When writing about a film with a twist at the end, it’s best to start with the ending.
A bald man in a suit yells in a courtyard straight out of a di Chirico painting: shadow-murk, long colonnades, people who are more silhouettes than people. A helicopter has dropped off a parcel of cash by the bald man’s feet. A dead body lies beside it.
“Hey Walker?” says the bald man: Fairfax. “Come on in with me. I’ve been looking years for someone like you.”
There’s no reply from the upper storey of the colonnades. Just Walker’s face rigid as a mask receding into the dark.
This is the twist.
For 90 minutes, we have followed the owner of that rigid mask-like face on a revenge mission. His betraying wife and best friend are dead: the money they killed him for now lies just within his grasp.
Up to now, Point Blank has been pure noir: kill the friend, win back the wife, take the money.
Except that’s not what happens at all.
John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) is a film about a noir hero trapped in a Technicolor world.
Lee Marvin, fresh from an Oscar-winning turn as a cold-blooded murderer in 1965’s Cat Ballou (and bearing more than a passing resemblance to his blank-faced hitman from 1964’s The Killers) plays Walker, a two-bit dockworker and strongman pressured into a heist by his rather sniveling best friend, Mal Reese (John Vernon in his screen debut), and his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker). On the deserted prison island of Alcatraz, they steal a cash-drop from a shadowy criminal syndicate known as the Organization.
While Walker rests in an abandoned cell, guilty over the shots fired in the raid, Reese discovers that the amount is exactly $93,000 less than expected.
What Reese does next is pure noir. He shoots his best friend, he steals the money, and he steals his best friend’s wife, before buying his way into the Organization with the proceeds.
The implication is clear: in the nascent corporate criminal world of the late ‘60s, two-bit goons like Walker are nothing more than disposable human capital.
Except Walker survives, of course – or rather he appears to.
What Walker does next is pure noir: kill the friend, win back the wife, take the money.
Alone on Alcatraz, his face a rigid mask of loneliness and pain, Walker regains his strength while his own voice-over echoes over the silent shots of dereliction, smashed glass, barbed wire guarding nothing. “Did it happen? A dream. A dream.”
Finally, he stumbles towards the shore, seems to drown, then swims: what looks at first like suicide becomes escape.
Then a jump-cut to Walker with Fairfax—the bald man we see at the beginning of the film—telling Marvin’s character where to find the man who shot him—conveniently, he’s shacked up with Walker’s wife, Lynne—and how to get his money back.
While the recorded tour echoes in the background—“Other escapees are assumed to have washed out to sea, where they met a watery grave”—Walker studiously avoids the small-talk about how he managed his own escape.
Pure noir: kill the traitor, get the girl, take the money.
Except that’s not what happens at all.
Walker drives smoothly through the vast cold empty spaces of Los Angeles. The soundtrack of echoing footsteps communicates pure relentlessness, and hollows out his character to the level of a cipher who simply is what he does.
On arriving at his wife’s house, he grabs Lynne, gags her with his hand, and makes straight for the bedroom to shoot the bed where he thinks Reese is sleeping.
Except Reese isn’t there.
It’s the first moment where Walker’s desired object is swapped out of his reach.
The second moment arrives in Walker’s narcotized, affectless reunion with Lynne.
He asks none of the questions you would expect of an avenging fury: he doesn’t have to. Lynne simply offers up the information, in the same curiously lopped diction as Fairfax and Walker employ on the boat.
Then she goes on.
“I’m glad you’re not dead,” she says to Walker. The words sound like a thaw: but the grey, cold interiors suggest a deeper freeze in the air. It’s not love she’s after: it’s death. “You should kill me. Can’t sleep. Taking pills. Dream of you.”
She turns to Walker.
“Must be good. Being dead. Is it? No.”
Walker doesn’t react: Walker never reacts. But surely the viewer does, thinking back to the shooting in the cell on Alcatraz.
Point blank range. Multiple .38-calibre shots. Right in the stomach. At a location far from medical aid.
On impact, the bullet will ricochet throughout the visceral tissues, a pinball motion likely to fracture ribs, puncture pleural lining of lungs, sever T-9 and T-10 thoracic vertebrae. Paralysis is the best-case scenario.
Did Walker even get off the island?
Walker sleeps. Dreams elliptical dreams about the shooting on Alcatraz. When he wakes up, his wife is lying dead of an overdose on the bullet-holed bed in her room. Walker backs out of the room curiously unhorrified to see Fairfax’s car parked opposite the house. When he goes back to the bedroom, the furniture is gone. A blank space: prison-cell vibe.
Walker didn’t get off the island.
Point Blank (1967) was John Boorman’s second stab at Hollywood, following on from a middling-successful comedy caper two years before.
As a relatively inexpensive British director relatively new to Hollywood, Boorman seemed a good bet for MGM, already haemorrhaging money on lavish flops like 1963’s Cleopatra. The presence of Lee Marvin shortened the odds, as did the relative tightness of Point Blank’s three-million-dollar budget.
MGM didn’t get what they bet on. They got a cold, hard vision of Los Angeles that seemed to take place in the future: except that impression was never explained. They got a soundtrack of wailing, unresolving strings, voiceovers, fragmented, dreamlike flashbacks.
They also got strongarmed out of their threat to reshoot the movie by Lee Marvin himself. A veteran of the 1944 Battle of Saipan, Marvin was the sole survivor of a massacre that cost the lives of his entire platoon.
Boorman has described how Marvin would often deviate from the script, replacing his lines with gnomic silence and letting minor characters coax his character through a revenge mission in which the protagonist himself seems curiously uninterested. His flashes of violence are mechanical, reactive. His final refusal of the prize seems less like a twist than a logical conclusion: a dead soul finding release by letting go.
This sense of solipsism is borne out by the plot’s implausibly smooth forward motion. After Lynne’s (unusually rapid) fatal overdose, a money-drop man conveniently arrives as per Reese’s orders. Walker echoes back the money-man’s words exactly, as though the scene is happening in the echo-chamber of his own dying fever dream, and immediately has his next lead: the location of Lynne’s sister, Chris (Angie Dickinson), whose presence at the club is swapped for a violent fight-scene that Walker moves through mechanically, emerging unscathed: a third moment of substitution.
Walker inveigles Chris into an implausible plot to distract Reese and lead Walker to his man. This somehow works, but the fourth substitution quickly follows: Walker’s revenge is thwarted by Reese’s accidental plunge to his death from the apartment building, but not before Walker conveniently obtains the names of Reese’s bosses. Get the girl: kind of. Kill the friend: kind of.
Take the money? We’ll see.
After Reese dies, Chris storms off with a parting shot that alludes beyond Walker’s coldness to the atmosphere of after-death hallucination beginning to descend over the film: “You died at Alcatraz, all right. Bye, Walker.”
But the plot remains as relentless and smooth as a hallucination. Fairfax appears at the telephone kiosk and promises to help Walker take the money he’s owed.
The fifth substitution: Walker storms the Organization—quite how, we’re not shown; we presume it’s part of Fairfax’s job as the film’s recurring deus ex machina—and forces Reese’s boss into giving him the money he seeks. He soon discovers the money's been swapped for a parcel of useless papers.
Take the money? Kind of.
By the time Walker arranges for his money to be deposited at Alcatraz—through another disposable cipher deployed by the Organization—our sense of the film has is similar to those dreams in which an endlessly morphing object is endlessly sought and endlessly out of reach, always-already swapped for another object at the last moment. In dreams, as in Point Blank, the only constant is the desire itself: the objects are accidental functions discarded as the plot—and the dreamer—move forward through the visual environment’s affectless, unresisting texture.
The film’s visual language is a further reinforcement of the sense of hallucination. Boorman shot the film with a colour-scheme that slowly “heats up” throughout, from the greys and silvers of Lynne’s apartment through to the green decor and coordinated suits of the Organization’s office headquarters.
Through green we warm to the mellow Kodachrome blues and desert glare of exterior scenes to a climax of mellow colours as Walker—who has swapped his cold grey funeral suit for a red-dominated ensemble—moves through an expensive apartment all reticent woods and soft yellows. The environment proceeds from his body; the story from his mind.
Indeed, the colour-story has its own dénouement, after Walker’s refusal of the prize. As the camera swings back on Alcatraz, the prison appears softened, untroubled somehow. Since the prison verges on the edge of the shot, the emphasis is less on that location’s stark dereliction than on the sense of a liminal space, a crossing-zone, a building on the edge of a mellow nowhere. Mercury shimmer of calm water. Lilac air. Nothing else.
Walker dying in his island cell lets go of his dreams of the world, and fades into nowhere. Death-as-release: a trope from Gun Crazy, Human Desire, The Big Sleep, any number of “pure” noirs.
Walker recedes backwards into the dark above Alcatraz. Resolution as dissolution.
When writing about a film that ends with a twist, it’s best to end with the twist.
“Come and get your money!” Fairfax shouts from the courtyard. “Our deal’s done! I pay my debts! Walker? This is the last time!”
Fairfax in the Devil role, running out of lines. Throughout the film, we’ve seen him coax Walker through his revenge mission, tempting him with information on how to kill the friend, how to get the girl, how to take the money.
“Come on in with me, Walker. I’ve been looking years for someone like you.”
Fairfax in the Devil role, goading Walker’s floating soul into the snare with the hope of one last, vast desire: to be eternal. To be the Organization. To be safe from the death lapping at him now like seawater.
Except Walker’s not there anymore: he’s dead, as so many characters have said to him throughout the film, from Chris at the telephone kiosk to the waitress at the club to Lynne at the very beginning of the film.
The twist of Walker refusing to take the money hints at a larger twist: he’s been dead all along. Only he can’t realize he's dead until he refuses the desire that fuels the last, hallucinatory thrashings of his fever-dream as he lies where he’s always been—shot point blank in a cell on Alcatraz.
Walker doesn’t take the money: it’s not there anyway. He backs away into the dark. Resolution as dissolution. A dead soul finding release by relinquishing. Walker beats the Devil.
Finally Fairfax gives up shouting. A sniper crosses the courtyard.
“Well, how do you like that?” says Fairfax.
“I like it,” says the sniper.
They shrug. Leave. The Panavision lens zooms out, way out, takes in the shore of San Francisco, the sea’s rippling dark. Swings back in over Alcatraz. Hold over a fading, sharp chord on violins that resolve into silence.
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