Sunday, June 27, 2010

Still Alive

After seeing POINT BLANK once again recently, I found myself thinking about the nightclub waitress Lee Marvin’s Walker briefly deals with at the start of the Movie House sequence. When she first sees it’s Walker who’s sat her down at the table she playfully asks him, “Are you still alive?” Of course, he doesn’t quite answer her, merely responding with, “Are you?” He alternately calls her ‘Sandy’ and ‘Sandra’, implying some familiarity and curious about this actress listed in the credits as Sandra Warner playing ‘Waitress’—was Marvin just casually referring to her by name while playing the scene?—I looked her up and discovered that she was not only an actress but a model, possibly familiar to some from appearing on the covers of various Martin Denny records back in the day. Her other acting credits include playing one of the band members in SOME LIKE IT HOT and she even stood in as a body double for the absent Marilyn Monroe to pose for photos with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. POINT BLANK pauses for just a few seconds as she and Lee Marvin regard each other—is she a cocktail waitress who’s served him numerous times in the past aware of the problems he’s had with wife Lynne or has more gone on between them? “Sandra,” he says, calling her by name. “See you around, huh?” “Soon,” she replies, as if she’d like that but knows there’s a good chance it’ll never happen since this is Walker, after all. According to imdb we never did see her around again, since this was her last screen appearance. Something about all this seems very appropriate considering how this is POINT BLANK.

There’s a rule—if POINT BLANK is playing on your birthday in Los Angeles, you go. At least, that’s a rule that I made up this year when I saw that POINT BLANK was playing at the New Beverly (on a double bill with THE OUTFIT) and knew there was no way that I couldn’t be there even if I had seen it in theaters numerous times already including once long ago at LACMA where Angie Dickinson sat right in front of me. POINT BLANK probably is an ideal birthday movie when you live in Los Angeles because just as the movie never answer certain questions regarding what’s going on, is Walker alive or dead, does he really want his money and what would he do with it if he got it. Earlier that day I found myself driving around the same city, thinking about a lot of things, trying to wonder if I have any idea where I’m going in life. I drove all the way down to the water in Santa Monica where it looks out at the beach—roughly around where Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson discuss their plans to get to John Vernon in the Huntley (“How bad does he want you, Chris?” “Oh, I don’t know. Who knows?” “Yeah, you know. How bad?” “Pretty bad, I guess.”), suddenly wondering if I’d done this before, knowing that I had. Then I went and drove slowly by the Huntley, just like they do in the movie. Then I drove some more. I came up with no answers, but I was in a better mood by that evening when I showed up to the New Beverly to see the film, sitting in the middle of that crowded theater. I loved getting to see this film once again, particularly on that day.

For those who haven’t seen the 1967 film—well, if you haven’t, what the hell are you doing reading this—here it is. Lee Marvin is Walker, who is talked into pulling a robbery at a drop on deserted Alcatraz island with old friend Mal Reese (‘introducing’ John Vernon) who owes money to a shadowy criminal organization. With Walker’s wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) also there, the job goes awry when Reese kills the guys he swore he was only going to knock out and it turns out there isn’t as much money as he was expecting. So he shoots Walker, leaving him for dead and takes Lynne with him. Some time later Walker, who has escaped alive (or has he?) is approached by a mysterious man named Yost (Keenan Wynn) who wants Walker’s help taking down the organization and in exchange will help give Walker the information he needs to so he can collect the $93,000 from the robbery that was rightly his. Once in Los Angeles, Walker tracks down Lynne’s sister Chris (Angie Dickinson) and enlists her to help get at Mal so he can finally collect his money, collect his 93 grand.

The first film directed by John Boorman in America, POINT BLANK has a screenplay by Alexander Jacobs and David Newhouse & Rafe Newhouse from the novel ‘The Hunter’ by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) but as much as I’ll defend the sanctity of the written word this could be seen as one of the best examples ever of tossing aside the script in favor of how this film ultimately transcends the genre it’s working in (although taking a look at the original novel to compare with what’s here is definitely worthwhile). If the basic story sounds at all familiar then you might have seen the Mel Gibson vehicle PAYBACK, either a POINT BLANK remake or another adaptation of ‘The Hunter’ depending on how you want to look at it, taking the nasty coolness of the original John Boorman film and dumbing it all down big time for a Mel Gibson action film. Maybe the most interesting thing about that film is that it exists it two distinct versions on DVD (I wrote about all this way back when I first started to write this blog if you’re interested) but let’s forget about all this right now. What Boorman did was to take a fairly standard revenge storyline and fuse it with an esoteric art film, fulfilling the expectations of the genre (Lee Marvin as badass, particularly during one of the nastiest fight scenes ever) while at the same time turning it on its head and making it an examination of the very nature of the man who moves through the frame throughout. It’s a movie where Lee Marvin is after some money and says, “Somebody’s got to pay,” but the way he says it isn’t how we would expect. There’s so much I love about POINT BLANK—the power of Lee Marvin standing by as certain acts of violence get perpetrated, the unbearably erotic undressing of Angie Dickinson, the continually changing color schemes, the unexpected doses of humor (“You’re a very bad man, Walker, a very destructive man!”), its insistent logic of a logic of a trance, a waking dream. As well as the way Boorman and cinematographer Phillip Lathrop shoot Los Angeles through that anamorphic frame using lenses that seems to create some tiny odd flares in a few scenes, a flaw which nevertheless becomes something else about POINT BLANK that I find myself peering closely at. The film is, among other things, a total examination of Lee Marvin as primal force, as screen presence, examining just how he moves through the frame and it can be so easy to just pay attention to him that other things are forgotten about. And it’s a study of Los Angeles, a city I can believe Boorman may have hated but speaking as someone who loves it here I can never get enough of how perfect this film seems to capture that level of unreality something I can definitely feel on certain days (among the notable locations, Lynne’s house in the hills up from Sunset is still there and I even spotted it on an episode of ENTOURAGE a year ago).

