Saturday, July 10, 2010

Somebody's Asked Me To Be An Expert In Something: Part 4

You may remember a while back that thanks to my print critic work I was asked to head up a local Film Noir festival. Well we're doing a sequel of sorts this July with a batch of Neo Noir films. Today I'll be talking about Point Blank and thought I'd share what I had to say. Sorry if the syntax is funny its written for speech.

Point Blank is a tough film for me to talk about, as I think it’s a pretty great movie and a pretty terrible adaptation.

Point Blank is based on the first Parker novel, The Hunter by Donald Westlake. Though Westlake wrote many books and screenplays, including those for The Grifters and The Stepfather, he’s still best known and well beloved for the two long running series he wrote. The first The Dortmunder books are a series of comic capers, involving the titular luckless thief and his bedraggled crew. The second which he wrote under the name Richard Stark, involves the ruthless thief Parker.

Despite their tight plots, and well drawn characters the studios have had nothing but trouble bringing these characters to the screen. With the Dortmunder books it’s the usual case of bad studio decisions, including the casting of a young Robert Redford as the perpetually hangdog Dortmunder. With the Parker novels the reasoning is a little less straight forward. Its been tried many times, with many different actors playing Parker, including Lee Marvin, Robert Duval, Jim Brown, Mel Gibson, Peter Coyote, and even Anna Karina. Though in one of those touches that makes you shake your head, not one of them has ever been named Parker.

And yet despite the honest efforts of so many, Marvin is great tonight, Duval is probably my favorite, there’s never been a film that accurately captures the tone of Westlakes Novels. For the reason why, lets look at what Dennis Lehane, who as far as I’m concerned is the greatest living writer of crime fiction, and if you like this stuff you owe it to yourself to check out a few of his books today, wrote in the introduction to the new addition of the Parker books that were just released, after a long spell of being out of print.

“Parker. The greatest antihero in American noir. If Parker ever had a heart, he left it behind in a drawer one morning and never came back for it. He never cracks a joke, inquires about someon’s health or family, feels regret or shame or even rage. And not once does he wink at the reader. You know the Wink. It’s when the supposedly amoral character does to let the reader know he’s not really as bad as he seems. Maybe in fact, he’s been a good guy all along.

Parker IS as bad as he seems. If a baby carriage rolled in front of him during a heist he’d kick it out of his way. If an innocent woman were caught helplessly in gangster crossfire, Parker would slip past her, happy she was drawing bullets away from him. If you hit him, he’d hit you back twice as hard. If you stole from him, he’d burn your house to ground to get his money back. And if, as in Butcher’s Moon, you were stupid enough to kidnap one of his guys and hold him hostage in a safe house, he would kill every single one of you. He’d shoot you through a door, shoot you in the face, shoot you in the back, and step over your body before it stopped twitching.

Nothing personal by the way he gets no pleasure from the shooting or the twitching. He’s a sociopath, not a psychopath. But what he is above all is a professional.”

Understandably, adapting something that harsh can make studio execs a little queasy. Which is why, though many Parker books have been adapted, The Hunter, the one tonight's film is based on, keeps getting remade. It might not be pretty, but at least Parker is doing these dirty deeds based off of a recognizable human emotion like the desire for revenge. And not just a profit motive.

So if I believe this film, is at best a misinterpretation of a series of books I and many others hold in very high regard, why do I like it so much?

Well for one thing it just plain neat!

Director John Boorman has had one of the strangest careers in modern film, switching between excellently made but somewhat standard movies like, Deliverance, Hell In The Pacific, and The Tailor Of Panama. And films that are, completely insane. Its like he feigns normalcy long enough to get the studio executives to look the other way, and the next thing you know he’s making Zardoz and there is Sean Connery in a thong, and a giant stone head screaming that “The Gun is good, The Penis is evil.” Or it’s the Exorcist 2 and he has James Earl Jones dancing around whilst dressed as a giant Bee.

Here he comes the closest to making an American French New Wave film. The most famous thing about Point Blank is its non Linear editing, the way the scenes seem to dance around their central point. You’ll see flashes of the past intrude on the present, and previews from the future. It’s a jarring style, and in the hands of a less competent filmmaker it could be annoying but Boorman pulls it off.

The film is also a great LA noir, with the swinging sixties vibe going around in the background. The first round of Neo Noir, starting from the end of the first cycle, to Chinatown, was often set in LA. Then as now still a city in flux. In many ways that city which is so many cities is the ideal place for a noir. Raymond Chandler certainly thought so. And if you’re interested to see more films that play with this genre, location and era, I highly recommend picking up Paul Newman’s Harper, The Long Goodbye, and The Late Show.

The film also hinges on Marvin’s performance. And seldom if ever, has his “huge slab of walking granite” persona been used to better effect. Marvin was never just tough, he’s beyond tough, picking a fight with him, would be like picking a fight with Mount Rushmore.

And yet there’s a certain sadness to his performance here that I don’t think you ever really saw again from Marvin. Revenge becomes his only reason for existing. And when he gets it, there’s nothing left for him.

There are those who even read the film as a ghost story. If you watch closely you’ll notice that Marvin never actually kills anybody in the film, And once his unfinished business is done he fades back into the night. Many a film noir are narrated by a corpse, this might be the only one that stars one.


Simon said...

Interesting theory, the ghost thing. I love this movie, and I love Marvin in it, and even Angie Dickinson isn't as annoying as she usually is.

Bryce Wilson said...

YEah, can't take credit for coming up with the ghost theory it was here long before me.

And I agree I think its the best Angie Dickinson ever was on screen.

Matt Keeley said...

I read somewhere that Westlake wouldn't let any filmmakers use the "Parker" name unless they signed on to do a whole series.

Re: Style: Have you seen Soderbergh's The Limey? Another very unconventionally shot and edited noir with a California setting. Similar in many respects to Point Blank, though not half as good a film.

Bryce Wilson said...

Yes, The Limey is probably my favorite Soderbergh film.

Soderbergh actually appears on Point Blank's commentary track, so he definitely acknowledges the influence.