Monday, February 9, 2009

Film Noir Meets Existentialism


Watching Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967)—with his granitic facial features, deep voice, and confident, ultra-masculine presence—I couldn't help thinking of Humphrey Bogart. Like Bogart, Marvin was for years typecast as a heavy, usually in supporting roles. He played vicious, sadistic, sometimes psychotic thugs in movies like The Big Heat (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). After winning the Oscar for his atypically comic performance in the Western The Ballad of Cat Ballou (1965), Marvin became a big star playing leads. But like Bogart, even after he was able to choose his roles, Marvin stuck largely to tough-guy parts. The hard edge that made him so effective in those early roles became a major part of his later, more benign screen persona and served him well in later roles like those in The Professionals (1966), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and The Big Red One (1980).

As Walker, the main character in Point Blank, Marvin plays a man who has been betrayed by a good friend and his own wife. Reluctantly persuaded by the friend to help him steal a mob payoff being delivered to the abandoned Alcatraz penitentiary, Walker is double-crossed, shot, and left for dead in the derelict prison. After somehow miraculously making it to shore, Walker recovers and hooks up with a mysterious stranger (Keenan Wynn) seeking his help in bringing down "the organization."

This person's identify and motivation are not revealed at this point, and Walker doesn't ask. He might be a policeman, a member of a rival mob, or even like Walker a victim. Walker has no real interest in the stranger except as a means to enable him to achieve the one thing he lives for—to find his wife and former friend and recover the $93,000 that was his share of the robbery. Like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he cares less about personal revenge than about his own code of ethics and justice. His sense of fair play is unambiguous, and it is his sense of fair play that guides his actions.

In short order Walker is on his way to Los Angeles in search of the treacherous wife and former friend. He is either by nature or as a result of the Alcatraz experience a habitual survivalist—a wary, vigilant loner who trusts no one. In view of the events that follow, it's a good thing. In Los Angeles Walker finds himself in a Machiavellian situation where everyone seems to be playing everyone else, and his attempts to fulfill his mission become a life-and-death game of strategy against ruthless and unscrupulous opponents. Duplicity is pervasive. Nobody can be trusted, and nothing can be taken at face value; to do so could be fatal. Walker's attitude to this is stoic and dispassionate. As in everything else, he is unsentimental, his emotions always tightly under control.

He is a superior observer and strategist who predicts in advance what moves the other players will make and is able not only to forestall them but to manipulate them in subtle ways that serve his own ends. The source of his power seems to be that, unlike everyone else in the move, he has no interest in power itself. This detachment from the allure of power allows him to play the game on a meta-level. Driven by his single-minded focus on his own relatively limited and straightforward goals, he is a still point of steadfast purpose in the midst of corruption and deceit. When it is revealed at the end that Walker is himself being used by Wynn as a pawn in his own scheme, Walker seems unsuprised and unfazed. As always, he simply adapts to the new circumstances.

If Point Blank sounds a lot like a modernized film noir, it's because that's exactly what it is, with all the updated stylistic trappings of the late 1960's provided by director John Boorman. These trappings include dazzling color photography by Philip Lathrop. casual sex, and a fair amount of matter-of-fact violence.

The storytelling is frequently elliptical. We have no idea how Marvin managed to make it from Alcatraz to San Francisco. In one scene he is struggling into the waters of the bay; in the next he is riding with Wynn in a boat taking a tour of the bay while a guide explains over a loudspeaker that no one ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. In one scene he is in his wife's apartment discovering her in the bedroom, a suicide dead from a drug overdose; in the next he is sitting in the same apartment, now completely stripped of all its furnishings. We don't know how much time has elapsed or what has happened to the dead wife (although he does later visit her grave). In one scene Walker learns from his dead wife's sister (Angie Dickinson), with whom he has begun a desultory affair, that the building across the street from the mob's stronghold is an apartment building. In the next scene he is sitting in an apartment in the building with two men (are they gay?) , who are willingly complying with his instructions to tie themselves up and call the police to say they have been robbed. There seems to be no coercion involved. How did he get into the apartment? How did he get them to cooperate?

Boorman is masterful in his use of setting to convey a strong sense of place. The abandoned prison buildings and cells at Alcatraz, the seedy club where Walker goes looking for the friend who betrayed him, the bleakly modernistic apartments, penthouses, offices, the soulless showplace of a house where the head of the mob (the pre-Archie Bunker Carroll O'Connor) lives, the concrete canyon of the Los Angeles River—all these locations greatly intensify the alienated and unsettling effect of the movie. Boorman has just as vivid a sense of setting as Antonioni; the difference is that with Boorman these are clearly backgrounds to the action, not ends in themselves. Boorman even uses setting as a structural device, bringing the movie full circle by opening and closing it on Alcatraz.

