Point Blank & Terror in a Texas Town
“But, holy smokes, what a candid and calculatedly sadistic film it is! What a sheer exercise in creeping menace and crashing violence for their surface shock effects! It evolves on a shadowy social level and develops no considerate moral sense. Mr. Marvin is out to get his money by hitting, cutting with bottles, dumping men off roofs, and shooting them—and he does. He is a thorough antihero, a killer who must kill or be killed.
This is not a pretty picture for the youngsters—or, indeed, for anyone with delicate taste.”
-Bosley Crowther, New York Times 9-19-1967
Mr. Crowther makes all that sound like a bad thing, though, to be fair, I’m not exactly known for my delicate tastes. Despite Crowther’s rather square attitude, he’s pretty spot on when it comes to an actual description of the film. John Boorman’s 1967 thriller, starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson (it aired last night on TCM; Lee Marvin is the channel’s star of the month; btw, though there are a number of Church of Walken adherents on this board, my rival Church of Marvin is always looking for new members), is a great piece of genre cinema, infused with a sense of New Wave stylishness and 60s nihilism. Personally, I think that Point Blank
works a lot better than another 1967 film that combined genre elements with New Wave stylistics and a rather nilhistic attitude, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde
, principally because Point Blank
doesn’t bother to make the character of Walker the least bit sympathetic (check out the brutal punch to the nuts that Walker delivers, that looks painful), much less romanticize his actions for the benefit of a rebellious youth audience. Marvin plays Walker, a career criminal (a “real pro”), betrayed after a heist and left for dead by his best friend, Mal Reese (John Vernon), and his young, cheating wife. A year later, Walker returns to get the money he is owed, $93,000. Walker, who epitomizes his surname, always keeps moving forward, like a shark, letting nothing get in his way, slowly working his way up the ladder of a shadowy criminal syndicate, in a corporate guise, known as “The Organization.”
Marvin imbues Walker with his trademark cool, unflappable, stoic intensity; he is a driven man, allowing only a flicker of emotion to ever cross his face (the only time you ever really see the character emote, is in the film’s many flashbacks; he’s referred to as “dead” in this sense more than once in the film, most pointedly by Angie Dickinson). He’s menacing, but his lack of emotion allows for some moments of deadpan comedy. Marvin is aided in his quest by his sister-in-law, Chris (Angie Dickinson), and a shadowy man, whom the film initially presents as a rogue policeman, using Walker to wreck havoc in the Organization. In the film’s ending, we learn that this man is actually Fairfax, the money man behind the Organization; he used Walker to eliminate his partners and rivals, Carter and Brewster (Carroll O’Connor).
is one of many films of the era that draws a distinct parallel between the corruption of big, corporate business and crime (another, earlier example would be Samuel Fuller’s Underworld USA
). Exactly what the Organization is involved with is left undefined, though they seem to be everywhere; dressed in business suits, they meet in modern offices in downtown Los Angeles (Marvin even corners one of the leaders, Carter, at a respectable community function, where he is presented as part of the normal business community). Violence, the old way represented by Marvin, is anathema, except in a crisis; Brewster, who refers to himself as a corporate officer, can not believe that Marvin would risk the “financial structure” of the Organization for $93,000 (one moment of deadpan comedy; also Brewster refers to Fairfax as a man “who signs checks,” another sign of the legitimization of crime in a corporate guise). Is it no surprise that the man who ultimately comes out on top is an ex-accountant (in another bit of comedy, Fairfax, faced with an armed Walker who has melted into the shadows of Alcatraz, mutters to himself “I should have stayed an accountant.”), who uses Walker as the hostile part of a hostile takeover? Another, albeit funnier, example of the pervasive corruption is the Organization’s top hitman, a sharp shooter who curiously smokes a pipe that wouldn’t be out of place in an early 60s sitcom. The All-American dad as a professional killer.
