Later remade as PAYBACK, POINT BLANK follows an angry Lee Marvin through Angie Dickinson and most of California to get to John Vernon, who is defenestrated nude. The ostensible plot is the old saw of betrayal and vengeance, given life here by new-wave editing and pretty good acting.
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Lee Marvin was one of the premier Hollywood “tough guys” of the Sixties and Seventies. As the studio system faded into memory and the American popular consciousness became more jaded at large. He embodied the perfect transition from the John Wayne archetype of masculine power to the more conflicted figures on the screen today. Unfortunately, as time has passed, Marvin is increasingly remembered only as an outdated “action star.” This is a disservice to an actor who could provide remarkably layered performances, none more so than in Point Blank.
In Point Blank, Lee Marvin plays a thief known only as Walker (no indication is given whether that’s a first or last name). After hijacking a money shipment from a mysterious crime ring called The Organization at Alcatraz, Walker is betrayed by his partner Reese (a loathsome John Vernon) and his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker). A man convinces Walker to get his share of the heist and avenge his betrayal by Reese who now works for The Organization. Along the way Walker has a romance with his wife’s sister (Angie Dickinson).
Director John Boorman provides more nuance than the usual crime movie trappings. The film begins with Walker’s lowest moment as he is left for dead in a cell at the abandoned Alcatraz prison, trying to piece together what has happened, an opening that has influenced countless revenge films. Boorman maintains the free movement between past and present throughout the film, providing both a glimpse into Walker’s motivations and an existentialist quality to his quest. Boorman also transitions sharply from calm to sudden moments of violence so that the action sequences do not become routine. In fact, the great achievement of Boorman’s direction is to use the action to inform our understanding of the characters rather than merely breaking from the plot for a “set piece.”
Point Blank also draws a connection between The Organization and the modern corporation. In most films, heroes are thwarted in their goals by the maliciousness of the antagonist. While there is certainly some of that here, Walker is equally frustrated by sheer logistics. Indeed, some of The Organization leaders (including a scene-stealing supporting role by Carroll O’Connor) are more than willing to pay Walker his share of the heist but their hands are tied because they are too far removed from day to day operations. These scenes are darkly comic, and anyone who has had trouble getting a refund from a major corporation can sympathize with Walker’s plight.
The real gem though is Marvin’s performance. While all the requisite fight scenes are there (including one that will make any male in the audience wince), it is the moments of silence in which Marvin has the greatest impact. There is no joy in his quest for revenge. His isolation drives the film, and Marvin plays a weariness that permeates even the action sequences and the ambiguous relationship with his wife’s sister. Walker is a solitary man living under his own code, and he realizes that he is out of place in the world of The Organization, with its hierarchies and procedures. Ultimately, he can only exist in the shadows.
Hollywood, never able to leave a good thing alone, remade Point Blank as Payback, starring Mel Gibson in 1999. Of course, the melancholy and social criticism of the original was deemed too dark for audiences, and so it became a by the numbers action flick. But Point Blank still should be required viewing for aspiring action directors and actors. In every genre – perhaps even more so in those that are familiar – there is an opportunity to challenge the audience.