The editing of Point Blank is also noteworthy, at times fracturing the linear chronology of the movie not as a flashy gimmick but for legitimate narrative purposes. The opening sequence is particularly brilliant, with Walker regaining consciousness in the derelict prison cell and struggling to remember how he got there. For its first several minutes the movie shows us the fragmented jumble of memories and images that flood his mind as he attempts to piece together the explanation. That Boorman manages to use this process as a means of covertly providing exposition without confusing the viewer attests to his economy and skill as a storyteller.

At certain points later on, Walker flashes back for a moment to something else that has happened in the movie, and again Boorman makes these momentary flashbacks seem the entirely natural result of the movie slipping briefly into Walker's point of view. These memories that replay themselves in his mind are never gratuitous, but rather are echoes triggered by something that reminds Walker of an event that happened earlier in the film at a moment of heightened awareness and that continues to haunt him: another time he opened a curtain, another time he walked into a bedroom, another time he was attacked and beaten.

Apart from these references to earlier events in the movie, Walker seems to exist in a vacuum. At one point, when asked his first name he replies, "I never use it." We know nothing of his background, of his profession, of his interests. He seems to inhabit an eternal present with the only fixed points of reference the events of the movie itself. He is, in short, an exemplary existential hero, a man moving alone through a dangerous, unstable, and unpredictable world in which the only way to survive is to react to each situation with a new response. In Point Blank, film noir attitude meets existential philosophy. Even the title sounds like a pun on the meaninglessness of existence.
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6 comments:

John said...

R.D. enjoyed this immensely. A great film. Boorman was heavily influence by the New Wave when making this film; it is almost jazz like in its beat. Though the films style was “modern” for its time Marvin’s character is a throw back to the hard-boiled school, which you allude to when talking about Spade and Marlowe. The film is based on a novel called “The Hunter” by Donald Westlake writing under the pen name Richard Stark. In the book, Walker is named Parker. Westlake/Stark actually wrote a series of tough noir novels with the same character. The book was remade in 1999 as “Payback” with Mel Gibson. Personally, there is no comparison between the two films and the two leads. The original was so unique and Marvin is certainly more believable as the tough hard boiled anti-hero than Mel is.

"Point Blank" is one of my favorite films from this era.

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

I have an odd relationship with this film. The first time I saw it, I thought it was simply amazing, and the last time I watched it, it was awful! Slow and tedius. I love the mid-century, modernistic architecture and Boorman's shots showcasing said buildings. The same goes for Johnny Mandel's score; love it and hate it, depending on my mood. There are very few films that get this type of disparate reaction from me, so I'll have to give it another try!

R. D. Finch said...

John, thanks for the background info on the source material. I'm wary of over-researching the movies I write about because I don't want to repeat the ideas of others, so I appreciated this. Westlake's is one of those names that pop up frequently as the writer of the source material for movies, kind of like Elmore Leonard.

C.K., it is a funny thing about multiple viewings. I've had it work both ways. This post was actually inspired by my second viewing of "Point Blank," although truthfully it's been many years since I first saw it. I also must confess to being susceptible to anything reminiscent of the hard-boiled detective/film noir genre, and also to films reminiscent in style of the hip continental films of the 60's. The friend I watched this with wasn't that impressed and didn't find the movie anything special.

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

"...and also to films reminiscent in style of the hip continental films of the 60's."

I love movies like this! I call them "Europe International Movies" because of the jet-set style, hip scores, and neo-Edwardian clothing. This kind of thing peaked around 1967-1973, give or take a few years. Films like "Hard Contract" and "The Italian Job" immediately come to mind. I'd love to find a comprehensive list of these types of films. Know where I can find one?

R. D. Finch said...

C.K., I don't know of any lists of the kind of movies you describe. I was thinking more of the European and British films that played the art-house circuit in big cities and college towns (which is where I saw them) in the mid-late 60's. These are director-auteur movies and would include the usual suspects: the French New Wavers, Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Bunuel, Eastern Europeans like Polanski and Brits like Karl Reisz and Lindsay Anderson.

Their innovations were, I suppose, eventually integrated into mainstream film-making. When I saw Coppola's "The Conversation" about a year ago I was struck by how European in style it seemed, much more so than his Godfather movies of around the same time. For me Antonioni's "Blow-Up" and Polanski's "Repulsion" convey the "Mod" look and feel better than just about any other films of the time.

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

I re-watched "Point Blank" back in September and I'm fully back in the "I loved it" camp and there'll be no switching back! Perhaps it was my environment and mood those previous two viewings that influenced my opinion of the film. This time, it all made sense and the argument about Walker's fate (or condition) is blatantly obvious to me now.