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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era