been able to gather, it seems the original book the film was based on did have a rather fractured narrative, but I believe that Lee and Boorman worked together on the script with the writers and some of the film was even improvised by Marvin as they were shooting the film.

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