Point Blank poster art by Tony Stella https://www.tony-stella.com/
By Koraljka Suton
British filmmaker John Boorman started out by making documentaries for the BBC before getting a chance to direct his first feature film, the 1965 Catch Us If You Can (known in the US under the name Having a Wild Weekend) starring members of the then-popular British group The Dave Clark Five. Although the director considered it to be a minor movie, it nonetheless helped him make a name for himself in Hollywood: “I’ve been very fortunate. When Catch Us If You Can opened in America, it was highly praised by one or two critics, particularly Pauline Kael [of The New Yorker]. In her perverse way she overpraised it tremendously—but it had a very good effect for me. People started sending me scripts and offers from America. She could just as easily have panned it, because she was completely unpredictable.” Subsequently, he caught the attention of MGM and Hollywood press agent Judd Bernard. Boorman seemed to have left quite an impression on Bernard, for the latter offered him a script for a film called Point Blank and arranged a meeting between the director and Academy Award-winning actor Lee Marvin who was just filming The Dirty Dozen (1967) in London.
The director disliked the screenplay written by Rafe and David Newhouse but was fascinated with its protagonist—and as it turned out, the popular actor shared the same sentiment and was impressed with Boorman’s ideas in regards to re-writing the script. Although Marvin had never seen any of Boorman’s work, he asked the filmmaker whether he would like to make the movie with him. The script in question was an adaptation of the crime thriller novel The Hunter, written by Donald Westlake under the name Richard Stark. At first meant to be a stand-alone novel, The Hunter eventually became the first in a series about a professional criminal called Parker—after having read the manuscript, Westlake’s editor offered to publish up to three Parker novels annually. Although the writer could not keep that tempo up, during the next forty-six years he nevertheless managed to write twenty-three more novels centering around the hardened protagonist. Westlake’s books were the inspiration for many a movie, with The Hunter also being the basis of Brian Helgeland’s 1999 neo-noir Payback with Mel Gibson in the titular role. But as opposed to Helgeland’s adaptation, which was not at all critically acclaimed, Boorman’s Point Blank not only broke new ground, but also received much deserved praise.
Lucky for Boorman that he had the opportunity to meet with Lee Marvin—once the two decided to work together, Marvin dismissed the screenplay and set up a meeting with his agent, the producers, the studio and Boorman. As the director recalled in the Point Blank DVD audio commentary: “[Marvin] said, ‘I have script approval?’ They said ‘yes’. ‘And I have approval of principal cast?’. ‘Yes’. He said, ‘I defer all those approvals to John [Boorman].’ And he walked out. So on my very first film in Hollywood, I had final cut and I made use of it.” There were ultimately four versions of the screenplay, written by Alexander Jacobs in collaboration with Boorman, the second draft being an amalgamation of letters he sent to the director in Hollywood, as well as the letters and phone calls he received from him. Significant contributions to the movie were also made by Johnny Mandel and his remarkable score, Henry Berman and his editing talents, as well as cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop, who had also worked with Orson Welles and whose camerawork on Point Blank verges on the avant-garde. The finished product was shown to the executives, who were more confused than impressed, discussing the notion of possible re-shoots. Luckily for Boorman, legendary editor Margaret Booth was also among those who Point Blank was shown to. As the executives were leaving, she told the director: “You touch one frame of this film over my dead body.” Thanks to Booth’s few helpful suggestions, the movie was tweaked in a way that no cuts or re-shoots were ever required.
Originally, the movie was to be shot in San Francisco, but when Boorman eventually visited the city for the very first time, he realized it was a far cry from what he had been looking for: “It was all soft, romantic, pastel shades—a very beautiful place—but the complete opposite of what I wanted for the film. I wanted my setting to be hard, cold and, in a sense, futuristic. I wanted an empty, sterile world, for which Los Angeles was absolutely right.” Even though the producers were against this idea, they ultimately agreed to it because it turned out that shooting in Los Angeles would be less expensive. But the opening and closing scenes, the ones taking place in Alcatraz prison, were shot on location, making Point Blank the first movie ever to be filmed at the once-notorious federal penitentiary which had been shut down three years before the movie went into production. The film’s cast and its 125 crewmembers shot there for two weeks, during the course of which actresses Angie Dickinson and Sharon Acker posed in temporary fashion items for Life Magazine, with the prison as the backdrop. Acker and Dickinson play sisters in the movie, with the former portraying Lynne, wife of Marvin’s character who goes solely by his last name Walker (changed from Parker). We meet them intercepting i.e., robbing a crime operation taking place at the abandoned prison. With them is Mal Reese (John Vernon), the couple’s supposed friend. Not even five minutes into the movie, Reese turns out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing and shoots Walker, leaving him for dead, before running away with the entirety of the stolen money—and Lynne herself. It is at this point that Walker’s journey begins, as he somehow miraculously survives a number of gunshot wounds and swims his way to the shore, his only plan and ultimate driving motive being getting even by recovering the money he is owed, no matter the cost or casualties. Starting with a visit to his wife, Walker sets off on a mission to find the man who took everything from him. Chaos ensues, shots are fired, lives are lost. And Walker remains unfazed by everything that comes his way, his heart set solely on the $93,000 he was tricked out of.
