Disorganised crime

In praise of John Boorman's "Point Blank".

John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank is to the American hardboiled genre what Michelangelo Antonioni’s films are to Italian neorealism and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad is to postwar French cinema. It acknowledges and articulates the formalist fracture that modernity brought to film culture, the way expression adapted and adopted new aesthetic forms from a changing world.

If the noir, first in literature then in cinema, had narrated the urban anxieties of men and women thrown together in big cities by industrialisation, Point Blank registers the birth of a new kind of society and crime. Seedy bars and dimly lit alleys make way for luxury apartments and corporate offices. Crime is no longer the prerogative of shady characters defying sleep and the authorities in the dead of night; exclusive suites and residential complexes are the new criminal milieu. Hitmen are nothing but pawns in the hands of businessmen. The quest to get to the head of these new criminal organizations is shrouded in obscurity. Boorman here both anticipates and exceeds the genre deconstruction that would characterise the films of the "New Hollywood" in the 1970s.

Walker (Lee Marvin) is persuaded by Mal Reese (John Vernon) to intercept and steal a cash exchange that takes place in the abandoned Alacatraz prison amongst gangsters. Mal owes money to one of the heads of the organisations, Carter (Lloyd Bochner) and will not share the booty with Walker so as to pay Carter back. Their action is successful but a triangular love affair gets in the way of business and bitterly divides Mal and Walker who, determined to get his due, starts to take out one by one all the members of the “organisation”. But is money really what Walker is after? Or does he merely want to avenge his betrayed love? The film leaves such questions open, confounding the audience through visual accelerations, temporal cut-ups and a hypnotic montage. As Walker shoots his way through the top of the organisation, his inner psychology remains as impenetrable as the slick surfaces of the modernist buildings he walks in and out of. Unlike the classical noir hero, riddled with indecision and pained by moral conflicts, the Lee Marvin character seems devoid of any emotional involvement with his predicament. The spectator will in fact discover at the very end that this silent rider was actually acting on behalf of an even more obscure force, an even bigger player.

A metaphysical thriller with a Kafkesque quality in which the protagonist's stubborn determination to scale the last heights of the “organisation” only plunges him deeper into the impenetrability of a manipulative corporate web, Point Blank has lost none of its cogency. Here Boorman captures a world of geometrical constructions where human agency is reduced to nothing. The film is a play of forms in the drama of space. Time in Point Blank is abstract, like the interior design adorning the scenery, it is more ornamental than functional. Its saturated colour palette comprises the cobalt blue of the Los Angeles sky, the warm brown of three-piece suits and the refracting light of chrome surfaces. Walker’s journey towards his goal is as detached and cold as the long, neon-lit corridor he walks at the beginning of the film on his way to his ex-wife. Boorman manages to create pathos through the orchestration of bodies and objects in the frame, the acting is almost choreographic, never emotional. Similarly Walker organises the aimless sprawl of Los Angeles almost instinctively, travelling its freeways in his stubborn quest.

"Point Blank" is showing at BFI Southbank, London SE1 until 11 April and at selected cinemas around the country until 24 June.

Lee Marvin, centre, in John Boorman's "Point Blank" (Photograph: Getty Images)
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The Day That Went Missing: a memoir that breaks all the rules

Richard Beard's book is brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death.

The Day That Went Missing: a Family’s Story, by Richard Beard

Harvill Secker, 278pp, £14.99

This memoir breaks all the rules. It’s brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death. In the sea off the Cornish coast, the author, aged 11, is jumping the waves along with his brother Nicky, aged nine. It is August 1978. They are trying to outdo each other, joshing in the water; but then a rip current catches Nicky, pulling him out and sucking the sand from beneath his feet. A last image is burned in Beard’s brain: Nicky paddling madly and whining, “his head back, ligaments straining in his neck, his mouth in a tight line to keep out the seawater”. The next moment, responding to a deep instinct to save himself, Beard turns his back on his brother in a frenzied break for the shore.

All his life, Beard writes, he has “made a habit of looking away”. With this book – born of a midlife wobble, a dissatisfaction with being “insufficient in feeling” – he is determined to face down the dreadful events of that day and bulldoze the walls of denial that his family began erecting immediately after Nicky’s funeral, when they returned to the same house (and beach) in Cornwall to finish their holiday as if nothing had happened.

But now there’s so little of Nicky left: a gravestone that gives no date of death, a memorial at the boys’ Berkshire boarding school, a chapel dedication. Beard’s father, who with his determined silence imposed a moratorium on discussing Nicky, is now dead, too, and his living brothers’ recollections are as hazy as his own. At his mother’s house, a suitcase in the attic stows Nicky’s scant belongings, out of sight and mind, and there is a bunch of condolence letters whose well-intentioned inanities Beard quotes to good effect throughout the book, ­showing up the poverty of our language in acknowledging grief. “Death in these letters is character-forming, like a traditional English education,” he remarks at one point.

Beard revisits the holiday house, where difficult memories surface of his boyhood self, pretending to cope while falling apart. He cries uncontrollably as he walks along the cliffs to the beach where Nicky died. “My eyes are leaking,” he writes, another reminder of how he has been drilled not to feel (his boarding school, co-conspirator in denial, does not come off well here).

Beard’s mother hides behind revisionism. She tells him that Nicky was “hopeless at games, and not very brainy”. By believing this, he writes, she can believe that he didn’t have the strength or cleverness to outwit the sea. Another distancing mechanism: his mother points out that Nicky bore little physical resemblance to his three brothers. Beard drily notes how this helps account for Nicky’s erasure: “He wasn’t genuinely one of us – a reason for forgetting him that would make sense, in a novel.”

Making sense of life in novels is what Beard does for a living: in 2011’s Lazarus Is Dead, he even gave his central character a brother who drowns. And his novelist self protects him still, here. While reading (and finding flaws with) the condolence letters, he relies on his inner literary critic to “fend away the risk of genuine empathy”; stumbling on precious references to Nicky’s personality in school reports, he expresses a wariness of short cuts to character. Yet even the denial that serves him professionally breaks down when he comes across stories he published in his school magazine when he was 12 and 13 – one about a diver crippled by fear of water, another about a consummate actor who can’t keep up a performance: he keeps fluffing his lines.

Scraping away this final layer of self-protection creates a certain freedom. It allows Beard to be crazy angry at his father, who had cancer in 1978 and a lousy prognosis with it, and therefore had nothing to lose by jumping into the waves to save his son. And yet he didn’t do it.

Beard is angry at Nicky, too – “stubborn little bastard”. His brother, it turns out, was far from hopeless at sport. School reports indicate that he excelled at it, that he was ­indefatigable, competitive, ambitious. Beard hated him for that, for showing him up, for being the more talented sibling. Once, he punched Nicky in the face but there was no running away to tell on him in response. Nicky bore the punch, showing his brother who was the bigger of them. “I didn’t like him,” writes Beard, and so he goaded Nicky into the sea. “I was older and it was my idea. I left him out of his depth and drowning and I didn’t try to save him, not really. I was busy saving myself.” This is the stuff of true grieving and remorse, the acid peel of genuine soul-searching, whose sting few of us are capable of bearing. And it sings.

Beard has written an enriching rather than uplifting book. It deals in difficult truths. It insists that we can hate those we love; that forgetting is hard work and more damaging than remembering; and that grief will hound us to the end. It also tells us that brothers are more important than we might ever credit. 

Marina Benjamin’s “The Middlepause” (Scribe) is now available in paperback

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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