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Point Blank

(John Boorman, USA, 1967): The image of Lee Marvin, perched on the rocks surrounding Alcatraz, about to slip into the deathly waves rolling between him and the city of San Francisco rising in the distance, suggests a primal force on the move: a monster on the loose, something wicked that way going. Almost everybody knows that stretch of water is practically guaranteed to kill anyone who tries to cross it — we can’t even be sure Clint Eastwood made it across following his Escape From Alcatraz — so you’d have to be crazy, inhuman or maybe already dead to even try. In Point Blank, Boorman’s deliriously hard-boiled psycho-noir adaptation of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, it’s an open question which one doesn’t apply to Marvin’s revenging beast Walker.

Arriving in that counter-culturally critical Hollywood year of 1967 — the year of Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand LukeThe Graduate and The Trip — Point Blank captured, in its impressionistically splintered telling of a story of man trapped in a vortex of unattainable vengeance, an altogether different view of the era’s shifting priorities than any of its more romantically appealing Summer of Love cohorts. In Boorman’s film, which approaches the state of an action movie directed by Michelangelo Antonioni but cut by Nicolas Roeg, the world is terminally unstable, unfixed and perhaps even purely a matter of projection. Despite the stripped-to-the-bone retributive motivation of Walker — who was left for dead in an Alcatraz cell by a double-crossing confederate named Reese (John Vernon) following the heist of a cash transfer belonging to the very ‘Organization’ both men worked for — the movie plays on the nightmare logic of Walker’s utter inability to get what he’s owed. Or even to satisfy his (and our) most primal action-movie urges: the money’s never in the hands of the people he thinks it is, people die or disappear before he gets a chance to do the job himself, and he’s denied even the most basic generic privilege of getting laid. This with Angie Dickinson, in full dandelion yellow blossom, on hand.

He makes his way from San Francisco to Los Angeles, seemingly walking there along an endless airport corridor where his heels click and echo like a clock on a bomb. But it’s really a condensed image of all he will ever do: walk purposefully nowhere, implacable but alone. Compared to San Francisco’s distinct and geographically contained urban personality, L.A. will disperse into pure sets, suggestions of a city without a centre, unmarked by any sense of direction, progress or linear coherence. Walker will just show up in certain places — a used car lot, a rooftop, a swank living room, a nightclub — his expression of inscrutable stoniness increasingly seeming less like resolute determination than a mask for confusion. (Marvin’s face, never less than its own special effect, never seemed quite so carefully put on. Watch as Angie Dickinson will eventually try — and fail — to slap it into response.) L.A. is where the Organization practices whatever it does, and like all corporations it thrives in environments where there is no centre, no way of following the money to anything like a source. Even in broad, blinding daylight — of which there is a lot in the inverted noir universe of Point Blank — you can’t see where you are or where you’re going.

The corporation has evolved as a perfectly elusive entity, engineered for unaccountability and cool, impersonal efficiency. It’s like Walker in that way, but even colder because it doesn’t care and he does. When he comes it’s ready for him, but only to the extent that it has already evolved beyond grudge or vendetta. As far as it’s concerned, Walker’s an anachronism whose story is already over before he shows up. A ghost of a bygone time, when men could get things done on sheer force of personal will. The corporation — Organization — has force and will to spare, but it isn’t personal.

Point Blank is about the lone wolf lost in the hard, concrete frontier of the infinite city, a man with a code where codes have no currency. Certainly Walker gets his punches in and we get our action-movie, cowboy hero kicks: Marvin terrorizes in that satisfied manner that he honed in his pre-stardom decades as a looming thug, but it gets him nowhere, and the movie is forever sucking him back into the shadows, still hungry for all the blood spilled.

Like many counter-culturally clicked movies of its day, Point Blank was sniffing some serious change in the smoggy air, but it was anything but convinced any good was going to come of it. Like so many westerns that insisted the old ways were about to die, it confronts Walker with his anachronism and snorts at his quaintly rugged individualism. In so many other films, he’d be a survivor simply because he’s so irredeemably uncompromised and independent, but this he’s just irrelevant, a minor and ephemeral nuisance who can’t get with the program because it’s completely beyond his understanding. It wasn’t a New Eden Point Blank was evoking just over the horizon, but an emboldened power structure that was already well on its way to correcting the tilt taken by America in the 1960s and reversed so utterly in the decades to come. In other movies, the sense of a culture cracking apart was a form of psychedelic delirium, an explosion of colours and kaleidoscopic riot that implied release, breaking on through, new freedoms for those hip enough to dare. Not here: in Boorman’s movie, reality itself is in collapse, but there is a new one rising to take its place. And the confusion, you’ll note, is purely Walker’s: everybody else seems fine with this world without referents or endgames. It’s he who is lost, he alone who suspects this isn’t making sense.

This was no place for heroes, free agents or lone gunmen, at least not of the pre-corporate variety. Soon enough, the machine would make its very own Walkers. And they’d work for salary, benefits and the promise of regular promotion.