True confession time: I was not a fan of Lee Marvin’s Point Blank (1967). The first time I viewed it, I found it slow and pretentious. Of course, like all truly great films, it grew on me with each successive viewing and has since become one of my favorite films in his canon. What helped immensely was the research I did while writing Lee Marvin Point Blank. However, film historian and good friend, Bill Krohn, also aided my appreciation of the film considerably when he asked me to help research a project he was working on…..
Krohn was commissioned by Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival to put together a project in which several great film directors pick an underrated film to discuss, why the picked it, and was worthy of rediscovery. It was dubbed Serious Pleasures, a sort of play on words of Film Comment’s series entitled, “Guilty Pleasures.” The choices were very impressive as Bill also needed help in researching and writing some background pieces for each film. I wanted to do almost all of them, but had to settle on a choice few, of which Point Blank was one, chosen by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Eat a Bowl of Tea, etc.). My pleading with Bill resulted in being able to write about Woody Allen’s choice of Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965); Francis Ford Coppola’s choice of Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961); Clint Eastwood’s choice of Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949); Oliver Stone’s choice of Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966); Kathryn Bigelow’s choice of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969); Jim McBride’s choice of Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965); and Charles Burnett’s choice of Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968).
All great choices, by the way, and the joy I felt in researching them was the reason I chose this profession. Unfortunately, the collection never saw publication in this country and I had to be content with knowing my work was enjoyed by film fans throughout Europe…only!
My research into Point Blank resulted in the following brief background piece. Readers of Lee Marvin Point Blank may recognize some of the documentation but there are a few choice nuggets that may be new. Find out for yourself below. Enjoy!
The highly stylized film boasts many technological advancements, as well as some of the most memorable images of its knd. The reverberating sound of Marvin’s heels echoing through the airport during the opening, or the juxtaposing of a brutal fistfight during a hip, should music riff still pack a wallop. Although it is not widely known, Point Blank is also the first film to mic all the actors individually during a scene, thereby incorporating a greater sense of intimacy.
One of the film’s best images of both violence and sexual power, as recalled by Boorman, was a collaborative effort: “It was Lee’s idea to shoot into the empty bed of the wife who had betrayed him. We were using blanks which give no recoil, so, Lee faked it, his arm whipping back a foot or more with each shot. It suggested the enormous power of the thing more than anything else could. Later, when we were filming on Alcatraz, we got some live ammunition and fired the big Magnum for real. There was no recoil at all. Lee grinned at me. ‘Our way sure beats the real thing,’ he said.”
The production, the first ever shot with extensive sequences on the then recently decommission prison of Alcatraz, was not without incident. The difficult task of obtaining permission to shoot on ‘The Rock’ was secured by promising government officials that the film would not glorify crime. Once that was accomplished, the filmmakers took over the decaying prison, shooting long into the night. One shot included a love scene between Marvin and actress Sharon Acker in what had been the cell of Al Capone. At one point, the production almost lost a script girl who slipped on an oil-slick barge into San Francisco Bay’s choppy waters.
At the time of its release, most critics dismissed it but some, such as Newsweek, wrote: ‘It hits like a slug from the .38 Lee Marvin uses as extension of his fist. It is highly moral violence with compelling photography.’ Point Blank has since gone on to attain justifiable cult status. The highly stylized camera work, coupled with Marvin’s raw performance has made it, in the words of film historian Leonard Maltin, ‘A taut thriller ignored in 1967 but now regarded as one of the top films of the mid-sixties..’
The female lead, Angie Dickinson, made a pointed observation when it was screened at the Los Angeles County of Museum in 1996: “It’s been taken to task for its violence but if you notice, Lee’s character never really kills anyone, except for a car and a bed. He really is a catalyst for violence, not a perpetrator.” Her observations gives credence to those film buffs who argue that Marvin’s character is actually the Angel of Death.
As for Lee Marvin, he saw the film in a different light. At the the time of the film’s production, the actor’s marriage was on the rocks while he was in a tumultuous relationship with then girlfriend, Michele Triola. “I saw Point Blank about a year ago and I was absolutely shocked,” he said in 1985. “I had forgotten how rough a film it was. That was a troubled time for me in my personal relationship so I used an awful lot of that while making the picture.”
Rarely has art imitated life so creatively.
– Dwayne Epstein