That Night at Alcatraz: Point Blank (1967)

an illustrated head and shoulders of Lee Marvin as Frank from POINT BLANK is framed by a ripple of yellow circles, making his head a target of sorts.
illustration by Tom Ralston

 “It is discouraging to leave the past behind only to see it coming toward you like the thunderstorm which drenched you yesterday.”

     —William Gass

“You’re a very bad man, Walker, a very destructive man,” says the redoubtable Carroll O’Connor, with the impetuousness of a hypochondriac—the desperation of the doomed—to Lee Marvin’s cryptic cipher, a mononymous, six-foot fist of a man slinging a hand cannon and garbed in stylish attire that always matches his surroundings. Walker, a modest professional of unrelenting resolve, savage and stoical, just wants his money, which was stolen from him by his best friend, Mal Reese (John Vernon)—who also stole his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker), and left him for dead, crumpled on the cold cement floor of a jail cell in the bowels of an abandoned Alcatraz. $93,000, which is just north of $862,466 in 2023 dollars. That’s what Walker wants. He is the proverbial unstoppable force as well as the immovable object. He speaks in a voice that is undoubtedly American.

 

It starts with a heist, a simple heist upended by cold chicanery: Reese, manic with desperation (all of the men who get in Walker’s way end up desperate), descends like a brigand upon Walker at a party boisterous with old friends reuniting jovially, pinning him to the floor violently. Shouting to be heard amid the din of voices and ecstatic bodies, Reese begs his old buddy to help him rip off a crime syndicate, the Organization, by pilfering their money from a drop-off spot at Alcatraz—a derelict husk of its former formidable self, a relic already, sitting solitary amid the roiling pitch of San Francisco Bay. It lingers in the dark, deep distance like a shameful past. Walker reluctantly agrees, and brings along Lynne, who, unbeknownst to Walker, is in cahoots—carnally and capitalistically—with the Janus-faced Reese. They procure the payoff, and Reese, realizing that the score isn’t enough to pay off his debts, plugs Walker, the sound of bullets and betrayal echoing in the quiet, forlorn corridors of the fallen fortress, leaving him curled up in a cell, staring at the gray, stain-splotchy ceiling. What follows is a death dream of vengeance and violence, as Walker marches undeterrably through San Francisco and Los Angeles, leaving bodies of bad men in his wake.

For the prestigious Sight & Sound poll in 2022, for which critics were asked to pick the ten best films of all-time (a daunting, ultimately sisyphean endeavor), I included Point Blank (1967). One of the most audacious films ever funded by an American studio, John Boorman’s film is a singularly bold union of the classic tough-guy-getting-revenge noir narrative and a kind of debonair braggadocio that you rarely see in a Hollywood production, especially by a relative neophyte; consider the scene of Lee Marvin walking with obdurate purpose down a long hallway at LAX (the same hall that Dustin Hoffman traverses in The Graduate), the inexorable sound of his footsteps like a metronome setting the rhythm for a montage of seemingly inchoate images that abruptly, violently ends when Marvin bursts through a door, his face contorted into a look of unfettered fury, gun in hand as he shoves his ex-wife aside, undeterrable in his single-minded purpose. Boorman’s film is a deceptive bastard—strange, traditional, straightforward, surreal; it wears its crime genre like a fine, bespoke suit, but is imbued with an ethereal melancholy and pervaded by a funereal air that enfolds the sharply colorful photography. It’s a doomed man’s dying thoughts, his own occurrence at Alcatraz. Boorman brings a Euro-arthouse aesthetic, acid-tinged jazz, meticulous color schemes, and an impeccable sense of fluidity to the assiduous sequence of sights and sounds. And it’s only an hour and a half! You can’t beat that.

I’ve never been to Los Angeles (though I did once have a two-hour layover at LAX when my New York-bound flight from New Mexico went two hours west to go six hours back east), and I haven’t been to San Francisco (it’s the one American city I want badly to see the most—the rolling, rollickings hills undulating sinuously, canting suddenly, through the small sunny vicinage that sits comely above the bay; the weird way houses sit stolidly on sharp angles of asphalt; the redwoods thick and tall, corpulent trunks reaching up towards heaven; the bridge above the corrugated slates of the bay. I want to go an hour further up, too, and see the Point Reyes Lighthouse, because it looks so beautiful in John Carpenter’s The Fog, and I’m from Long Island, so: water—azure oceans thrashing in white frothy waves and the blue-green stillness of the sound on the north shore, my shore). I’ve been told I would hate LA (sorry, Thom Anderson), but as a devout fan of Raymond Chandler and a fiend for Hollywood history, I find it a comforting place to visit via movies and books. Boorman and co. really capture the cities—or what I assume these cities are like based on Vertigo and other films—as not just iconic locales, but as tangible places that imbue the film with a certain kind of soul that I assume is genuine. There’s a station called Real Jazz on Sirius that plays mostly traditional stuff, both classic and contemporary, and they play quite a bit of live music from San Francisco; aptly, Boorman’s film has a hallucinatory scene with a freaky jazz show, the punches and kicks punctuated by the yow of a flailing singer doused in psychedelic lights. (Sirius doesn’t play much of the post-Miles in the Sky experimental and fusion stuff, save for the occasional Herbie Hancock Head Hunters era—no Bitches Brew, no Black Unity Trio.)

