Monday, December 1, 2014

Point Blank: Film Noir Meets the Sixties

I don’t have a systematic way of picking the books and movies I review for the Crime Writers’ Chronicle. Someone mentions one or the other and I go and check it out. When Ken Bruen, author of LONDON BOULEVARD, mentioned POINT BLANK, with Lee Marvin in the role of “Walker,” I figured I would give the movie a whirl. Bruen’s character Patrick Taylor is an inveterate crime novel reader and crime film aficionado, and he mentions POINT BLANK as a masterpiece about a man who won’t take no for an answer.

The “experts” claim that film noir lasted from the early 40’s until the late 50’s (many pointing to TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) as the final true “noir”). Point Blank was filmed in 1967, and it was interesting to see how things in the movie biz had changed since the early 40’s (or even 1958).

Walker goes only by his last name. When Chris, the sister-in-law of his dead wife Lynn, asks him a question, he responds with his own: “do you know my last name?” Of course she doesn’t. And we don’t find out either, because Walker is like Clint Eastwood’s man with no name, his High Plains Drifter: a man who can’t be known, who exists outside the pale of normal society, a loner who lives only to dispense a kind of rough justice, an avatar of true vengeance, an avenging angel who is more demon than cherub.

There is not much plot in this movie. What happens is not as important as how it happens. The LA that Walker cuts a wide swath of destruction through is alternately slick and corporate and then all flower-power-y and groovy. The man in the gray flannel suit meets the Dave Clark Five kind of thing. And Walker is having none of either. He has no code, not really, he just wants his money back (he must say this at least ten times, to at least ten people, in the movie).

Walker, he of the barely contained rage, of pure malice and hatred, is a force of nature really un-tempered by any kind of tenderness. If there is any justice at all in the movie, it is a tenuous kind indeed, as the money Walker wants back is only his from a heist he and his friend Mal Reese committed. They robbed the Mob (known now as the Organization, all corporate but still lethal, but in a faceless, amorphous way—even their hit man is cold and sterile, shooting people with a long range rifle instead of garroting them) and then Reese, who has taken up with Lynn (Walker at one point flashes back to a scene where he dances with her and actually smiles, and this for the only time in the movie) shoots Walker and leaves him for dead.

It’s almost like the plot from a country and western song—you stole my money and you stole my wife, you low down varmint, and now I’m gonna git you—but Walker does not try to heal himself by strumming a guitar. He is left to die on Alcatraz, where the robbery took place, but he struggles to the water with bullets in him and swims to land, we are to assume, even as we learn that no one has ever managed to escape The Rock by doing so in the freezing and treacherous water of San Francisco Harbor. This is, of course, if he is not just imagining this all (he flashes back and forth to lying on Alcatraz with the bullets in him, but you could interpret the whole movie as a dying man’s fantasy of revenge as he lies dying).

This superhuman feat is only the first one he commits. He, just one lone man, takes on the Organization, killing one person after another on his way to identifying who the top man is, piercing the corporate veil, if you will, in a very enthusiastic way.

Everyone Walker encounters tells him it is impossible for one man to take on the Corporation, an institution made up of men (Latin corporis means bodies, and to incorporate to combine into one body) that becomes something more than human when they are in combination. There is none of this in film noir that I can think of—it is all personal, all man to man in the world of the 40’s and 50’s. The characters are alienated, but not in opposition to inhuman institutions. In fact, the Organization can’t even immediately gin up the cash to pay him off (too many signatures and counter-signatures, I guess) when Walker has his gun to the head of one of the executives. The only way is to go back to Alcatraz, the place where the money drop Walker and Reese robbed is still occurring.

The signature moment in the movie for me comes in a psychedelic discotheque where everyone, young and old, corporate and hippie, is “groovin,’” and Walker has a backstage brawl with two Organization thugs. The fight had no slick choreography, but a lot of grappling and grunting and slipping and falling down. Walker smashes a bottle across some guy’s face, and when he gets his other opponent prone, he savagely brings the back of his hand down on his groin which such enthusiasm that I crossed my legs and groaned. A girl who was shimmying on a pedestal comes backstage and witnesses the bloodied man cringing in agony and screams. Great stuff.

Walker finds Lynn, but doesn’t kill her. She is not really a femme fatale. She is somehow lost and broken in a way that can’t be repaired. She tells Walker she just kind of drifted away with Reese, she doesn’t know why, and now he is gone and she takes sleeping pills and lives on $1000/month Reese provides and she is losing her mind. Walker doesn’t beat or kill her, doesn’t try to get her back. He sleeps on the couch, and in the morning she is dead of an overdose.

The other woman in the film is not much of a femme fatale either. Angie Dickinson, as Chris, is the woman Reese wants now. She tells Walker she despises Reese, and that Walker was the best thing that ever happened to Lynn. Still, we see that although she is not quite a hooker, she sleeps with the rich and powerful so she can have a comfortable life. In one of the movie’s most morally conflicted scenes, she acquiesces to Walker’s request that she sleep with Reese in order for Walker to gain entry into his old friend’s apartment.

The only two left standing at the end are Walker and Fairfax, the shadowy figure that has been feeding Walker information on the others so that he can consolidate his power on top of the Organization. Walker doesn’t’ know or care as long as he can exact his vengeance and get his money back. Which apparently was only a matter of principle, as Walker walks away from it, and all the dead bodies he left in his wake, in the end.

It is tempting to think that there is some moral center to Walker, that he could have been saved by a friend and a woman who didn’t betray him, but I don’t know about that. When he tells Dickinson he has just been playing with her affections to get what he wants, she goes nuts and beats against his broad chest. And he is impassive. He wants what he wants, and that is only vengeance. We get no history for his man Walker, but I get the feeling he was always like that.

© 2014 Mike Welch

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