John Boorman remains active at age 81, enjoying a directorial career of over half a century. He began with several documentaries, followed by Having a Wild Weekend (Catch Us If You Can), which attempted to do for the Dave Clark Five what Richard Lester had done for the Beatles with A Hard Day’s Night. So there is a sense that Point Blank, a fairly big-budget Hollywood film with noteworthy actors (Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson), came out of nowhere. Although mostly dismissed as just another genre film at the time, Boorman’s spectacular visualization of Richard Stark’s (Donald Westlake’s) early novel The Hunter, has attained the status of a classic. Contemporary crime films had been defined by black-and-white noir like Jacques Tourneur’s excellent Out of the Past (to be shown Thursday afternoon in our Aesthetics of Shadow exhibition) for more than two decades, and now directors like Boorman, Blake Edwards (Gunn), Don Siegel (Madigan and Dirty Harry, which is being shown here in June), and Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me) were widening the screen and the focus, creating an essentially new genre. As Andrew Sarris put it in chastising his colleagues, these films “cannot be appreciated by movie reviewers afflicted with genre prejudices and an inability to adjust to the age of the color film.”
Boorman’s film is violent, but it came out a few weeks after Arthur Penn’s highly publicized Bonnie and Clyde. Like Penn’s film, Boorman’s is part of a non-orchestrated, spontaneous movement in Hollywood filmmaking in line with the decade’s questioning of American values. The mob guys are essentially successful businessmen, oligarchs of capitalism. Marvin is a morally tainted hero (with perhaps just a bit of Lyndon Johnson, but anticipating the likes of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew the following year). Point Blank’s reckless—but hardly wreckless—mad car-chase sequence helped pave the way for Bullitt and The French Connection. The film also helps to establish the trend toward kinkiness in modern-day American cinema.
Much of the violence seems inexplicable, and the film is structured elliptically, in keeping with the geometric architectural visuals photographed by Philip H. Lathrop, Blake Edwards’s favorite cinematographer. Both the violence and kinkiness seem to flow naturally from the persona of Lee Marvin, who would work again for Boorman on Hell in the Pacific, opposite another actor capable of personifying a kind of charming bestiality, Toshiro Mifune. (Boorman made a documentary on Marvin, who had given him his big break, in 1998.) Angie Dickinson rivaled Julie Christie for queen of 1960s sensuality, and John Vernon’s psychopath paved the way for a slew of similar roles for Siegel, Eastwood, and others.
Boorman’s subsequent career has been basically honorable, if episodic. After the over-praised Deliverance, films like Zardoz and Excalibur stand out as highly imaginative examples of spectacular fantasies before the computerized can-you-top-this epidemic. The Emerald Forest and Beyond Rangoon demonstrate a major gift for exotic location shooting. The real treasure is Boorman’s autobiographical Hope and Glory, his nostalgic look back at his childhood during the London blitz. As Sarris wrote in 1967, he was “a director to watch.”