Boorman’s noir classic is revered for a number of reasons, one of them being the fact that Point Blank, although substantially adhering to the tropes of the neo-noir genre, managed to be not only highly innovative, but also an amalgamation of American, British and French influences. The American and British parts of the equation have already been covered—with Westlake’s source material and the rugged male protagonist effortlessly portrayed by Marvin representing the American and director Boorman’s discerning eye capturing Los Angeles’ modernist architecture, painting an unpretty picture with underlying shades of orange, khaki and avocado, symbolizing the British. When it comes to what is French about Point Blank, the director did not shy away from the fact that the impressionist painter Pierre-August Renoir served as an influence. But it is impossible not to notice that the fingerprints of French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad) can be seen all over Boorman’s crime thriller. For the director’s use of narrative structure is fragmented, with its dream-like quality sucking the viewers in and forcing them to find their way through the movie’s fractured timeline and discombobulated rhythms, its slow and long scenes heavily disrupted by abrupt violent outbursts. The past and the present mash and collide—with flashbacks being poetically motivated, as opposed to narratively—scenes we had already seen repeat themselves, the ending is both ambiguous and highly symbolic and the sound effects, the minimalist score, as well as voiceovers, are utilized to confuse the viewers and make them feel as if they had intruded upon someone else’s dream. Or rather someone else’s nightmare, depending on one’s viewpoint.
All of this is in no way accidental, for Boorman’s subjective style is meant to make us question whether the events that had come to pass really occurred, or if they were just a dream of a dying man who uses his last waking moments to imagine what it would be like to exercise his vengeance and forcefully get back that which was taken from him. However, the director dismissed such prevailing theories, emphasizing that “what you see is what you get” when it comes to his movie. Nonetheless, this has not stopped cinephiles from vehemently sticking to alternate theories, among others director Steven Soderbergh who, apart from regularly stressing the extent of Point Blank’s influence on his own work, sees it as an examination of (Marvin’s) memory. It could be said that Boorman did not disagree, for the only hint at a subtext he ever gave was claiming the film was inspired by Lee Marvin’s prior military career and the horrors he experienced during World War II. The actor, born in 1924, joined the Marines at the tender age of 17 and participated in the Pacific War. It is said that the Japanese had ambushed his platoon in 1944, leaving Marvin wounded in the behind. Boorman stated: “His whole platoon was wiped out, except for one other person. And he felt himself to be a coward lying there, and he never lost that. It was survival guilt—and it didn’t help that he had been shot in the arse. Not because he was running away, but because he was lying down when he was wounded.” The director claimed that the actor had thus strived to reclaim the humanity he felt had been lost due to the unspeakable trauma of war—and playing a merciless character such as Walker who seemingly cheats death and embarks on a journey of revisiting him former life appears to have been Marvin’s attempt at working through said personal war trauma.
The character of Walker, who never reveals his first name, remains just as much of a mystery as the answer to the previously mentioned burning question about the film’s subtext audiences have been posing for decades. He is violent, single-minded and goal-oriented, exhibiting no fear in the face of danger and solely going after what he wants (the money!), possible consequences be damned. He looms over the other characters’ heads like an ominous presence, acting in accordance with his mission, but also discerningly observing and, more patiently than he would probably like, waiting for all the players to make their moves so he could either gather new pieces of much-needed information or proceed onto the next person in a chain of people presumably leading him to his money. Interestingly enough, Walker himself does not eliminate a single person—he is merely there, witnessing the events as they unfold and playing his part in the scenes he set up as they unravel before him. But he never once deals the fatal blow—the characters take care of that themselves, either by committing suicide, assassinating each other or accidentally falling to their deaths. Walker, the assumed ruthless killing-machine, goes the entirety of the movie without actually murdering anyone. Ingenious? I would certainly say so.
