Reviewing the quintessential Euro-cool movie of the 1960s gave me the idea to add on a little bonus review of perhaps the most European of the “cool American” films of the decade, a truly great work of experimental pop from the master of not deciding whether his film would be amazing or awful, John Boorman…
It is easy to reduce John Boorman’s Point Blank to its functional qualities. A man (Lee Marvin) is double-crossed by his partner-in-crime, left for dead, returns, and seeks vengeance on those who did him wrong. But it is the John Boorman secret that, generally, the quality of his films – and as we all know, a John Boorman joint is the definition of fulfilling a quality, be it positive or negative – was determined by his ability to strip his works down to their bare essentials. Generally, the more mired in screenplay complication and their own self-serving jargon-esque philosophical mumbo-jumbo, the more we arrive at trash like Zardoz and The Exorcist II: The Heretic. The more the screenplay was nothing more than a functional idea for Boorman to engage in pure, unmitigated craft, the better the film. And Boorman the startling, sleek, stripped-barren craft-person is one of the great modes of any filmmaker in cinema history. He lost his way time and time again, but he was always there with another genuinely great classic waiting under his belt. He just had to keep John Boorman the writer in line so that John Boorman the director could have a day at the races.
Or, frankly, not let John Boorman the writer out at all. He was far too confused and verbose a writer to ever translate in a cinematically meaningful way, and he always ended up drawing energy and life away from his very real strengths as a director and a visual artist. Here, Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, and Rafe Newhouse handle the pen and paper from the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark, and they handle it precisely by cutting away all the fat until the lean, iconic, even mythic essentials of action and reaction, grime and grub, remain all to themselves. This was the John Boorman mode, the same mode that would create the brilliantly crafted, if indifferently moral Deliverance five years later (although he did apparently perform some uncredited rewrites there, although he was kept ruthlessly in check), and the opposite mode of his anti-masterpieces Zardoz and Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Directing to match a screenplay with workaday perfection was the John Boorman A-game; whenever he felt truly passionate about his projects at a fundamental scripting level, things went a touch awry. This is a strange phenomenon, admittedly, but the results are right there for the taking in both the films and their back-stories. If Boorman could restrain himself, and maybe be told what not to do once in a while, he was among the most perfect directors of his age, for his passion as a director was apparent in every frame of just about every film he ever made. And perfect Point Blank is. Perfect in the way it focuses on how little information it needs to give us in order to move the narrative from Point A to Point B. Perfect in the way Henry Berman’s editing achieves a chilly skeletal structure and emphasizes on-action cuts to bruise and pierce through the film. Perfect in the way Philip H Lathrop’s cinematography manages to both reduce the palette to a challenging, combative array of muted, singular colors and mix-and-match in alert, lusty ways, giving the film both an almost black-and-white chiaroscuro and a fiery, primal pop of colorful vengeance and discontent.
It is also perfect in a Lee Marvin central role that sells a non-performance of steely, icy single-mindedness and stealthy determination, a work of so few syllables, all played extraordinarily well. Few actors could sell single-mindedness like Marvin, and fewer could match it to a weary loss and inability to truly breath, to live properly, without fulfilling the war path he had been set on. Marvin the cold, calculating automaton is perfect for this cold, calculating film of mechanical efficiency and cruel, even merciless brutality. He sells the hunger, and he sells the inability to let loose until his inhuman hunger is quenched. Most important of all, and what so many of these man on a mission revenge films undersold; he captures the ultimate sense that, whether he fulfills his quest or not, little is left for him in the world. His soul as a human was taken long ago. All that is left is a killer; murder is the only thing he knows how to do, if only because it gives him something to do at all, something to lie to himself about to feel fulfilled and to keep on going.
Above all, however, Point Blank is perfect because of John Boorman, ever the ringleader, giving himself to the material while maintaining a distinct sense of personal identity behind the camera. It is Boorman who is always there lending the film its ruthless texture and its near-expressionist bits of methodical calculation. Indeed, it is a heavily lined, always forward moving film, but it is not afraid to stop and hold on and grasp its characters’ actions with worry and woe. It is an exceedingly crafty film with a red-hot temper and an icy blue chill, and Boorman is always there balancing the two on a knife’s edge. There are some remarkably inventive shots in Point Blank, and some searing uses of space and geometry – in particular, the contrast between closer-than-close close-ups that push the characters right up into the screen played against engorged wide shots that just suck up the characters in emptiness. But none of this contrast feels particularly show-offy or ostentatious; it exists in service of a tale and a mood, and if the cinema of the 1960s was good at anything, it was mise-en-scene in a genre film evoking a mood and sticking to that mood as fully as possible. Point Blank feels like a brutal Euro-cool hell where characters make with the cool to hide the fact that they have no other lives to live, and Boorman never loses sight of this fact.