The gangster genre is endemic of American culture. In the history of film the advent of sound coincided with the rise in popularity of the gangster picture. The possibility of hearing the bang of a gun and the screams of its victims offered a new level of reality that lurid still photos and trashy tabloid articles could only report about. Of course as lionized as gangsters were the public's opinion of them could easily turn once the gangster character showed his true face; that of a thief, an exploiter, and at times a murderer.
After the 1930's the gangster was relegated to being a stock villain. Although the gangster still embodied the skewed American dream, to come from nothing and acquire everything through the barrel of a gun, the character was more often than not a caricature of their previous self. The term gangster itself had become a word used to describe any tough talking character in a film.
By 1967 the country was a different place and the values that screen gangsters once held could no longer sustain them during that tumultuous decade. John Boorman took a simple premise, a man on a quest to get back the money owed to him, and took apart the pieces that make a gangster picture a gangster picture and reconstituted it into an avant-garde exercise in genre expectations.
Over the years Boorman has said many things about the film, Point Blank. He has called the film a story about one man's quest for humanity. A comment made to illustrate the importance of casting Lee Marvin in the role of Walker. Fans of Lee Marvin may not be aware, but the actor had enlisted as a soldier when he was only seventeen and served as a sniper. By the time he came back from the war he had seen so much death and pain that he drifted aimlessly from several menial jobs till his work as a plumber's apprentice in a community theater in upstate New York landed him a role in one of their productions. He soon moved to Manhattan and began appearing in several off-Broadway plays. By 1950 Marvin transitioned into film and because of his years in military service he was cast in several war dramas. Most of his film work before he got cast in Point Blank was a career spent playing violent despicable men.
When Boorman presented Marvin with a draft of the script Lee Marvin was fascinated with the character of Walker. It is easy to see what drew him to the project. The character of Walker is a gentle sweet man whose loyalty to his friend lands him in a criminal quagmire. Just as Marvin was transformed by the violence he witnessed in war Walker is transformed by the gunshot he receives from Mal Reese, a man he called his friend.
In the film Walker is a spirit of violence. After his betrayal he is reborn as vengeance personified stomping through a fluorescent-lit corridor his footsteps reverberating from the long empty hallway towards locations unknown. He is on a quest to get the money owed to him, but the money is not what Walker is really after. Walker is after a sense of peace, a resolution that will end the pain and anger he feels for having his idyllic life shattered.
It is very important to note that Walker never kills anyone in the film. He may be a spirit of violence and in fact he viciously beats up several people in the picture, but he never directly kills them. Be it Lynne, his wife, Mal, his so-called best friend, or the various underlings that Walker must deal with to get his money somebody else has their finger on the trigger. Walker is merely a facilitator in their demise. He gets them to be in just the right place at just the right time to meet the bullet.
As you watch the film it is clearly evident that a theme that Boorman has running throughout the entire picture is the clash between the traditional and the modern. The movie itself opens with a series of elliptical shots, something very unusual for a gangster picture, a stock Hollywood genre. Our first glimpses of Walker are not of a vicious killer but rather of a man who is a victim of fate, being brutally shot in a tiny cell. Next we see him trapped in a crowded room of men, drunk, and struggling to keep on his feet. Then all of a sudden a man yells out Walker's name and lunges at him. Walker and the man, who we find out is his friend Mal, fall and Mal pins Walker to the ground pleading for help. From these first few minutes in the film audiences in 1967 expecting a typical reliable Hollywood film must have been utterly floored by Boorman's audacity to open the film the way he did.
Also whereas in previous gangster pictures the homo-erotic undercurrent was subtle so as not to upset the censors Boorman pushes the boundaries and makes Walker's relationship with Mal blatantly homo-erotic, adding new layers to Mal's betrayal. The relationship between the two men is equivalent to that of a classic Hollywood screen gangster's relationship to his moll. The character of Mal is weak and throughout the film he turns to various men for help. Mal preys on Walker's innate loyalty to him, he seduces Walker by reminding him of old times together. When Boorman cuts to flashbacks of Walker and Mal together he has those scenes mimic that of Walker and his wife's courtship. It is obvious that there is some sort of attraction between these two men, and it is Mal's betrayal that hurts Walker more than his own wife's.
Although Walker must contend with several members of organized crime his real opponent maybe modern life itself. The gangsters in this film are car salesmen, accountants, and CEOs. Basically organized crime had gone corporate and as tough as Walker is this new efficient businesslike manner within organized crime is completely foreign to him. Even his quest for the money owed to him seems out of place within the context of the story. Walker, a spirit of violence, can only comprehend the world through what is tangible; he wants to be paid in cash not check and he cuts a swath of violence in an effort to get to the head of the organization only to find that in the new corporate criminal empire their isn't a singular boss that one can approach. When a job needs to be done the rule is to delegate the task to somebody else who in turn hands over the responsibility to someone below him. This is the antithesis of who Walker is. Walker is a man of action.He does not delegate he attacks and will not relent until he gets what's owed to him.
The film's simple premise of a man out to get the money owed to him offered John Boorman and Lee Marvin the opportunity to explore the ideas that many people held to be true. By the time of the film's release daily life had become more mechanical. Society shifted to that of the corporate world which is cold and inhuman, where power is valued more than the lives of a few people. In this new paradigm every person, place, and thing is cataloged and shelved until their services are needed. We have relinquished control of our lives to a small group of corporate board members in exchange for cheap pleasures. We gobble up whatever new gadget or toy they throw at us and we gladly ask for more stuff to clutter our lives with. By the end of the film Walker just vanishes, his money only a few yards away, but he dare not touch it. For in a world where profit is the only way to measure a man then those who value truth and loyalty can only exist as ghosts.