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)
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear