It’s the first image on screen after the roar of the MGM lion fades away. A blood red background with white block letters reading “Metro-G oldwyn-Mayer presents.” That odd letter-spacing between the G and the O, it’s there. Most people probably don’t notice it, or maybe they only register it on a subconscious level, but it’s there. Once you notice it, it has a way of burning into your brain. Punching you right in the cornea. Drawing your eyes like a flaming car crash.
Why though? Its very existence contradicts the film’s title. Point Blank – a gun fired very close to its target. Why have that subtly curious image (that we’ll call the “Space” from here on out) be the first on screen? Why place the gaping chasm between two letters in a major studio’s name at all?
John Boorman is still alive as of the 50th anniversary of his avant-garde masterpiece Point Blank, released in the summer of 1967, so someone with the means could go ahead and ask him. Like his film, there probably won’t be an easy answers or a sense of closure. But still, that small and powerful breach in the MGM name serves to subliminally defamiliarize the audience with not only the studio itself, but also with what they’re about to watch for next 91 minutes. It lets you know that something uncanny is coming your way.
Boorman’s Point Blank isn’t a typical revenge film. Some of the usual suspects are there, sure: the anti-hero seeking vengeance, along with his girl and a pile of money. But even 50 years after its release, the film maintains a level of distance from the genre it influenced. Hyper-stylized, nonsequential, and brimming with visual metaphors, Point Blank dismembers the traditional revenge tale as it presents the story of a specter stomping his way through the San Fran/LA underworld in search of his humanity (well, depending on your interpretation).
That’s where the similarity to the source material, Richard Stark’s “The Hunter”, the first in his formative 24-book Parker series, ends. With the basic plot outline. The character of Parker is changed to Walker, played with incredible physicality by Lee Marvin. His hands are similar to those of Parker, described by Stark (aka Donald Westlake) in “The Hunter” as:
“…like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.”
Coming off his Oscar and Golden Globe wins for Best Actor in Cat Ballou, Marvin at this point held plenty of sway over his films. He used this influence to give Brit Boorman final cut of Point Blank. This was an impressive feat, considering this was to be Boorman’s first American film, and only his second film as a director. His first film, 1965’s Catch Us If You Can, was a musical comedy riffing on A Hard Day’s Night, starring the Dave Clark Five in place of The Beatles. This, along with some TV documentaries, were essentially all Boorman had as a calling card when one of Hollywood’s biggest stars came to bat for him.
Marvin and Boorman met in London when Marvin was shooting The Dirty Dozen. They’d both read the script for Point Blank and disliked it*, but felt that they could do something interesting with its bones. Boorman was absorbing the French New Wave at the time and injected those experimental sensibilities into his approach. The studio heads were wary of this European-influenced hipster vision, but Marvin beat his chest to insure Boorman’s cryptic neo-noir made it to screen untouched.
And now matter how you interpret the film, there’s no arguing one thing: Point Blank is one seriously singular, two-fisted art film.
Following the unnerving Space between the letters of MGM, Point Blank picks up with Walker, left for dead in a prison cell on Alcatraz. He’s been shot twice by his best friend Mal Reese (John Vernon), an opportunistic son of a bitch who adds insult to fatal injury by walking off with Walker’s girl Lynne (Sharon Acker) and his share of an arms heist – a cool $93K. Walker awakens, having survived the gunshots, and manages to swim his way off the Rock and back to San Fran, where he starts his hunt for Mal. It’s a fairly simple setup.
And still, the Space.
The Space gives us pause. Makes us take a step back and think about how in the hell Walker could have survived two bullets, at near point blank range. How does he have the strength to swim his way from Alcatraz to the San Francisco bay – a feat that has never been accomplished, according to Alcatraz lore. “How did you make it, Walker?”
If you stare into the Space long enough, the answer is simple.
Walker is dead. He’s a ghost.
Or, he’s dying and dreaming the whole thing. Take your pick.
The theories of the whole film being the fantasy of a dying man or the memories of a dead one have been around for a while. Boorman himself admits on the commentary that Point Blank is a “memory film.” Much of the exposition that follows Walker’s miraculous escape from the Rock is delivered in flashback. Brief sparks illuminate the moments before he took two rounds to the chest. In one, we see Mal approaching Walker at a party, crowded by well-dressed men. They’re jovial, excited to see one another.
A subsequent flashback shows a different moment from the same party. This time, both men are on the floor, in danger of getting stomped by a herd of wingtips. Walker’s slurring, fighting to keep his eyes open. Drunk? Mal is on top of him, clutching his head. Begging him to help him pull the Alcatraz job. He needs the money. He owes it to the Organization – an insidious white-colored crime syndicate led by faceless grey-haired men.
What happened in between these two flashes of memory? How did Walker and Mal go from smiles and hearty handshakes to desperate and barely conscious on the floor? The gut reaction is to say, well, it is a party. Homeboys probably got loaded catching up on old times.
But the Space.
Having escaped Alcatraz, Walker appears next on a tourist boat circling the Rock. He’s wearing a crisp, grey suit. Grey is a dominant color for the first third of the film. The colors gradually warm up – grey to green to yellow to red – as Walker takes back little pieces of his humanity one haymaker at a time. But here, on the boat, he’s grey (in the grey area, so to speak) and doesn’t know how to get started. So along comes Yost.
