“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 with a starring role in The Dirty Dozen, a hugely popular action-packed war film. 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.
Point Blank 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 at the helm 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.
During this process, Point Blank became a very personal project for 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 movie, Marvin wanted to use various metaphors 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, 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 ultra-stylish surface.
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-toting Walker who dominates most of Point Blank, he’s depicted 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 Marvin, along with director John Boorman and screenwriter Alexandar Jacobs, 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 affected 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 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 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 who is willing to do anything to get back the money that’s owed him.
As we follow Walker on his violent odyssey the film often veers off in abstract directions. The film refuses to follow a clearcut 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 acknowledged 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 Suzuki’s early films before making their movie. Much like Suzuki, as well as the French director Jean-Pierre Melville, 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 (1963) and Alain Delon’s Frank Costello in Le Samourai (1967).
There is very little dialogue in Point Blank, but what is there 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 occurs 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 expressed the violence that had eaten away at him in various creative ways. Point Blank was an accumulation of the actor’s previous roles held up to a prism and projected back to the audience in a kaleidoscope of colors, ideas, and movement. Underlying that is the echoing silence that permeates Point Blank and seems to cut right to the very core of Marvin’s character.
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 the opportunity to re-examine the film. If you want to see a terrific movie 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 screenshots 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.