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11.21.07

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'Blank' Check

Let's see ... Yup, Lee Marvin's still the man

By Steve Palopoli


THERE ARE two moments in John Boorman's 1967 film Point Blank that define Lee Marvin for me. The first is a brief scene narrated by Sharon Acker, where she describes life with Marvin's character, Walker, and his friend, Mal. "Then it was the three of us ... laughing," she says wistfully. Cut to a flashback of her with Marvin in a car, his face a stone-cold stare.

Get it? That is Lee Marvin laughing! OK, it probably wasn't intentional, but it sure is funny.

The other scene is where Walker stomps through an airport, out for revenge and the $93,000 that's been stolen from him. He looks so imposing, so single-minded and so fascinating that Marvin's greatest appeal as a leading man suddenly twists into focus. He was truly larger than life, and in this film especially he's a blank slate for the audience to project onto. He barely speaks, he has no backstory. People ask him questions and then answer them for him, as if they intuitively understand that it would be unnatural for him to reveal anything at all. As Walker, Marvin is not a person, but an archetype.Point Blank would be become an archetype, too, for the modern revenge film. Based on the book The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stalk, one of his nine pseudonyms), the plot structure is simplicity itself: Wronged man seeks revenge by working his way up his enemies' chain of command. Though there have been some variations on the theme over the years, it's safe to say that without this movie we wouldn't have had Get Carter, The Crow, The Limey or any film in Chan-wook Park's revenge trilogy. The 1993 Chow Yung Fat film Full Contact is an uncredited remake, while the 1999 Mel Gibson vehicle Payback is a second adaptation of the same Westlake novel.

Payback actually sticks closer to the source material than Boorman's film. Its main character is Parker, just like in The Hunter. As in the book, he's much more bloodthirsty than Marvin's Walker. In fact, though many people die in Point Blank, Walker never actually kills any of them.

But whatever its faithfulness to the book, Payback is boring and mechanical, and by far the inferior film. Point Blank, on the other hand, is like a jigsaw puzzle that turns out to be harder than you expected: it looked so easy when you saw the picture on the box, but after a while it seems like the pieces just don't fit together right, and there seem to be a few missing. But you can't stop trying to put it together in your head.

Critics at the time of its release only saw Point Blank's superficial crime-flick exterior and mostly wrote it off. Only later did its cult of admirers realize it was the first American film to incorporate the techniques of the French New Wave filmmakers. It's hard to believe now that anyone thought this was a typical crime thriller. It has an almost Twilight Zone quality, with its ghostly narration as Walker wakes up in an abandoned Alcatraz cell (this was the first movie to be shot there after the prison closed) and remembers that he's been left for dead by the double-crossing Mal and his own wife, who have also taken his share of the money they stole together. Adding insult to injury, Walker only got involved in the crime because Mal's life was being threatened by a crime syndicate called "The Organization," to which he owed money. The movie was years ahead of its time in the way it equates organized crime with a corporation—these crooks wear suits and go to a high-rise office. In the afterglow of the post–World War II corporate boom, Boorman and screenwriters Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse were making quite a statement about American culture.

Incredibly, Mal has now used the money to buy his way into the top ranks of the Organization, and once Walker is able to get off the island and find a connection to point him in the right direction, he's like a 1967 prototype for the Terminator—relentless and unstoppable.

The surreal quality that winds through Point Blank is undoubtedly what has led some fans to believe that the whole movie might be all in Walker's mind; a revenge fantasy playing out in his last moments of life. The cryptic ending actually kind of supports this line of thinking. I won't spoil it, but it will leave you with as many questions as answers.

My favorite part is that Marvin was thrilled with Boorman's weird approach, and in fact used his clout to get the young director the job. Lee Marvin is the man.


Movie Times CULT LEADER is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and the name of your favorite Marvin movie to spalopoli@metronews.com.


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