Played by Keenan Wynn, Yost is an apparition. His character materializes at various key moments throughout the film. Whenever Walker needs some direction. An address, a nudge on the right track, a door opened. In their scenes together, Walker and Yost rarely look at one another. They speak facing opposite directions, hugging opposing sides of the screen. Opposites sides of the Space. This heightens the sense that Yost is some kind of mythic guide through the underworld.
Yost appears often after moments of violence, of which Point Blank has its share. It’s a raw, visceral violence that still feels ahead of its time. The first moment occurs following the infamous “footsteps” edit through LAX, when Walker kicks in the door of Lynne’s house, grabs her by the face, and unloads round after round from his .44 Magnum into her bed. It’s a powerfully sexualized metaphor, no doubt, and a great example of Walker expressing himself through violence.
Walker later gets into a rumble backstage at the Music Room club, where the punches and throws are juxtaposed with the wails of the soul singer on stage. It’s a messy fight, like one you’d see outside a bar at 2am, and Walker narrowly comes out the winner – sealing his victory with a brutal punch to the nuts. More violence follows, but it’s interesting to note that Walker never kills anyone. He beats the hell out of some folks and his actions certainly lead to deaths (a drug overdose, a naked stumble off a roof), but he never puts anyone in the ground himself.
How could he? He’s already dead. Didn’t you listen to the Space?
Being dead, Walker’s in a type of fugue state for most of the film – only seeming lucid when he’s committing acts of violence or threatening such. He seems as confused as the audience at times. The second image on screen following the Space, is Walker’s face (fading in behind the second title card, “A Judd Bernard-Irwin Winkler Production”), scowling and perplexed – a brief shot foreshadowing the Music Room fight. Did he see the Space too?
Walker’s puzzlement spikes early in Lynne’s apartment. After shooting up the bed, he’s startled by his own image in a mirror. Then he sinks into Lynne’s couch, dangling the revolver in his hand like a heavy talisman. Lynne then answers all of Walker’s questions, without Walker having to say one word (or even look at her). In the process, she also seems to confirm that Walker is in fact dead.
“You ought to kill me. I can’t sleep. Haven’t slept. Keep taking pills. Dream about you. How good it must be to be dead. Is it?”
Walker never looks at Lynne, the wife that betrayed him, until she is dead from an overdose of sleeping pills. He slips his wedding ring off and puts it on her finger, then moves to a window. Outside, Yost watches. When Walker returns to the bedroom, the sheets are gone (the scorched bullet holes are still in the mattress) and Lynne has apparently turned into a cat. She’s become a foreign body unrecognizable to Walker.
In the living room, all of the furniture has vanished. Walker crouches in the corner, marred by shadow – an image suggesting he’s never left his prison cell/coffin on Alcatraz. This sense of repetition – of coming back – is bound up in the uncanny.
Gradually, Walker’s puzzlement becomes exhaustion. By the time he confronts the higher-ups of the Organization, he’s in a world of bureaucratic bullshit that’s foreign to his fight-and-take approach to life. It’s an Organization middleman named Brewster (the wonderfully irascible Carroll O’Connor) that finally breaks Walker’s violent spirit. Brewster refuses to pay Walker his $93K. Shoving a gun in his face doesn’t work. And when Brewster calls the man who could pay up, Walker shoots the phone. He’s sick of talking. Brewster is the epitome of the corporate mindset and that doesn’t jive with Walker.
“Somebody’s got to pay,” Walker says, beguiled, again slouching on a sofa.
At this point though, the money means nothing. Lynne and Mal were the catalysts for Walker’s entire trail of blood. Their betrayal was the spark. Once they’re dead, Walker continues, unsatisfied. Not because he actually wants the money. But because he doesn’t know what else to do. The money’s become a symbol for the unachievable. It’s Walker’s Ultima Thule, the point he cannot reach.
It lies within the Space.
With the nature of his desire turned cloudy, where does Walker’s dream end and reality begin? When does he finally “lie down and die,” as Lynne’s sister Chris (Angie Dickinson) howls for him to do.
Which is why, during the film’s climax, Walker steps back into the darkness from which he emerged. The money is seemingly right there for the taking. But he can’t be sure if the package really contains his $93K, or if it’s another trap, like the earlier one set for him in the LA River.
And if the package really does contain his money, what will become of Walker? His reason to live/die/exist will be gone.
So he retreats and fades to black. The ultimate end for an anti-hero who may or may not already be dead and dreaming. The ending actually feels, well, kinda hopeful.
Each time I watch it, the film reveals something else about itself. A look Lee Marvin gives or the placement of Angie Dickinson’s legs when she collapses. The arrangement of the bullet holes on the mattress slightly resembling the constellation of Hercules. Outwardly superficial minutia that engages me.
I must’ve watched the film four or five times before I noticed the Space. I checked other MGM films from 1967 to see if it was just their thing back then. Nadda. I’ve searched the web for some kind of explanation. Zilch.
The Space. I’ve assigned meaning to it. Looked for other interesting spatial relationships in the film. Treated it like some existential answer key to the film’s riddles.
And I get it, man, it probably doesn’t mean a goddamn thing. Probably a dumb mistake that got overlooked in post. But the Space is there. It’s not supposed to be, but it is – like Walker himself, the dead man walking. The Space fills me with expectation and anxiety – because beyond it, through the capital G and capital O, lies another Space. One filled with more promises and lies. Of the American dream bleeding out in a prison cell turned tourist attraction. Of revenge without end.
Oh, and the Space? It’s in the end credits too.
*There’s a joke Boorman tells on the commentary about tossing the original script out the window and it later being picked up off the ground by Brian Helgeland, who used it for Payback.