  

I once read or heard—I forget where, maybe it’s from the stellar director’s commentary with Boorman and Steven Soderbergh on the Blu-ray, possibly the best pairing of filmmakers on any home media extra (they discuss the way the colors of the clothes and sets heat up as Walker, that agent of chaos, gets nearer his money)—that Marvin finally had clout in Hollywood after winning the Oscar for dual roles in the uncharacteristically comedic Cat Ballou in 1965, and he used it to help Boorman bring his vision to lucid life. Marvin was committed; he believed in Boorman. The director tells a story about the scene where Walker tricks a hitman to kill one of the higher-ups from the Organization and retrieves the purported payoff; finding it stuffed with newspaper, he kicks the useless package into a rivulet running down the L.A. river bed, shimmering agreeably under the balmy L.A. sun. Marvin exits the left side of the 2.35 frame at the same time as the package floats off-screen at the bottom. A seemingly trivial detail, but one that evinces great care by all involved. Boorman and his capable crew pull off all kinds of nifty little tricks, like a shot of Marvin’s face somehow smeary—a sallow insinuation of a man’s mug—that clears up as he approaches us and we realize he is looking through a mesh screen on a window; we then see what he sees: a mysterious man standing outside. Boorman plays with focus, lighting, and depth to manipulate images and our perception, to make us lose just the slightest bit of certainty in the established rules of reality. There are myriad shots—e.g. a woman in a hair salon with one of those monstrous old drying contraptions above her head, reflected in eerie perpetuity in mirrors—that are so so sharp and lucid, they remain in the mind like a thin laceration, warm and tingly. 

Los Angeles, as that one dude says in Chinatown, is a desert. I lived in New Mexico for two years, so I know the desert. The town we lived in, situated indolently between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, was big and flat and beige, its many four-lane strips of asphalt glinting with the windshields of incessant traffic and lined with CVSs and Walgreens and gas stations that gleamed like mylar in the anemic sun, and then, in the malformation of the night, glowed toxic-green, right around where the desert (arid hillocks bestrewn with Larrea tridentata and pricklies and devil fingers and dried-out carrion of plants tumbling in the dark) starts to become the city, or what passes for a “city” there. The sky seems just as ethereal-inky and festooned with stars there as it does over the vast cold sprawl of desert proper, one great big sky un-befouled by light pollution. Outside town, there is more flatness that leads eventually to blank balmy hills billowing and plummeting, lines clearly defined on the peaks of the mountains and on earthen crescendos cast in lavish chiaroscuro. I think often of all those meandering mesas with patches of sun-scorched plant life under the dauntless beating of hot desert rays and the gelid gusts of bone-dry winter. And the cactuses, of course, those dauntless survivors of uncharitable land—but not the tall silly-looking ones with crooked appendages like bent arms waving that you find in cartoons; these are squat, wide-spraying things, not particularly pleasing to look at. In winter, they have the scraggly woe of tumbleweeds but without the freedom to roll around languorously. 

But most of all I remember the sky beset by behemoths, big beautiful curvatures caressing clouds and contesting the dominion of all above and below, just absolutely unwavering, these mountains mightier than the muscles or machines of men, tinged amethyst against periwinkle streaks, an all-American anthem elevated twelve-thousand feet. Awesome. Striations of cloud drift across the sky as the sun, distended with distant heat, plunges into gloaming; in the Vecelli vesper, a flattened tumbleweed sits on the dirt shoulder beside blown-out tires, what truckers call “gator guys”; roadrunners, smaller and meaner than you’d think, hop over fences without a “meep-meep”; and, at night, coyotes, withered wolf-like things, scraggly and snaggle-toothed and scurrying across spindly streets, run rawboned through plains of expansive and perpetual ecru. Their canine crooning fills the night. Ahooo

Like a soothsayer, Boorman summons a daydream-swoony feeling that transcends linear time and the staid rules of reality, a pulp story moving forward with dogged momentum, permeated by a spectral air, a sense that something is somehow off about Walker and his indefatigable trek through a city of endless traffic, where the arid awe of the desert lurks just beyond the edge of the grid of glass and steel. Walker is vague, unflinching, like the desert. His plan is simple, and his resolve great. Walker’s single-minded march isn’t so different from the way you cruise along on the straight flat stretches of two-lane asphalt through the huge swaths of sand and dirt. And like the road into the distance, he, too, disappears. 