The more I see it the more I really become aware how little of the story actually makes any sort of sense. Is Walker a man who wants his money or is there something else? If there is, does he even realize it? If there’s anything more he wants other than his money can he even realize it? I say he wants it, only on his own terms, but I’m well aware that I could be very wrong. For each time the character is fully in control, storming in like a bull to the office of Lloyd Bochner’s Carter, there are just as many times that he seems totally disoriented, gazing out the windows at this city all around him or just rendered nearly speechless as Carroll O’Connor’s Brewster chastises him like a child. And when we float up at the very end before the credits roll, revealing Alcatraz across the San Francisco bay, what it implies is obvious but I never really want to believe it.

Based on evidence from this film John Boorman seems to look at Los Angeles circa 1967 as consisting of half stark landscapes and half used car dealerships, populated by mysterious men in suits (one played by Sid Haig, who got an appreciative response from the crowd) some of whom may be friends but none of them ever know if they can trust each other. Each of these men spend a lot of time gazing at each other threateningly with the women in their lives on the edges of the frame left at sea in this world—Sharon Acker’s Lynne is already a zombie, Lloyd Bochner’s wife who mouths ‘what’s up?’ at him from across the room as Walker threatens him and in a touch almost never mentioned, a striking plateau of three girls staring at a body splattered on the pavement in front of them, one curiously glancing around, one covering her face, one staring dead ahead and shaking. They’re all overshadowed by Angie Dickinson as Chris who presented here has to be one of the four or five sexiest women ever seen in a movie (even briefly seen about as nude as you could have gotten away with then if you look for it in the background of one shot) and, as anyone who’s seen the film knows, she has a very memorable way of trying to slap Lee Marvin. Thinking of Dickinson in this film makes me also think of the score by Johnny Mandel. It’s strikingly atonal for the most part but the CD released by Film Score Monthly contains several of the lounge source tracks from when Chris goes up to Reese’s apartment, making me wish Mandel had expanded this material into an album called something like, “Music to Attempt to Seduce Angie Dickinson By”. Playing this music would probably make me more like John Vernon than Lee Marvin, but I’d still buy a copy.

“Did it happen? A dream. A dream…” I woke up on the day of my birthday wondering if my time in Los Angeles had in fact been a dream. I wondered about the bonds of trust I had formed with some people, trying to focus on the ones I knew who had turned out to be some of the best friends I’ll ever have. And I wound up at the New Beverly, the best place to be on my birthday, seeing this particular film once again. Nothing is very clear at the end of POINT BLANK, except for maybe how Walker isn’t going to let anyone fully control him and his destiny (“How’d we get into this mess?” “I don’t know.”). At this point in time, that’s almost what I take away from seeing it more than anything. I love this film. I’ve seen it many times already. I hope to see it many more, just as I hope to never fully get the answers to its mysteries as long as I’m still alive in Los Angeles. That is, if I’m still alive. Like in POINT BLANK, I can never be sure.


Unknown said...

Great article, great movie! I was there too.

neeb said...

I watch POINT BLANK every year on my birthday. I don't know why, I just do.
A couple of things...

- I was also at the LACMA screening back in 1996. Don't believe me? The other movie playing was HIGH AND LOW.

- I didn't get it when I first saw it... on P&S VHS. It took that second time at LACMA to make me fall in love with it.

- It also played at the Grand Illusion in Seattle in 2003. I don't know why I'm mentioning that, other than to plug the Grand Illusion.

- POINT BLANK features prominently in LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF. Thom ANderson (the director) says that... "People that hate Los Angeles love POINT BLANK." And I thought everybody hated Los Angeles.

Unknown said...

Mr. Peel:

Did you stay and watch THE OUTFIT? Wow, a chance to see this underrated crime thriller on the big screen. Aigh, I'm jealous!!

Joe Martino said...


What a great movie and perfect article (I had to switch it up from "dc".

POINT BLANK gets better with each viewing. I saw it as a kid and it went over my head - except for the beauty that is Angie D.

If you want a real treat, rent (or buy) the DVD. Steven Soderbergh does commentary along with Boorman - and it's incredible.

Unknown said...

What a great movie, and as usual, a stellar essay. Belated Happy Birthday, Mr. Peel.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much! Hope you enjoyed that night like I did.


I absolutely believe you about '96. And it's nice to know that I'm not the only one who thinks of it as an ideal birthday movie.

I've seen LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF. As far as POINT BLANK goes, I say it's wrong. Plenty of people who love Los Angeles love POINT BLANK.


I did stick around for THE OUTFIT! Not only are they both MGM films based on Parker novels, they both also seem to use the same credit font. I like it, but for me it's no POINT BLANK.


Many thanks to you, however you phrase it. And that commentary really is terrific. Beautiful transfer on that disc too!


Thank you so much for that on both points. Glad to hear there's another fan of the film too!

Ned Merrill said...

Had the good fortune to program a nice 35mm print of this myself several years ago. It's one that I would definitely revisit on 35 should further opportunities arise, even though I do own the DVD as well. I'm a New Yorker, but I don't hate L.A. Still haven't been, actually. But, I do love everything about POINT BLANK and when I do make it out to West Coast again, it's one movie whose key locations I will try to visit. Great image of Marvin standing over the suitcase in the Los Angeles River. Been mulling over several new tattoo options and this is a great starting image...

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

The Huntley is of course still around--it looks different but is definitely recognizable. A friend of mine once told me about going to a pool party at the house in the hills where Lee Marvin waits for Carroll O'Connor, so that's still there. I don't even know where it is, but that's a place I'd love to visit!