Pistol Whipped In Purgatory: “Point Blank”

by Ashley Naftule

“How good it must be… being dead. Is it?”

It’s one of the last questions that Walker’s doomed wife asks him before she dies in her bed. Guilt-ridden and delirious from sleep deprivation, Lynne shares her fantasies about dying to her estranged husband. A man who she watched get gunned down in an Alcatraz prison cell by her lover, and who now sits on her couch like a stone-faced angel of death. The way she says “Is it?” is haunting- it sounds like she thinks Walker genuinely knows the answer to that question. Who better an authority on the subject than a dead man?

The question of whether Lee Marvin’s Walker is alive or not hangs over John Boorman’s “Point Blank”. One of the all-time great revenge flicks, it’s a mean, relentless gangster film. It’s a career best showcase for Marvin, who’s Walker is as impassive and unstoppable as Jason Vorhees. A sharp-dressed, gray-haired man whose only care in the world is the $93,000 dollars he got cheated out of. A man who may be dead, but just doesn’t know it yet.

“Point Blank” has the sense of style and cool attitude of Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Alain Delon thrillers, but it also has a genuinely unnerving, almost hallucinatory aspect to it. Boorman employs avant-garde editing techniques to turn the film into an unreliable, splintered narrative. The opening section is a tour de force of time-jumps and seamless rapid cuts. In less than five minutes, Boorman effortlessly establishes and ties together all these threads:

  • Walker getting gut-shot and left to die in a prison cell
  • His partner Mal Reese accosting him at a party and begging him to do “The Alcatraz Run”
  • The planning of the heist
  • The botched execution of the heist
  • The aftermath of the heist, where Reese reveals his affair with Lynne to the audience and then plots to cut Walker out of the deal
  • A dying Walker climbing the fence around the prison and floating away into the San Francisco Bay
  • We also see glimmers of other moments in Walker’s future (like a brawl in a jazz club) flash by during this elliptical passage.

 

 

Boorman doesn’t just use this unique editing for the intro – he threads it throughout the film, having this hallucinatory style resurface at key moments to build tension. It’s paced like a shroom trip- there are passages where things seem to slow down and become “normal”, and then passages where the senses get deranged again and timelines blur into each other like sliced fruit in a blender. He also plays with the audio to stirring effect. An early scene, where Walker walks down a hallway, is intercut with scenes of his wife Lynne pampering herself at home and at the salon. The only audio playing during both sections is the sound of Walker’s shoes ringing off of pavement, growing louder and louder as he gets closer to the camera. It creates an atmosphere of dread and inevitability- it makes Lynne look like she KNOWS he’s coming and is just getting herself ready for his arrival.

The only other “mainstream” film I can think of that tries to use this kind of editing is Soderbergh’s “The Limey” (for which “Point Blank” is a HUGE influence). That film also smoothly jumps back and forth through time, adding an extra clever meta element to it by using footage from old Terence Stamp films to illustrate his past with his family. “The Limey” also captures the cool atmosphere of “Point Blank” and features a protagonist whose almost as stubborn and single-minded in his quest for vengeance as Marvin’s Walker.

More so than its radical editing, what sets “Point Blank” apart from all other crime movies is the metaphysical aspect. That question of Walker’s status that hangs over the film. We see him get shot three times in the opening scene (including a brutal shot to his stomach). That alone should have put him down for good. But somehow he is able to walk out of Alcatraz, scale a fence, and swim across the harsh tides of the Bay without succumbing to his wounds or bleeding to death.

If it seems unlikely that ANYONE could survive all that, the film doesn’t try to hand-wave it away. Indeed, it lampshades it. The next time we see Walker, he’s on a tourist boat circling The Rock. A guide on the loudspeaker lists off the many failed Alcatraz escape attempts as Walker talks to the mysterious Yost, a man who helps him track down his partner and the criminal syndicate that took his money.

Shortly after meeting Yost, Walker visits Lynne. He shoots up her mattress and smashes a bunch of bottles in her bathroom. After she dies, he walks back into her bedroom to find no body. The mattress no longer has bullet holes, and the bottles in the bathroom are intact. There’s even a white cat on her bed that wasn’t there before. When he comes back into the living room he nodded out in, it’s missing most of its furniture and the walls are painted gray.

The film offers no clues to tell us whether this is supposed to mark some kind of passage of time (did Walker clean up and empty her place after her death?), or is this some weird death-dream hallucination Walker is having? Maybe the whole film takes place in that shadowy prison cell with Walker bleeding out on the floor, imagining a final campaign of revenge before fading into nothingness. Perhaps the whole scene with Lynne is some weird kind of glitch in that death dream.

And it’s not just the Lynne scene that plays loose with time. The film doesn’t tell us how long it’s been since Walker escaped Alcatraz. It could have been days, weeks, months, perhaps even a year ago. How he recovered from that incident, how he met Yost, all that is left a mystery. The kind of details a dying man wouldn’t bother to worry about while dreaming about his final triumph.

While the possibility of this all being a dream or bizarre two-fisted ghost story is there, “Point Blank” works just as well without any supernatural explanations. Marvin’s grim tenacity is a joy to behold, especially for the reactions it draws out of everyone he meets. None of the men he beats up and threatens in The Organization can believe that he’s going to all this trouble for a measly $93,000; in one of the film’s finest moments, Caroll O’Connor’s Brewster flat-out refuses to take Walker’s demands seriously. Who goes to all this trouble to destroy a multi-million criminal corporation for what amounts to being chump change?

While “Point Blank” is Marvin’s shining moment, Boorman surrounds him with great bit players who elevate the film to another level. From Michael Strong’s sleazy turn as a used car salesman/connected thug to James Sikking as a dapper, pipe-smoking hitman, the film invests each of Walker’s associates and victims with enough personality that they make an impression. And of course, there’s Angie Dickinson, whose take-no-shit attitude and sultry looks is enough to convince a Terminator like Walker to forget about his $93,000 for a night (but only for a night).

The film circles back to its beginning, as Walker is told that the only place where he can get his money is the same place that he lost it: Alcatraz. Walker FINALLY gets his money… but rather than step forward to collect his hard-earned dough, he retreats into the shadows and disappears. He vanishes from the film like he was a character in an Antonioni film.

It’s a haunting, ambiguous ending. Does Walker sense a trap? Is that why he leaves the money behind? Does he suddenly realize that the only thing he has going on in his life is his quest for that money and that the moment he gets it he’ll be bereft of purpose? Or is he really dead, and now that he’s wrapped up his unfinished business he’s free to move on to wherever it is that gutshot Lee Marvins go? The camera pulls away from the shadowy yard, leaving us without any answers.

Which is for the best – with questions that are this intriguing, answers would just ruin everything. Even if Boorman did offer a definitive explanation, I’d leave it all wrapped up on the floor and walk away from it. Just like Lee Marvin did… but I’d be willing to bet that I won’t look half as good retreating into the shadows. Lee made being swallowed up by darkness look good.

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