If you want a crash course in the clichés of ambitious 1960s Hollywood filmmaking, check out John Boorman’s Point Blank. It’s not a bad film, but it is practically a compendium of every arty mannerism fashionable at the time. That very datedness is one of the most interesting things about it, because it results from an attempt to hybridize two contrary approaches to narrative film.
Most of the slow-motion, superimpositions, nonlinear story-telling, and ambiguous action derives from the French New Wave, TV commercials, and possibly even Bay Area avant-garde film. The kaleidoscopic surface shows a Hollywood playing catchup with what has been happening elsewhere, but without giving up American cinema’s idée fixe, story. The revenge saga of petty crook Walker (Lee Marvin), punching, maiming and shooting his way through “The Organization” to get money owed to him is pretty obviously an excuse for the technique, although that doesn’t matter much. It is the attempt to adapt standard story-telling to a style that doesn’t really complement it that is most striking.
In his review of the film, Andrew Sarris jokingly referred to Blank as Last Year at Alcatraz, and the influence of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet is obvious (although stylistically closer to Resnais’s La Guerre est Finie than Marienbad). Nonetheless, for all the fashionable decoration and ennui, Point Blank is very much a standard (if extremely violent) action thriller. The nonlinear cutting, for example, after a suitably jagged opening, eventually settles down into fairly straightforward, linear editing. There are occasional burps as momentary flashbacks/forwards/sideways remind us that the filmmakers remain attentive to hip expectation, but they are largely gratuitous because the nonlinear form is not deeply felt or integral. The story could be told as effectively in a linear manner.
Boorman’s approach represents an elaborate attempt to have his Hollywood narrative cake and eat it with French frosting too. The results feel hollowed out, as if for all the brutality and melancholy characters, there is no center under the fancy filigree. In an attempt to create at least the outward indications of de rigeur character alienation, Marvin is almost comatose when he isn’t breaking a bottle across a thug’s face, or kneeing another in the groin, or dragging another across the room before tossing him from a penthouse window. The contrast between Walker the zombie and Walker the killing machine may be meant to imply he is a thoughtful hood, but the two extremes of behavior are so contradictory, he never makes much sense as anything more than a series of gestures toward pop Existentialism.
The ending too is High Modern open, but far from redolent, the indeterminacy makes sense only in light of the art film pretensions. The logic of the story dictates a pretty clear cut, even predictable ending. The refusal to tie things up feels more like deliberate withholding than anything else. That’s the kind of muddle that can happen when you mix different traditions—you risk pleasing nobody.