And Marvin was the perfect actor to embody one such persona. When asked by Stuart Kemp of The Hollywood Reporter about talented actors he had worked with, the director stated the following: “I learned an enormous amount from Lee Marvin about film acting, about the way in which you relate to the camera and his physicality; he was like a ballet dancer. And he was very daring as an actor. He would try anything. He never held back.” The character’s aloofness, best seen during all the fragmented conversations he leads, is what showcases him as a man alienated from others, but also from himself. His tendency to suppress basic human emotion renders him incapable of holding a conversation—the other person is usually the one who talks or acts. After coming back from the dead and bursting into Lynne’s apartment, their conversation is exclusively one-sided—she is the one doing the talking and the reminiscing, with Walker just sitting there beside her, mute, expressionless and immovable. In another scene, one featuring Lynne’s sister and Walker, we see the former repeatedly hitting the latter and working up quite a sweat, with Walker just standing there and taking it, motionless and emotionless. The end result is her falling to the floor and him walking over to the couch to watch a TV program where an actor talks about “neurotic inertia,” which is a term used to describe “a paralysis of initiative and action,” stemming from “a strong alienation from self.” Such is the character of Walker—unable to act when confronted with intense emotion and other human-like qualities, due to his inability to connect with himself and what he actually feels. The only emotions he does exhibit are those related to his sole goal—the acquisition of the money owed to him.
As he progresses up the ladder in order to find the person that can actually pay him in full, he finds out that the job of getting to the top—or to the bottom of things, if you will—is in no way an easy one, for his former friend Mal had worked for an organization called, quite literally, the Organization, a business that seems too powerful to either beat or negotiate with. This is why it is not hard for the viewers to get involved in Walker’s quest, regardless of his emotionless character—for the antagonist is a much more menacing one, a beast with multiple heads and roots leading straight to hell. As Walker indirectly takes the heads off one by one, he is regaining a sense of control and autonomy, things that were taken away from him the moment he was shot and left for dead. But what he does not realize is that by taking down the Organization, he is, in fact, doing its bidding. For the heads may be easy to chop off, but if he does not tend to the root, his efforts may very well be in vain. Some critics claim that Point Blank could, therefore, be viewed through a prophetic lens, symbolizing the director’s own fight against the Organization called Hollywood, which would ensue in the years to come, with the individualistic auteur striving to keep his sense of personal artistry amidst the oppressing filmmaking machinery.
Boorman’s first American film was shot at a time when studios were in desperate need of films that would attract audiences to theaters. Although that goal was not achieved, with Point Blank fairing averagely at the box office, unable to catch on with the viewers due to its fragmented narrative structure, the movie’s reputation and influence would come to grow in the years to come. Not only has it achieved cult status among audiences and filmmakers alike, but it has also been declared “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry. Lucky for Boorman and for us that Marvin took a chance on him in those early days of Point Blank’s conception, for that leap of faith resulted in the making of a true classic that combines the best of the American and European filmmaking styles of the time.
Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
“We sort of contrived this movie, and he knew how difficult it was going to be to do a radical film in Hollywood terms. So when I got there, he called a meeting with the studio head and producers. He reminded them that he had cast and script approval for it, and he said, ‘I’m deferring that privilege to John’—and he walked out. They lost the film and gave me just these angry looks. They couldn’t do anything about it. Lee was great all the way through. He was a drunk, an alcoholic, but it never got in the way of the work. He never drank when we were shooting. Toward the end of the film, we went out to San Francisco to shoot in Alcatraz. I was exhausted at that point, and I just lost it. I didn’t know how to put the scene together. Lee looked across at me, and he came over and he said, ‘Are you in trouble?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to figure this out.’ So he went across, and he then acted drunk. He started shouting and singing and falling over, and the production manager came over and said, ‘Have you seen the state Lee’s in? We can’t shoot him like that. We’ve got to get him some black coffee.’ So once the pressure was off, in five minutes, I worked it out. I went over and said to Lee, ‘Okay, we’re ready,’ and he made this miraculous recovery from drunkenness to sobriety. That was really something.” —John Boorman looks back
Screenwriter must-read: Alexander Jacobs’ screenplay for Point Blank [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Alexander Jacobs discusses the process of adapting Westlake’s novel, the conflicts involved in getting the script to screen, and his approach to screenwriting, Film Quaterly, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Winter 1968—Winter 1969), pp. 2-14.
How did the script for Point Blank come to be written?
