Point Blank’s unreliable narrator

pointbcPoint Blank, 1967, 92 mins, Blu-ray

There is something very, very odd regards John Boorman’s crime drama Point Blank, mostly because it doesn’t make much sense at all. A (deliberately) disjointed prologue shows anti-hero Walker (Lee Marvin) being double-crossed by Mal Reece (John Vernon), shot at point blank range and  and left for dead in a cell in abandoned Alcatraz. We thereafter see Walker recover, wander as if in a daze around Alcatraz and then step into the waters of the bay to swim over to San Francisco. Its something frankly preposterous, especially for a man critically injured by gunshots.

Later, we see Walker half-undressed and he bears no scars of bullet-wounds at all. I commented to my wife regards this, questioning was it a continuity error, or a lack of attention to detail,  but I suppose all this leads to the question that has concerned viewers of the film for decades: did Walker actually die in that prison cell when he was shot, or perhaps did he drown in the bay? Is everything we witness post-shooting actually the fantasy of a dying man (I’m reminded of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, another film with an unreliable narrator, with many reading most of that film’s narrative as the opium- fuelled dream of Noodles (Robert de Niro)). Or instead is Walker, every time we see him after being shot, literally a vengeful ghost, the film a horror story dressed up as neo-noir? Indeed, a few times we see him advised/courted by Yost (Keenan Wyn) a mysterious character who weirdly drifts in and out of the proceedings; appearing and disappearing – we are led to believe he is a federal agent (at least, that was my first impression, Yost seeking Walker’s help in taking down ‘The Organisation’ protecting Reece) but Yost could perhaps be seen as a guardian Angel (or Demon?) guiding Walker on his path of supernatural revenge, feeding him information.

Its really a very peculiar film, quite disorientating even today- goodness knows what the response was back in 1967 (the film eventually proved a cult hit over the years and highly regarded but its odd structure and narrative concerned the studio and initial audiences). I’m pretty confident I’ll enjoy it more on subsequent viewings but this first time around, I was quite taken aback by its curious, almost Lynchian sense of time out of joint (some scenes are literally edited out of sequence, it seems) and being subject to an unreliable narrator who may be dead, or may be dreaming. I’m still not certain what to think. Its notable also just how, well, European-arthouse it looks, with all sorts of curious angles and camera set-ups that only intensify the sense of unreality that pervades the film.

There is definitely an impression that this is a film distinctly of its time- back when Old Hollywood, under the continuing threat of television, was changing into what would become the American Cinema of the 1970s, the rather auteur, sometimes quite radical movies such as Taxi Driver, Klute, The Exorcist, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now and so many others, before that itself began to transform into the corporate Hollywood we are living with today. Watching Point Blank‘s rather surreal narrative I found myself thinking of The Swimmer, released just a year later. Both are so strange one cannot imagine them being made the decade before or the decade after.

Point Blank was based on a book “Hunter” by Richard Stark that also served as inspiration for the Mel Gibson-starring Payback from 1999, a film I really enjoyed (especially in its directors Cut version)- Payback has a more routine, dare I say reliable, narrative and I really must get that Blu-ray out for a rewatch sometime soon. It will be fascinating to compare the two very different approaches to the same revenge story. I also find obvious similarities between Point Blank and Get Carter from 1971 that I watched a short time ago, another more routine revenge tale when compared to John Boorman’s film.

2 thoughts on “Point Blank’s unreliable narrator

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    Slight digression – did you ever read Darwyn Cook’s comics adaptations of the Parker books? They’re absolutely brilliant, and have recently been reprinted in lovely deluxe editions.

    1. No, I’d honestly never heard of them. They do look gorgeous. I need to get through some of my ‘to-read’ pile though before adding to it, but I’ll keep an eye out incase they are still available when I do – that’s half the trouble with all these collected editions, they take some keeping up with and tend to go out of print., which suckered me into buying books I still haven’t read. There’s a couple Library of America books of Noir stories I want to read but I hang fire on buying them just because I know they will sit on the shelf for awhile.

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