Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bold Venture Bulletins - Point Blank



Point Blank (1967)

The violent world of Parker seems like perfect material for a motion picture – there have been several, in fact. The initial film was Point Blank (1967), filmed a mere five years after the original publication of The Hunter by Donald Westlake (bylined as Richard Stark).

The advantage of filming in 1967 is that audiences basically see the world through which heist artist Parker stomps, punches and kills. No need for special effects or period costuming – the period is right there, in the proverbial flesh. Sure, it’s five years later, after the late John F. Kennedy inspired a younger generation to forsake haberdashery, but it’s close enough to the world described in the Stark books.

Unfortunately, the passage of time lends weight to a novel or short story’s credibility, an edge that The Hunter was denied. Today, it enjoys a reputation as one of the seminal novels of the hardboiled genre. In 1967, it was probably considered another cheap paperback to be discarded once you reached the back page.

After reading the Richard Stark novel, and the graphic novel adaptation by Darwyn Cooke, watching Point Blank is like waking up with amnesia. One’s memories of the story are in direct conflict with the events unfolding on the movie screen.

Point Blank begins simply enough – a criminal is double-crossed, and wants revenge on his ex-wife and his duplicitous partner. He also wants his share of the loot. From that point onward, the ball of yarn gradually unravels. Everyone has read the script and forgotten their lines. And their cues.

All references to New York City have been usurped by that young upstart Los Angeles. Parker’s walk across the George Washington Bridge has been replaced with a swim across San Francisco Bay. The illegal weapons deal, which was the catalyst for the novel’s events, has been replaced by a vague “Alcatraz run.” A helicopter sets down in the abandoned Alcatraz Island prison yard. The pilot hands off a briefcase full of cash before taking flight once more.

The pastel shades of L.A. wash away much suspense and atmosphere as Parker (now renamed “Walker) marches through town in search of “Mal Reese”. I had the same issue with Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – Ralph Meeker stomps his way through dozens of bad guys with aplomb, but you’re left wondering how the film might have benefited from Manhattan location shooting.

Parker/Walker’s task is made easier by the presence of Yost (Keenan Wynn), who mysteriously appears to goad him into hunting Reese. “You want the money,” Yost rasps, “and I want the organization.” Whenever the plot runs out of steam, Yost conveniently provides an address, pointing Walker in the right direction. Deus ex machina with a gravelly voice.

Yost justifies the title change – our lead character is no longer The Hunter, but a human “bump-and-go” toy careening from one end of L.A. to the next.

Lights, Camera, No Action

WALKER barges into the current abode of estranged wife Lynn, but the scene is strangely off-kilter. He remains silent and impassive while she explains the reasoning behind her betrayal. They fell in love, wandering through many hazy scenes of expositional flashback, and hanging out with his best friend Mal Reese. Gradually she found her feelings shifting toward Mal, but they were extinguished after the heist.

Mal Resnick, in the novel, was barely an acquaintance when he crosses paths with Parker. Low on funds and opportunities, Parker agrees to a hijacking scheme. His own wife becomes the “trigger-man” when Resnick threatens her – kill your husband, or I’ll kill you both. The misogynistic double-cross makes Resnick more loathsome – and even a talented actor like John Vernon can’t restore the sleaze.

Then, too, Parker is white-washed a good deal. Director John Boorman, in his short documentary about Lee Marvin, says of Point Blank: “The film was about a man, no longer human, who tries to recover his lost humanity.” Elsewhere (probably on the DVD’s director’s comments track), he mentions that the film is about a man who loses his soul.

In the novels, Parker doesn’t have much of soul. He’s beyond redemption, and wouldn’t care if he gave it any thought. This is where the film begins weaving across traffic.

The film leaves a Parker fan wondering, “How difficult would it have been to do this the right way?” Much dialogue is lifted, but tinkered for the benefit of the actors. Familiar characters walk through the scenery, but their backgrounds are revised to make them seem more “human” and “motivated”. Parker’s victims, now Walker’s enemies, to perish in contrived methods that wash the blame from his hands.

Some characters – like Arthur Stegman and Frederick Carter – make the transition from print to screen with ease, especially with old favorites like Michael Strong and Lloyd Bochner portraying them. Any decision to cast Lloyd Bochner (best known for the “To Serve Man” episode of Twilight Zone) gets a thumbs-up from me. Not so certain about the casting of Carrol O’Connor, another favorite of mine, as Brewster.

Angie Dickinson portrays Chris, sister of Walker’s late wife. Apparently, Mal Reese is lusting after her as well, and she becomes live bait for the inevitable confrontation.

Dickinson’s character is based upon Rose (a.k.a. Wanda), the madam of an escort service that Resnick routinely employs. Parker (in The Hunter) looks her up, gets a solid lead on his whereabouts, and then leaves.

She smiled, with a trace of sourness. “You aren’t a guy for small talk,” she said. “Get what you want, and go.”

Alas, John Boorman ignores this sound advice (and important bit of characterization). Chris/Wanda/Rose accompanies Walker through the remainder of the film, a disgruntled sidekick who adds little to the proceedings. This version of Westlake’s character figures she’ll be safer with him, whereas the McCoy couldn’t care less. She taunts him on occasion with remarks like “You should have killed him, you owed it to yourself ... You died at Alcatraz, alright.” A romance blossoms, apparently to illustrate Walker and Reese’s “repressed homosexuality,” as Boorman explains it.