There were three main versions of the script. The first I did during my first stay in Hollywood, in four weeks, and that consisted of writing the script once and then rewriting it completely. I only had four weeks because I was working on a picture in England. John gave me the script that the Newhouses had written, which was a craftsman-like piece of work but very old-fashioned. And the idea was to make a thriller that was enterprising. What I argued from the beginning was we couldn’t make an Asphalt Jungle, we couldn’t make a Harper, we couldn’t make a Sweet Smell of Success. I thought all those days were over—television had scraped them clean. We had to do something completely fresh. We wanted to make a film that was a half reel ahead of the audience, that was the whole idea. We made a vow that we’d have no people getting in and out of cars, no shots of car doors opening and closing, unless there was a really important reason. And then I wrote a second version which consisted mainly of long letters from me in England to John in Hollywood, plus long telephone conversations on casting and all sorts of things, and of course letters from John, which were amalgamated into a second-draft script. And then I went out to San Francisco on the shooting of the picture the first two weeks. The ending and the beginning of the film take place in San Francisco and that’s where we shot. I then wrote a lot more stuff including a completely new ending and a new beginning, some of which was done in script form, some of which was in discussion, and some of which was literally dictated to a girl and rushed out to location as they were shooting. This included the whole idea of using the sightseeing boat as a means of linking the past and the present I wrote a new ending which wasn’t used. I don’t really agree with the ending in the film at the moment—I think it’s evasive—but that’s the one that was finally shot.
What was your ending like?
We had a grandstand ending which I liked very much, because it seemed to me to be sort of Wagnerian in its own way. In this fort, Fort Point in San Francisco, you had Yost revealing himself to Walker and tempting Walker to join him, and Walker is half-tempted and half-shattered by his experiences and by the fact that he’s been used as a dupe for the whole film; all his passion, all his energy, all his madness were being used—he was like a puppet being manipulated and he becomes absolutely incensed, and he advances upon Yost who has a gun, and Yost is suddenly terrified by this mad force, because Walker is now completely insane. And Walker just advances upon him—he’s going to kill him with his bare hands, a complete animal, he’s frothing at the mouth. And Yost shoots him three times and the three bullets miss. Yost actually cannot shoot this force. He tries, his hands shake, and he suddenly realizes his age; suddenly his age sinks through him like a flood, like a great stone sucking him under, and he’s a completely old man, and he steps backward and falls off the parapet and dies. And Walker comes to at the edge of the parapet, and shaken and quivering is led away by the girl out into the world again. This was the ending we had. And I thought it bordered on the melodramatic, I thought it was really dangerous, but I thought it was a marvelous way of going for an ending to a myth, if you like. And I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but it wasn’t played that way, so I came up with other endings.
Were there other disagreements over various scenes in the film?
I can give you a very specific example—the scene when Brewster (Carroll O’Connor) arrives home and Lee has been waiting for him, and demands his money. John shot that scene before we went to San Francisco and ran the picture for me so I was completely in touch with what was happening. Now the Brewster scene was quite clearly shot wrongly. He had shot it almost as scripted but in fact had cut out a crucial love scene which is prior to the Brewster scene. It’s a scene where Angie and Lee not only make love but become extraordinarily intimate, and he begins to talk to her for the first time and tell her his fears and in fact reveals that this drive is something that he’s generated in himself and that is now dissipating him and wearing him out and crumbling him, and that he’s frightened of it. He’s frightened of where it’s going to lead him, he’s frightened of the way he cannot control it. And I think that would have matched in with my ending very well indeed. Well, John said it wasn’t possible to shoot it or that he couldn’t shoot it and he didn’t want to. So in this sequence with Brewster the trouble was that because you didn’t have the previous love scene, and because the actor, Carroll O’Connor, is a very strong and intelligent actor, you got a complete unbalance to the scene. There are three peaks in the scene, and Carroll O’Connor took them all from Lee, which is not only dramatically wrong, it’s psychologically wrong, and it’s plot wrong, which is the most crucial point. And I pointed this out to John and he agreed, and he reshot the second half of the scene, and I think if you look very closely you’ll see that the second half of that scene is shot with a different light and at a different area, because I don’t think we could get back to the original location again. We changed it so that in the end Lee became the dominant one, which led on to the ending that we finally shot, but I think if we’d had the love scene, the scene as originally scripted in Brewster’s house could have worked.
Another change was in the wake sequence, the sequence when, after his wife’s committed suicide, the house is sort of stripped bare. The whole idea in that sequence was to show Walker completely revealed, but to no one else except himself. And the second revelation is when Walker at long last comes out of the abyss and reveals himself to the woman. The first time is when he’s in this house and he looks round and a wall is stripped bare; he looks again, the bed is gone; he looks again and the carpets have gone and his feet begin to echo over the place, and he starts packing his wife’s goods and he smells her panties and a bra, and he packs away photographs or trinkets or Welcome to Hawaii or something like that. What you get is a great sense of revelation, which is very strange and completely inside his head in many ways. And this isn’t shot in that way. I think John argues that there are really subtle touches where Lee does show certain sorts of warmth, but my general impression is that he’s too frozen-faced throughout. We showed the film to Hashimoto, one of Kurosawa’s scriptwriters, the man who’s worked with him a long time. He loved it, was very excited by it, but he said, ‘I think you should have been closer on his eyes,’ which is a marvellously perceptive view of the film, because that’s the trouble—it is, I think, too cold-blooded.
