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The Parker Films: Point Blank (1967)

August 26th, 2020
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Recently I read Darwyn Cooke’s four magnificent graphic novel adaptations of the Parker novels written by Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark.  The late, great Darwyn Cooke was a master of the comics form (his New Frontier miniseries, which retold the story of the DC universe as a period piece beginning in the nineteen thirties, is a masterpiece), and his beautiful, faithful adaptation of four Parker novels (The Hunter, The Score, The Outfit, and Slayground) are not to be missed.  Donald Westlake wrote 24 novels featuring his Parker character, and over the decades quite a few of them have been adapted into films.  Over the years, I have read a lot about many of these films.  (Primarily in the wonderful back-pages of the crime comics written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Sean Phillips, such as Criminal.)  I decided it was time to take a look at some of those films, so I decided to start with the first (and, having now seen many of them, what I think is the greatest) of the Parker adaptions: 1967’s Point Blank.

Point Blank is a (pretty faithful) adaptation of the Parker novel The Hunter.  Lee Marvin stars as the Parker character (renamed Walker here because apparently Mr. Westlake refused permission for these film adaptations to use the Parker name).  When the film opens, Walker is being released from prison.  Years earlier, Walker and another criminal named Mal Reese had pulled off a heist for a lot of money, but Reese betrayed and shot Walker, leaving him for dead.  Now Walker is back and out for revenge, as well as his $93,000 cut of the money.  But Reese used that money to pay back the debt he owed to a crime organization referred to as the Syndicate.  Reese is now an official in that Syndicate, meaning that Walker has to go up against not only Reese, but this entire criminal organization.

I really enjoyed this film!  Its reputation as a classic is well-earned.  This is a tightly-plotted, tense and taut noir story.  It’s very minimalist, with sparse dialogue and scenes that are short and to the point.  There’s no extraneous mucking about or time-wasting anywhere to be found.

Lee Marvin is great as Walker.  He plays this “tough silent-type” character so well.  His chiseled-from-granite face suits this character to a T.  It’s a very restrained, internal performance.  But, wow, Mr. Marvin is totally convincing and scary as this thief who should not be messed with.

The film sticks fairly closely to the structure of Mr. Westlake’s novel.  I love that they maintained the out of order chronology of the book.  It gives the film a very modern sensibility.  The two most major changes to the story are 1) the return to Alcatraz and showdown at the end, and 2) the involvement of Walker’s dead wife Lynne’s sister, Chris, in the second half.  Both changes make sense.  The return to Alcatraz gives cinematic scope to the ending, and it’s nice to have a female character in the second half of the story.

The film is a little softer than the source material, but not by much.  There are several sequences that are extremely eye-raising by 2020 standards.  Walker slaps around women, doesn’t show much grief when his wife Lynne kills herself with pills, and has no problem basically pimping out Lynne’s sister Chris to one of the villains so that Walker can get the drop on him.

I try very hard not to consider older art in the context of the time it was made, rather than exclusively judging it by the standards of today.  But I’ll admit those moments in the film made me uncomfortable.  On the other hand, it’s important to remember that at least some of those moments were most likely intended to make the audience uncomfortable.  The Parker/Walker character is supposed to be an unlikable man living outside of society’s general laws and patterns of behavior.  Walker is the protagonist, but he is a criminal and not a particularly nice man, and the film never forgets that.  I can understand if some modern viewers have no interest in watching a film about a character like this.  Certainly I could never imagine a movie like this being released by a major studio today. They’d insist on rubbing off Walker’s rough edges, to make him more likeable.  I respect the filmmakers for their boldness in allowing Walker to be as rough as he is.  And I still enjoyed this tense crime story despite those wince-inducing moments of Walker’s unpleasant, misogynistic behavior.

Both women are terrific. Sharon Acker (familiar to me from her role in the classic Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon”) plays Lynne, and Angie Dickinson (Rio Bravo, Police Woman, Dressed to Kill) plays Chris. Both actresses really make the most of their parts, creating two very memorable and distinct characters.  Both women seem to be the equal of the tough, unflappable Walker, which I loved to see.

John Boorman’s direction is terrific. There are a number of memorable, artistic choices that surprised me in a pulpy crime film like this one.  For instance, I love the device of the echo of Walker’s steps.  It’s our introduction to Walker, and serves as a wonderfully clever metaphor for his persistence and steadiness.  The sound of his steps is also used to show Lynne’s psyche, and how she is haunted by Walker, feeling he is always chasing her because of her involvement in Reese’s betrayal.  This is a very clever and striking device!

I was also quite taken by the silent series of flashbacks at the end, as Walker thinks back on dead Lynne and the other violent, unpleasant aspects of his journey.  It’s a surprisingly self-reflective moment for the character and a surprisingly emotional beat for the climax of this noir story.

I am glad to have finally seen Point Blank! This was a fun journey back to a type of movie they really don’t make anymore.  Next up: 1968’s The Split, starring Jim Brown in the Parker role!

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