Tony Caro enjoys writing about all things pop culture, especially movies and television.
"Style over substance" frequently appears in criticism levied at films putting significant creative effort into innovative editing, special effects, art direction, and other technical components at the expense of a coherent plot or narrative. Films known for their stylistic excess flickered on many screens during the 1960s and 1970s when the auteur theory concept guided directors to set films apart from mainstream blandness and, hopefully, establish a director's name to make said auteur bankable in the eyes of audiences. The idea often worked better in Europe than in the United States, but there were many notable experimental films produced by Hollywood studios.
Experimental or not, the truly great films of the era never sacrificed substance. Even with their radical stylistic departures, the features still told a compelling, logical story. Point Blank (1967) is such a classic from the "New Wave" motion picture movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s. The film took a potboiler crime novel, The Hunter, and adapted the prose into a feature that was equal parts Well-Made-Play narrative and avant-garde experimental realism. A box office miss when released initially, Point Blank is deemed a classic these days. Rightfully so. Had it not been for director John Boorman (Excalibur, Hope and Glory) choosing a daring approach, and star Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen) blending with the approach, Point Blank would have been a forgotten crime film vehicle and not a high work of cinematic art.
Trailer for Point Blank (1967)
Cinematography, Editing, and the Visual Tricks on the Senses
The opening of Point Blank sets a tale of revenge in motion. Mal Reese (John Vernon) owes a lot of money to the mob. He begs and convinces Walker (Marvin) to rob gambling couriers slated to receive a considerable cash drop-off on Alcatraz Island. The heist is a success, but the money won't cover all the bills. Reese shoots Walker and leaves him for dead on the deserted prison island. Walker survives the shooting. Upon discovering Reese and absconded with both the money and his wife, Walker sets out for revenge.
The story puts forth standard material for a crime-noir film. Simple narratives are far better than confusing, convoluted ones. The problem straight-forward narratives run into is they are predictable and tend to wallow in a standard formula. A new direction and approach become necessary to make the film stand out and give audiences a reason to be interested and intrigued by the proceedings. Boorman chose to infuse the film with incredible innovations in sound, cinematography, and editing. Both small and monumental touches in these components of film-making are sorely missed in films today, a reason why so many "standard" features end up forgotten so quickly after their release.
The weird scene of Reese holding Walker down on the floor of a crowded office party screaming that he needs help—all the while other suit-and-tie-clad partygoers ignore them - appears more like a dream sequence than a literal depiction of the event. Surrealist creativity helps bring out what would have otherwise been a generic, standard dialogue scene.
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A little shocking to the senses and probably a bit much for mainstream audiences' visual sensibilities, the jarringly-framed medium close-up does capture the anxiety and paranoia of the Reese character. The scene also shows the isolation of the two characters. They are lost in their own universe of chaos while the rest of the world - the partygoers—move around them, not even knowing or caring the two are there. Reese and Walker live in another plane of existence, removed from the normality other men experience. The hammer effect of the editing in this scene truly drives the two men's alienation—two criminals—home.
The cinematography by Philip H. Lathrop and the editing by Henry Berman truly both deserve accolades for bringing Boorman's grand artistic vision to celluloid life.
Other cinematography/editing innovations are applied throughout the setup, including extreme long shots on Alcatraz Island, further drive home themes of alienation and loneliness. The extreme long shot of Walker cutting to close-ups of Walker diving into the San Francisco Bay's frigid water to escape evokes the symbolism of rebirth and baptism. Walker survived death, and now he is a driven man, no longer the patsy who followed Reese meekly into a disastrous situation. Revenge gives him rebirth.
The Auditory Sensory Attack on the Narrative
The film also utilizes a host of interesting sound editing devices that further elevate the narrative beyond a standard revenge melodrama. Yes, the film is a revenge potboiler through-and-through, while also being a little more. Boorman and his supporting crew perform the fantastic job of infusing cinematic artistry to the proceedings and making the whole experience more compelling.
Franklin Milton served as the recording supervisor, and he did benefit from the help of an (uncredited) sound crew.
Reese's slow intonation about the simplicity of the caper to Walker at the film's outset crosscuts to Reese continuing the conversation from the floor at the office party. The former features a slow, deliberate calm tone of voice. The latter reveals massive anxiety. The former makes the caper sound believable. The latter makes the heist plans come off as outlandish. Is the office scene a false memory in the mind of Walker? Is the false memory how Walker should have perceived the caper's pitch - absurd and unlikely to go smoothly? The audience never knows.
The film presents many amazing sound editing approaches. One somewhat subtle use of sound is when Walker travels on the Alcatraz sightseeing ship and a recording about famous escapes from the prison loop repeatedly. Walker escaped death on Alcatraz in an anonymous way. He is not a renowned thug who deserved any mentions in the history books like those who were able to depart "The Rock" before its closing. Walker is a nobody, a patsy, and a fool. Only through revenge can he escape the personal anguish of knowing these truths about himself.
Dreaming a Documentary
One "controversy" over the film is the unanswered question regarding whether or not the film's events are a dream. John Boorman never confirmed nor denied such questions. The surrealist nature of the film does appear very much like a dream. The stylistic change from a surrealist film to a traditional narrative structure sometimes seems very much like Walker is going in and out of consciousness.
Point Blank manifests itself as a "documentary remembered." Some of the events depicted in the movie happened, and the viewer watches things unfold as they actually occurred. And then, some segments come off as taking place through the prism of a dream. Did things really happen in such a bizarre way, or has the documentary view shifted to a P.O.V. of Walker's dream state? No real answer exists.
Point Blank is a spin on the concept of a movie within a movie. Instead of one movie providing a view into a different film, Point Blank's structure involves two types of film conventions. A narrative film exists within an experimental one.
The strange approach works. Critics and historians still discuss Point Blank 50 years after its release.