How do you feel about the wake sequence as it is filmed?
I don’t think it works. I don’t like it. I like some of its ideas, I think it is very strange, but I think it’s strange because it’s baffling and not strange because it’s got quality and atmosphere. It isn’t developed properly. You should see each room vanish as he walks through it; instead, there are times when you really don’t know whether he’s just walked from an empty room into an empty room. There should have been changes in his shirts and his face. John argues that there are changes; he says the beard gets a bit longer, but who’s going to notice that? You needed something much bolder, much clearer.
The differences in the wake sequence are interesting, because they do reveal a real difference in temperament. He did make the film colder, as you say, just through very subtle sorts of changes.
Well, I think that’s exactly the sort of relationship between writers and directors that is interesting to discuss. I mean, when you have a director as strong as John, and I suppose when you have a writer with ideas like I have, many times it’s a very happy amalgamation, as it has been with him. And of course the next step is for the writer to direct. Incidentally, the film did extraordinarily well. I don’t think it’s the greatest blockbuster of all time, but I know MGM are happy with what it finally made and all the rest of it; it’s done very well in Europe and so forth. In fact, it’s given us all a great boost. But I would argue that the film would have been even more popular with this warmer quality to it. I don’t mean by that pandering to the audience, but I mean making Lee more human, less monsterish, less zombie, less killer, if you like—although he doesn’t actually kill a single person in the picture. I think the problem is that that sort of implacable, never-let-up drive is not human, and while it would have been marvelous to have continued our myth that he literally comes from the underground, roams over the surface of the earth for a brief while, then goes back into the shadows—well, by introducing the girl and all sorts of other things, we obviously go away from the essential myth. But by making him variable, by giving him variations of pace, by giving him changes of character, we would have made him human, and—I think much more understandable.
I think it’s quite possible that lots of people were repelled by the drive of the picture, which is frenetic. We did it for a reason. Both of us were extraordinarily attracted by Los Angeles—I still am—and we both hated San Francisco, hated it in the sense that it wasn’t for our picture, and it was very much a touristy sort of town, a town sort of on the asshole of America, it seemed to me. If you couldn’t face the Middle West and the West and what modern America is, you retreated to San Francisco and hung on for your dear life. It’s a very sweet sort of city, but it’s obviously not America. I love L.A. because it seems to me to be absolutely what America is, at least one aspect of America, and it doesn’t kid around, you know, you either take it or you don’t take it.
What are some other examples of differences between script and film, where you feel this warmer quality is lost?
Well, where he does come alive in a much richer way is the wooing of his wife down by the waterfront, the whole of the flashback sequence there, which I think is beautifully done and far beyond any hopes I would have had at that point. And I thought there should have been indications of that sort of thing in the rest of the picture. But it doesn’t come again. The whole absence of Angie at the end of the picture is a very important clue. But the crucial change is the sequence when she beats him and falls to the floor and then taunts him through the intercom about ‘You’re really dead…’ Now it seems to me that those lines are absolutely crucial, and they’ve got to be said. You can’t have them in this abstract way over the soundtrack through a round black piece of mesh through which the girl’s voice floats. That’s exactly the point where it’s got to be a confrontation between two human beings. And while I think it’s brilliantly shot sequence and some very inventive ideas. it’s really for laughs, and I think the audience reaction is one of laughs basically, and it isn’t revealing on any other level. And then if you’d gone into that very long and tender love scene after that, you would have obviously had a different picture.
Another change, which is more indirect but equally important, is the first time he meets Angie, when he awakens her in her bedroom and she finds out her sister’s dead. And at the end of that scene, I wrote that a certain intimacy begins to grow between them—she’s lying there in bed, the blankets back, her hair tousled, one shoulder bare, and suddenly a sexual element enters the scene, and it’s the temptation that is going to grow increasingly. Now that’s not shown in the film at all. It’s done in a two-shot, a lot of it done from behind Lee’s head or just to the side of Lee. But what you don’t see is a growing intimacy that should have come through a track-in, a slightly different composition, a feeling of warmth and then a drawing back again. This is in the script, it’s not in the picture.
All of these changes are consistent.
