In John Boorman’s 1967 crime film “Point Blank” Lee Marvin’s Walker (just Walker) gets left for dead in the opening minutes. His partner Mal (John Vernon) shoots him to abscond with the score from a recent heist, and he makes off with Walker’s wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) too. Sometime later, a recuperated Walker heads down to Los Angeles, where Mal was bought back into the criminal Organization (just the Organization). Walker’s gonna kill his way up the underworld corporate ladder until he finds the head white guy in charge willing to give him his money—even if it means using his wife’s leggy sister Chris (Angie Dickinson) as bait. First stop: Lynne’s place, where he expects to find Mal.
In the mid 1960s Boorman was an unknown British filmmaker making his Hollywood debut with this adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s “The Hunter” (published under the pseudonym Richard Stark), a novel as economically musical an evocation of America’s bloody-might-makes-right M.O. as Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest.” And Marvin’s 1966 Best Actor Oscar for “Cat Ballou” gave him the clout to play the lead. A silver-haired hard ass with a handsome fist of a face made him an ideal postwar heavy and seen-everything soldier, and Marvin animates Walker with that hollowed-out menace.
What Boorman and veteran cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop do with the story, however, is what makes “Point Blank” so bewitchingly indelible. They treat the film’s plot like the revenge hallucination of a dying man, where Walker’s past slips into and out of his present via sights and sounds.
It’s neo-noir as cubist landscape. When Walker heads to Lynne’s he hoofs down a hallway, his steps hammering out an anxious pulse that occupies the soundtrack even when Boorman cuts to scenes of Lynne going about her day and Walker driving. Walker bursts through her front door, explodes into the bedroom, and fills the mattress full of lead, expecting Mal to be there, the gunfire’s eruptions drowning out the footsteps. It’s a tensely disorienting scene, and Boorman occasionally flashes back to the sequence.
And when Lee Marvin kills a mattress, that mattress remains fucking killed. “Point Blank” arrived during a particularly violent Hollywood year, when “Bonnie and Clyde,” “In Cold Blood,” and another Marvin vehicle, “The Dirty Dozen,” made onscreen murder return critical and box-office dividends. Boorman’s contribution has more in common with other 1967 efforts: the insurgent mythos of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” the political cynicism of “La Chinoise,” and the modernistic chill of “Le Samouraï.” This odd combo of pulpy plot and European experimentation is what makes “Point Blank” the “Last Year at Marienbad” of renegade hard-ass flicks and a wonder it ever got made in the first place, and why its elliptical, fugitive potency can still intoxicate.