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Disorganised crime

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

Point Blank
Lee Marvin, centre, in John Boorman's "Point Blank" (Photograph: Getty Images)

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.