I think another point worth thinking about is that I feel there is very definitely an Anglo-Saxon attitude towards art and a non-Anglo-Saxon attitude towards art, particularly visual art. I think Anglo-Saxon culture tends toward a form of social observation. The artist sees himself and is seen as an observer of society, in which personal investigation and a personal viewpoint and a personal passion about life are less important than a highly skilled, very effective, and brilliant sketching in and drawing of a social page. Whereas it seems to me that the non-Anglo-Saxon attitude is much more towards personal investigation, a personal, passionate view of a situation, of people, often hopelessly unfair, but uniquely and individually the maker’s own. And it may well be that part of the tension between writers and directors in English-speaking cinema is that if the writer isn’t Anglo-Saxon, as I’m not—I’m Jewish and I’m certainly not Anglo-Saxon—whereas the director isn’t Jewish and is Anglo-Saxon, it could be that that’s where the dichotomy really takes place; in my view in the script, which is more passionate and warmer and richer, to my mind, than John’s, is eschewed by John because he does have this Anglo-Saxon training. I think that’s one view of it which is perfectly possible.
There’s another factor that’s strange. I think the great problem with writers and directors is to know when to change the role in the progress of the picture. I think at the beginning the writer is totally inside the picture, with the director and occasionally the producer, if you’ve got a genuinely creative producer—like Ray Wagner, the man I’m working for at the moment—outside the material, and it’s the tension between those two positions which creates the material. Then I think when the picture begins the director becomes totally involved with the material, he’s totally inside the material, and it’s the writer, and perhaps the producer, who is outside the material. But of course in most cases in the English-speaking cinema, the writer’s paid off and that’s the end of it. In Point Blank that was exactly my position. At the end of four weeks, I was sent back to England and that was that. It was only because of my relationship with John, these constant phone calls and letters, that I was able to have any effect whatsoever. And then of course John’s plea for me to come out for two weeks in San Francisco and help him again, which the producers agreed to. But under normal circumstances, you complete the script and that’s the end of it. And of course if you write pictures which are purely a stimulus for the director to go on, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the director who can do that. I mean John is someone—I may disagree with his view of the picture—but I know that he can take it on from there. He’s a very strong director, and this means that he’ll argue and fight for what he wants and be prepared to give up the picture if he doesn’t get it. In that sense he’s very good, in that sense he deserves everything he gets. But there are many directors who are very craftsmanlike interpreters and no more. One needs to give them a different script.
How do you write for a director who is nothing but a craftsman?
Well, the first thing you have to do is to turn down work if you think that in the end you’re not going to be happy with the director. I mean one of the great problems in the English-speaking film business is your own artistic growth. A Bergman can do twelve, fourteen films before a Seventh Seal, and each of them some form of development, some form of change, some exploration. In the English-speaking cinema it’s hit and miss, catch as catch can, what comes up. Under those circumstances writers and directors and to some extent actors, I believe, have to shape their careers as purposefully as they can. And I think this involves somehow or other not doing pictures that you know are just going to be shot, trying to work with the best directors you can, and if you can’t, if through reasons of finance or contract you’ve got to take pictures—and this happens to all of us sooner or later—then I think you’ve got to find themes that you can exploit or explore to some extent in terms of your own progression. For example, I think in the English-speaking cinema, to survive, you’ve got to accept that certain genres work, certain modes are in, certain modes are out, and there are times when you can only set up films under certain conditions.
Now it seems to me if that is the case, what you’ve got to do is find a way through that genre, say with Point Blank, through a thriller, to investigate certain aspects of life that interest you. I mean I would not have chosen a thriller, frankly, but that was the way it came up. Obviously to some extent this maims you, you can only limp; you can run certain times and limp at others, but at least you make progress. It seems to me in the English-speaking world—and I make this distinction very sharply, because I think the view towards the cinema by producers and by money people in Europe is a bit different, it’s not vastly different but it’s a bit different—in the English-speaking cinema to survive either you sit in the hills like a Bresson and come down once every five years, or else you’ve got to get in the middle and put your talent on the line every day. And one hopes the talent will be there at 75 and not go out at 57, or be there at 57 and not go out at 27; but you’ve got to put your talent on the line every day. And you do put it on the line every day, because there’s an enormous amount of money to be made, there are lots of temptations, it’s very easy to relax. I think that with a writer or a director in the English-speaking cinema, then, you’ve somehow got to fashion your career as a series of progressions…
I don’t think there’s one solution, I think there are individual answers, and each one is a risk. I’m only interested in exploring my own development, and obviously I must go on and direct as soon as I can, and I’m trying to direct now. In one sense it’s easy to be a writer. You don’t have to deal with actors and actresses, you don’t have to fight with money men very often—not to that extent; you may have rows with the producer. It’s one thing to write it, another thing to shoot it, believe me, and there’s a huge difference between the two. So I think the challenge for a writer is either to go on and become a director, or to become a producer, which is less of a challenge but I can see it, or else to shut up. If writers see their work going down the drain, if they see scenes not realized, if they really are not too happy with directors, if they find in the end they settle for a good craftsman-like director, or if they find that a really inventive, individual director mangles their material, then they must direct. If they don’t, they’ve got to take their money and run, or else write their novels and write their plays or write whatever they want.