Am I over-reaching here? Have I maybe succumbed yet again to that pesky habit of digressing into loop-de-loops of language and tangents? I sometimes find myself trying to manipulate memories of the mundane to find some kind of metaphor or meaning; movies engender seemingly incongruous thoughts and associations, which make sense to me. And Point Blank is the kind of film that inspires such thoughts. For example, let’s note that Walker, who has no interior life, no emotions or psychology—who doesn’t veer from the path or get distracted—can work as a loose metaphor for a lot of things. You watch this phlegmatic tough guy and you think about obsessions, inevitabilities, linearity, and fragmentation. A straight-spined man with wisps of white hair and a mean, scrunched-up face walking without diversion through the desert is a potent image, evocative of a Western, even if it doesn’t appear literally in the film. Walker, in his vacuity and determination, his incorruptibility, can mean anything to anyone. Ideas and memories commingle, warp, gain their own autonomy. As Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “To wake up in the morning under a command to animate the stones of an idea, the clods of research, the uncertainty of memory, is the punishment of the vocation.”

John Boorman never made a boring movie. Point Blank is nearly flawless; that old axiom about three good scenes and no bad ones applies—from the borderline avant-garde opening, a medley of hyper-articulate shots of Marvin carrying his ass out of the pit of Alcatraz, which includes some still photos, some moving ones of Marvin staying static like he’s frozen in time, the film doesn’t waste a shot and delivers scene after scene of unexpected excitement. Boorman has made some of the most unusual films to ever come out of Hollywood, like his nutso 1977 sequel to The Exorcist, a delirious fever dream. And there’s Zardoz (1974), a surreal, Samuel Delaney-esque story that is so much more than Sean Connery garbed scantily in a ludicrous red strap criss-crossing his hairy chest with the tops of his hairy thighs peeking out from above black knee-high boots, Scottish skin glowing pale in the alien sun; it’s an ontological art-house film made modern and realized with stunning silliness. Excalibur (1981) is more mainstream, a traditional historic epic, but still pretty to gaze at. Boorman made his profoundly personal memoirish drama Hope and Glory (1987) twenty years after Point Blank, and it is his most emotionally poignant and human film—his most unadorned, unfettered, imbued with an unfakeable spirit: the story of a young boy growing up in a war-battered world, England reduced to a place of dereliction and dilapidated buildings smashed and sullied by bombs and bullets. 

Point Blank is inexplicably intricate and enigmatic, cool and cryptic, a relentlessly modern film about a relentlessly brutal man with single-minded ambitions—actually, “ambitions” feels too fancy a word for that body-sized fist known as Lee Marvin. Channeling John Wayne, Marvin acts more as a presence than a person; he’s a statue rendered in flesh, symbolizing revenge, greed, the Sisyphean desperation of the individual against the system, and the individual’s assimilation into the system. As helmed by Boorman, a master of nonlinear editing—of smearing dissonant sound over disparate images—the film seduces your eyes and ears with sexy imagery, sexy music, and sexy Angie Dickinson, while whispering sweet sacrileges. The funky jazz score thrums with an energy you can shake your ass to (or kick someone’s ass to), and director of photography Philip H. Lathrop’s immaculate lens work—the way he plays with deep- and shallow-focus, the colors vibrant and voluptuous—captures a cruel world out of sync with itself, its various parts and appendages willing to devour each other to survive. “Because the thriller is so strong and vivid a genre,” David Thomson writes in his invidious tome The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, “Boorman was able to exploit its potential for fantasy and make the Marvin character a spectator of his own story. His expressive somnambulism is not just a search for vengeance and satisfaction, but the signs of sleep and inertia in a man actually slipping away from the world, defeated by it but inventing a story in which he triumphs as he dies.” The laconic Walker has the stone-faced impetus of a noirish hitman, but his mission is, ultimately, meaningless. Marcus Aurelius said that the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury. Walker completes his mission, but does it matter? He can dismantle The Syndicate, but he can never destroy the system.

And so we return to the beginning, a journey of death and rebirth ready now to rest. From the gray-squalor depths of an abandoned fortress surrounded by the tireless bay—so serene and pretty from afar, so black and boundless at night—to the slanted streets of gay old San Francisco and the ignominious underbelly of the City of Angels, and then back again to the Rock—to that cavernous, quiet mausoleum, inhabited now by the unseen souls of men who died without woe, grieved by no one, the jetsam of civilized society left to wither and be forgotten. Walker completes his mission, eliminating the last Syndicate member standing in his way; his replacement, who benefitted from Walker’s determination and is now the last man standing, calls out to Walker to come collect his money. But he doesn’t. He slowly, silently slips into the blackness, as we all will eventually. Walker, freed from the mean tyranny of obsession, is gone, leaving behind chaos without explanation.