Whatever.

To give the movie a sense of completeness, everything comes full circle to the “Alcatraz run,” the original scene of the crime, replacing the novel’s illegal arms deal. Why the criminals are still making cash drops in a compromised location, surrounded by the inevitable harbor patrol, doesn’t make much sense. It reinforces Boorman’s suggestion that the entire movie is a dying dream, and provides a really cool setting, but not much else.

I wonder how many plot glitches can be waved away with, “It’s all a dream,” before audiences and critics grumble.

Anyway, there’s a minor confrontation before the final revelation, which is intended to shock audiences. The film’s conclusion left me reeling ... for the nearest Richard Stark paperback.

The Hunter is a seminal hardboiled novel, and deserves better. Point Blank is a watched pot that never boils.

By the Book

Point Blank was a monumental disappointment. Having read the novel and graphic novel adaptation, I was anxious to see the film.

“Oh, boy! This is gonna be great!”

I don’t drink, so I couldn’t drown my sorrows in anything stronger than ginger ale. A two-liter bottle. The whole thing.

Where did John Boorman and his intrepid cast and crew go so wrong?

If you read the review proceeding this section, you might have an idea. Hell, I wrote it, and I’m still not certain.

For everyone who knocks the movie, there’s someone who cites it as a seminal hardboiled movie. It’s often cited as the first existential noir film, or something like that.

Perhaps Boorman wanted to direct a film with “artistic” value or flair, and not just peddle another action-adventure film?

Perhaps my opinion of the film is colored by the novel and the graphic novel adaptation. Perhaps if I had seen the film first, I might have thought less of the novel?

Unlikely, that latter scenario, but worth considering.

My great hunch is that motion pictures must appeal to a broader audience, since studio executives are concerned with every profitable penny. Never mind that the film is based upon a book with great sales and excellent reviews – the thundering war-machine of profit must be fed, and it will claim your favorite novel among its casualties.

To appeal to a mass audience – an even mass-er audience – our protagonist’s personality really takes it on the chin. Parker is unconcerned with friendship, remorseless regarding murder, focusing on the next caper, and the one after that. Walker (as he’s called in the film) is shown in flashback meeting wife Lynn (with accompanying voiceover by Sharon Acker), frolicking together on the beach, holding hands in the rain, and taking cheerful day-trips with their best pal Mal Reese.

That scene (and the preceding paragraph) pretty much sums up where Point Blank goes wrong. The character’s personality is softened, and he’s made to seem more “human.” Now, audiences can say, “Aww, he ain’t such a bad guy!” and enjoy the film guilt-free. The concession stand is now open.

Would audiences really care if Parker/Walker is unsympathetic? He begins the novel as a cuckolded and double-crossed man, penniless and left for dead. Isn’t that enough? Even a straight-shooter like Jack Webb would cheer him on.

While reading the novel (and the graphic novel), I sometimes found myself wondering how the material would adapt to film. Or, more specifically, how I would adapt it to film. The biggest challenge would be to translate the “time discrepancy,” as I call it, in which the plot unfolds following one character, before we back-track and follow another character to the same point.

Quentin Tarrantio’s films are a pretty close approximation of the technique. Pulp Fiction jumps all over the continuity map. Reservoir Dogs centers around a jewel heist gone decidedly wrong. It transitions from one viewpoint and time-stream to another, leading up to a significant plot revelation. Reservoir Dogs could serve as a textbook on filming a Parker novel.

The plot unfolds in linear fashion in Point Blank, negating a unique aspect of Westlake’s Parker novels. One more fatality pulled from the train wreck.

With repeated viewings, the film acquires a charm of its own. But it’s a textbook example of how not to adapt a great novel.

3 comments:

  1. So do you plan on reviewing the Mel Gibson version. Would love to read your thoughts on that one.

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  2. The only real problem I have with the movie is Angie Dickenson. I've never found her as attractive or sexy and in fact she always looks kinda predatory to me *shudder*

    I like POINT BREAK. But since I'm such a major Lee Marvin fan I freely admit I'm biased. Lee Marvin is one of those actors I refer to as "Old Time Tough" he comes from the days when tough guy actors did indeed look and sound as tough as the characters they were playing.

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  3. Ron, I'd like to review the Mel Gibson version. I think I'll come back to it in a month or so. I'll take a little "Parker" break for a while, I assure myself unconvincingly. My "Parker break" was 24 hours old when an old Berkley edition of "Deadly Edge" arrived, a spoil from eBay. Two days later, I sat down and polished the book off. Now I need to purchase another Parker novel. Bless your hardboiled soul, Donald Westlake.

    Derrick, I agree. Angie Dickinson is very pretty, but I never quite understood why some men seemed awestruck by her. John DeWalt and I have the same problem with Mary Astor who, though very pretty, doesn't seem pretty enough to portray Brigit O'Shaunessey (MALTESE FALCON), a woman who can drive men to committ murder. That and the fact that Angie becomes Parker/Walker's sidekick. In the novel, this guy puts the wolf into "lone wolf."

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