Monday, February 11, 2013

Drawing a Blank—and killing it

A man in a prison cell is all shot up. He collapses on the floor in a heap, hands twitching, staring at the ceiling, or at heaven, or into an abyss. Or, perhaps, into his own past. Or future.

The injured man slides into the sea. Over the soundtrack a female voice speaks of Alcatraz’s history. And, just like that, the man is now in a suit, looking calm, no longer dying, on a ferry circling the infamous island penitentiary. (That voice belongs to a tour guide.)

The man will walk a very long hallway, heels clacking. We won’t know where that hallway is or where it leads, but the man arrives at a bungalow occupied by his wife. He storms in, pistol in hand, grabs her, then rushes to the bedroom and blows the hell out of the empty bed. (Later he’ll shoot a telephone.) “I’m glad you’re not dead,” says the wife. But is he? Not dead? Might this be Purgatory? Fantasy? Is this dream? The man’s name is Walker. But it might just as well be Sleepwalker. Or Walking Dead.

Point Blank (1967) was based on The Hunter, a bracing crime novel by Richard Stark, a pseudonym of the late, great Donald Westlake. The project was initiated and closely protected by Lee Marvin, its star, and John Boorman, the director Marvin chose. I believe both men respected the book, but what they constructed is so purely, adventurously cinematic as to resemble a violent, intricate, heartbroken puzzle/fever dream/temporal weave which the book scarcely suggests. The oneiric compression of exposition in that first mesmerizing montage, enveloped in composer Johnny Mandel’s funeral brass. It’s a fusion of genre and modernism more indebted to Last Year at Marienbad (1961) than anything in Hollywood’s gangster pantheon. And its influence has proved immense: Point Blank is written into the DNA of The Limey (1999) and The Limits of Control (2009).  

Marvin was no one’s idea of an arty type, yet he seemed to connect with Point Blank, perhaps because its compelling balance of violent vengeance drained of emotion and Walker’s haunted pathos and abandonment did justice to Marvin’s own guilt over surviving the assault on Mount Tapochau during World War II, where most of his company was killed. Marvin was cannier than his tough persona might imply. Surely he was aware of just how marvelously complex and layered—and challenging to mainstream audiences—Point Blank was. That complexity includes the very curious friendship between Walker and Mal Reese, the man who tries to kill him, who steals his money and his wife. Mal eventually drops the wife in favour of the wife’s sister (a sumptuous Angie Dickenson), and Walker’s revenge campaign eventually incorporates making the sister his own as well. Two sisters, and two men so close they may as well be brothers (of the Cain and Abel variety). The two men each love the same two women—perhaps as a way of loving each other. This isn’t so far out a reading. Just look at the way the men rush to meet each other at a crowded party. It’s much more of a love scene that anything involving the women. 

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