Walker (Lee Marvin) is out for revenge after a robbery ends with his friend double-crossing him, leaving him for dead and running off with his wife and the stolen money. It is a classic plot that could easily be an Anthony Mann Western or a Fritz Lang film noir. And yet Point Blank (1967) can be seen as heralding a turning point in Hollywood cinema, which was to lead to the innovative filmmaking of the 1970s and beyond.
While the 60s were marked by a great creative upheaval and experimentation seemed the order of the day, from the ‘new waves’ in France and Czechoslovakia to the American underground cinema, Hollywood remained resistant to these forces for change. The classical Hollywood ‘invisible’ style, with all elements of filmmaking subservient to the narrative, still dominated – The Sound of Music was the biggest hit of 1965 and more big-budget musicals were planned. The director knew he had done a good job if you didn’t notice his work. That an audience could watch and admire the cool stylish direction as well as follow the plot was an idea that only occurred to Hollywood execs at the very end of the decade – the pivotal year of 1969 when the huge failure of those big-budget musicals and the success of films like Easy Rider (1969) forced the industry to reevaluate its approach.
Point Blank was conceived as a vehicle for that unlikely star, Lee Marvin, who somehow became box-office gold in the mid-60s. After years of great scene-stealing performances as the bad guy in such classics as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Big Heat (1953) and The Wild One (1953), Marvin seemed to dodge his destined ‘Hey It’s That Guy’ status and found his moment had come.
He inherited the taciturn tough guy roles that John Wayne was too ill to play and took the type to new extremes of meanness. The dark side that lurks inside the Western or noir hero is out in the open in his role as a sociopathic hit man in Point Blank. He even fights dirtier, smashing bottles into faces and punching in the nuts. He is the American individualist – one man against ‘The Organisation’. His enemy has similarly evolved from the scheming cattle barons and corrupt mayors of the Western and noir to a business corporation that has no understanding of revenge or debts of honour. ‘Profit is the only principle,’ its bosses tell Walker. When he asks for his money he is told simply, ‘No business corporation in the world would acknowledge a debt of that kind’. The Hollywood hero struggles manfully on as the modern world throws up unimagined impediments.
It was Marvin who wanted to hire young hip Swinging London director John Boorman; and Marvin again who protected him from studio interference. Boorman – whose previous film (his debut) was the Dave Clark Five movie Catch Us If You Can (1965), a visually inventive and often brilliant mix of Richard Lester wackiness and kitchen sink realism – seems an odd choice for a gritty noir. He brings a range of innovations rarely seen in a mainstream Hollywood thriller, playing with a variety of styles borrowed from underground and art-house directors such as Stan Brakhage and Alain Resnais. The rampaging Walker smashes bottles bath oils that swirl around the plughole like psychedelic projections. Marvin and Angie Dickinson appear in separate fragments of a smashed mirror. But he uses those techniques to further the plot and add psychological depth without slowing the pace of the thriller and maintains the clarity of the Hollywood narrative. The inventive flashbacks (disturbing matches on action) show the character haunted by his memories, and yet temporal disorientation is minimised by an ingenious device – the earlier the flashback, the less grey there is in Lee Marvin’s hair.
Despite the stylish direction, Point Blank, just like Catch Us If You Can, is not a film that celebrates the 60s. For a film set and shot in LA and San Francisco in 1967 it is pretty dour. Even the groovy night club is peopled by slimy middle-aged balding executives singing a call and response with the resident soul band – it is like a scene cut from an ugly version of Mad Men. The 60s California we get here is one of leering used-car salesmen vainly listening to their own radio commercials, corrupt politicians and corporate lawyers.
The desire of stars like Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen to make voguish, cooler-looking films led the studios to bring in European (well, British) directors. Through films like Point Blank and Peter Yates’s commercially successful Bullitt (1968), Hollywood gradually began to appreciate that audiences may enjoy seeing exciting filmmaking even if it drew attention to the artifice of cinema.