I’m interested in what you said about working in a cinema which is not oriented towards personal expression. You have concerns and obsessions that you want to explore, and yet everything in the film industry is working against that. Is this finally crippling?
Yes. Yes. I suppose I’m being very pessimistic now actually; normally I’m much more optimistic. I think that in the English-speaking cinema our development is maimed. We will never reach our full potential. And I think like everything in Anglo-Saxon life, you settle for the next best thing. You hope to fight till the day you die. You try and keep yourself as sharp as possible, you do this very consciously…
Let me ask about the kinds of things that you write in a script. You mentioned that you try to evoke a mood for a scene rather than writing details of camera angles.
Oh, I never write camera angles, ever, because that’s entirely the director’s prerogative anyway, and very often they’re impractical, because you write without seeing locations or anything else. Now that I’m in a position to choose, I try only to work closely with a director. The director’s nominated in advance, so I know with whom I’m working. Secondly, I now try more and more to work directly with a star. I think in English-speaking cinema you’ve got to work with stars, because that’s the reality of the business; and the thing to do is to find out the archetypal image of the star you’re working with and fashion something according to that.
Now that doesn’t just mean horses for courses, but it means working with the star, as in Lee Marvin’s case, to reveal not only the peaks that his audience is used to seeing, or her audience is used to seeing, but also the valleys that the audience has never seen before. If I can’t work directly with the star, I try to write a general sort of image figure of what we’re after, and then as soon as the star is nominated, I would come back on the picture even for free and write for a week to try and get the dialogue nearer the image of the star. But of course ideally, as on Point Blank, we worked closely with Lee, on the script, on the floor, on the cutting. He was a very important contributor. That’s the first thing. By the very nature of my interest in the cinema, I have a shrewd idea of what directors are about. That is, a certain director is suggested to me or else he’s going to work with me; I see his films or I’ve seen his films, I have an idea about his particular interests and obsessions. You find certain attitudes and areas in common, and then I think you must work within those areas. This is a sort of limitation, I suppose. But this is one of the realities we face within the business, and I want to work within the business. And then my personal desire is to go right into the center of a subject in the first scene.
Normally I do not like to have a long buildup. I think you’ve got to get the audience by the scruff of the neck and shove them into your mood and into your milieu and into your atmosphere and into your world straight away; if you don’t do that, I think you have lots of problems. I don’t think it’s a matter of pace or speed or action, because all these things are unimportant. In Point Blank, for example, again and again the dynamic comes because of the cut. We never show policemen, we never show explanations, we let the audience think about them afterwards. Like when Angie’s house is smashed up, well, obviously, the gang have been there, why bother with all the explanations? That’s all nonsense. I like to get the audience and well, you know, really push them onto the bed as it were, really get them going. I hate unnecessary explanations, I hate spare flesh on a script, I’m absolutely obsessed with cutting off every inch of spare flesh. This even goes for descriptive lines in the paragraphs, for instance if it was ‘John and Mary walk across the road’: I’d rather say, ‘They cross,’ and leave it at that; I’m as stupid about it as that. But I do feel that that gives it a ranginess and a sparseness. You know, the ribcage is well-stretched, it’s on the balls of its feet, it’s dancing. And I like to do that with the dialogue and I like to do that with the story, I like to do it with the characters. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going fast—I’m not mad about galloping horses—but what I like is that sense of tension, that sense of dynamism, which is often the juxtaposition between two sequences. You know, you jump a whole passage of time, and the audience pant up with you halfway through the scene, which I think is the way to go.
So you don’t feel dialogue is most important in writing a scene?
Oh no, no, no. I mean, one of the great problems in Hollywood is a ‘great script,’ it’s got ‘great lines,’ and I hate those sorts of scripts, because I think that at best most film dialogue is what I call signpost dialogue—‘Go here,’ ‘come there,’ ‘grab this,’ ‘go after this,’ you know, or ‘how are you.’ I think much more is done with looks and with body movements. Obviously a certain amount of information has to be given over, and obviously one doesn’t do that in the dullest way; one does that in the freshest way one can, obviously dialect and colloquialism have to be taken into account. But I think dialogue should be kept to a minimum. In fact, I think in Point Blank the first script had under 100 lines of dialogue, and that included words like ‘Yes’ and ‘Okay’ as a line of dialogue. I think you say one or two words or one or two lines that are really pithy, and the rest goes by the boards. That’s why my scripts are very much directors’ scripts and often make the studios a bit uneasy when they read them, because they don’t have ‘great lines’ and they don’t have ‘great descriptions.’ What I like to do is to evoke a mood, I think that’s very important. I don’t think our words are sacrosanct. The stuff we write is very much the stimulus for a director to take off…
“ALEX JACOBS’ SCRIPT OF ‘POINT BLANK’ WAS A REVELATION”
“Walter Hill just mentioned recently how much Alexander Jacobs’ script for John Boorman’s Point Blank influenced him. In an interview for Patrick McGilligan in Backstory 4, Hill talked about the ‘revelation’ of reading Jacobs’ script. Hill had been laboring as a screenwriter, but was never comfortable with the template most Hollywood scripts required of him, which he said was ‘a subliterary blueprint for shooting a picture and generally had no personal voice.’ Hill admired Point Blank greatly, but on the page, Jacob’s work showed him a new way of writing: ‘Laconic, elliptical, suggestive rather than explicit, bold in the implied editorial style.’ And from that example, Hill’s own writing—and later, directing—took on what he calls an almost ‘haiku-like’ economy. At Hill’s best, his work as writer and director is as tight as a clenched fist, with not a word wasted in the dialogue and a simplicity of expression that extends from character development to the diamond-tight action sequences on which he built his reputation.” —Walter Hill 101: The Auteur
Alex Jacobs’ script of Point Blank was a revelation. He was a friend (wonderful guy, looked like a pirate, funny and crazy). This revelation came about despite a character flaw of mine. I have always had difficulty being complimentary to people whose work I admire, when face-to-face with them. This is not the norm in Hollywood where effusiveness is generally a given. Anyway, a mutual friend told Alex how much I admired Point Blank and John Boorman. Alex then very graciously gave me a copy of the script. This was about the time he was doing The Seven-Ups (1973). Anyway, by now I’d been making a living as a screenwriter for maybe two or three years and had gotten to the point where I was dissatisfied with the standard form scripts were written in—they just all seemed to be a kind of subliterary blueprint for shooting a picture and generally had no personal voice. Mine were tighter and terser than the average, but I was still working with the industry template and not too happy about it. Alex’s script just knocked me out (not easy to do); it was both playable and literary. Written in a whole different way than standard format (laconic, elliptical, suggestive rather than explicit, bold in the implied editorial style), I thought Alex’s script was a perfect compliment to the material, hard, tough, and smart—my absolute ideals then. —Walter Hill
John Boorman speaks about shooting his first feature film in color, Point Blank, and how his decision to shoot each scene in a single color made the film more powerful. —Visual History with John Boorman
John Boorman and Steven Soderbergh provide a fascinating commentary track included on the DVD of Point Blank.
LEE MARVIN: A PERSONAL PORTRAIT BY JOHN BOORMAN
A tribute to the star of Point Blank. Lee Marvin: A Personal Portrait by John Boorman (BBC 1998, Dir John Boorman, 55 min) is both a tribute to and an anecdotal reminiscence about the star of Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific who was also Boorman’s friend. Affectionate, funny and illuminating.
In a rare and comprehensive interview conducted one year before his death, the legendary Lee Marvin reminisces about John Ford, John Wayne, Robert Aldrich, Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Sam Fuller, and John Boorman, and such classics as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Donovan’s Reef, The Big Red One, The Dirty Dozen, Point Blank, his TV series M Squad, and winning the Oscar for Cat Ballou.
Here are some unpublished photos from the star-studded Point Blank wrap party, courtesy of the edit room floor.
ME AND ME DAD: A PORTRAIT OF JOHN BOORMAN
An intimate portrait about the iconic filmmaker John Boorman directed by his daughter Katrine. The story is told through the relationship of father and daughter, it is a journey about filmmaking, family conflict, love and reconciliation. Now over 80 years old, the director of Hell in the Pacific, Excalibur, Point Blank, Deliverance and The Emerald Forest is one of the last great mavericks. His daughter, who previously had never held a camera, spent four years filming her father who, during the process, found it impossible to resist taking control and offering her a crash course in filmmaking. Vulnerable, cross, funny, wild and wise, Boorman chronicles his adventures in Hollywood, but also talks with great honesty about his childhood, his marriages, his passion for nature, his need for danger and why film is the only thing he ever truly loved. Though the film is also a portrait of one of the most influential British filmmakers of the last 40 years, most of all it is a story of a father and daughter finding their way back to each other through the language of film.
Lee Marvin’s character of Walker is a physical force as terrifying as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator… and this is clearly displayed as he takes “The 160 Angriest Steps in Cinema History” to begin his revenge on those who wronged him. Watch and listen as his unbroken, unstoppable momentum drives the story forward. Courtesy of Vashi Nedomansky.
Here’s another fascinating compilation of photographs taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Boorman’s Point Blank. Photographed by Virgil Apger © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Winkler Films. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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