is probably best known for Boorman’s impressionistic usage of editing and sound to convey the thoughts of his characters, displayed prominently throughout the film. After watching Point Blank
, it’s pretty obvious where Steven Soderbergh got the inspiration for The Limey
(though the later film takes the usage of impressionistic montage a lot farther, calling into question the events of the film itself, is it reality, or is it just floating through Terence Stamp’s head as he waits on a plane? Then again, Point Blank
is also open to the interpretation that everything that transpires is actually a fantasy of a dying Walker). The film opens with one of these montages, as Walker falls to the ground, having been shot. Scenes from the past flash through Walker’s mind, with key scenes from the past often repeating (one in particular, a scene of a drunken Reese tackling Walker and saying “Walker, Trust Me,”) interspersed with the events of the heist and it’s aftermath itself, before the entire scene loops back to where it began, with Walker slumping to the floor. The whole sequence of shots reflects the keen sense of betrayal which motivates Walker, and which contributes to his emotional deadness. The montages are not restricted to Walker’s perspective, my favorite, and one of the earliest examples of the montage, is from the perspective of Walker’s wife: shots of the depressed, deadened, zombie-like young wife going through beauty treatments are intercut with scenes of Walker striding down a seemingly endless hallway, his driven footsteps echoing ominously over all the shots in the sequence, the return of Walker from the dead (we also get flashbacks explaining the love triangle that she found herself in). Another examples occurs later in the film, when Walker confronts Brewster; as Walker hits Brewster’s henchman, scenes of Walker’s earlier brutality flash on the screen, as if in that moment Brewster realizes that Walker is the man who has been terrorizing his organization (also shots of Walker demanding his money are intercut with his similar demands to Brewster).
One last note about Point Blank
; Boorman’s excellent usage of widescreen cinematography, which emphasizes Walker’s solitude by isolating him in the frame. Even though much of the film takes place in the sunny metropolis of Los Angeles (with the rest happening in San Fransisco), it is curiously underpopulated (for the most part). What is striking about the sun-drenched buildings of LA is how empty and starkly quiet they truly are. My favorite individual shot of the entire film is of Marvin/Walker in a medium close-up to the extreme right of the frame, with 2/3rds of it completely empty. Behind him, in the far distance, is the 60s era skyline of downtown, while in his direct vicinity is a green park, completely empty of other people. It’s a striking shot. Walker, alone with his thoughts, though one of the few times that we are not directly privy to them.
While Point Blank
is relatively well known, given it’s recent restoration and remake as Payback
(quick question, now that I have seen Point Blank
, is Payback
worth seeing on DVD?), but if Terror in a Texas Town
is known at all, it’s for it’s rather absurd finale, which seems to be straight out just about any Western committed to film, save for one unique element. In the final showdown, on the dusty streets of a Texas town, the hero faces the black clad gunslinger not with a six shooter of his own, but with a whaling harpoon (the film actually begins and ends with this sequence, though the reprise is expanded with additional information from a variety of character’s perspectives). A rather novel twist on a not uncommon scene from the Western genre. Terror in a Texas Town
(which showed last week on TCM) is a no-budget, 1958 Western, the last theatrical feature by the great B-movie director Joseph H. Lewis (according to Lewis, the film was made in a span of 10 days for a sum approaching $80,000; this is from an interview featured in Peter Bogdanovich’s book Who the Devil Made It
), but it’s one of those 1950s B-movies that is more modern than the prestige studio productions of the time (the long takes; the beautifully stark, B&W photography; the expert compositions; the sparse soundtrack, featuring an acoustic rhythm guitar and coronet; and the preponderance of low and high angle shots). I clearly need to see more of Lewis’s films (this was my first), but Terror in a Texas Town
adds more credence to my belief that the 1950s were perhaps the greatest decade of American film.
Terror in a Texas Town
stars Sterling Hayden as a Swedish ex-sailor named Hansen (with a rather bizarre accent, and habit of speaking a passive voice), who, after being at sea for 19 years, finally comes to a small Texas town to work with his father on their farm; unfortunately, he comes only days after his father was murdered by an agent of the local land baron, who covets the farmers’ lands for the oil underneath. Ned Young (incidentally, one of many gray and black listees on the project; the screenplay was actually written by Dalton Trumbo, though it’s credited to a pair of fronts) plays the part of Johnny Crale, the murderer, a formerly notorious outlaw and killer, who’s ways are becoming outdated as progress passes him by, and physical infirmity overcomes him (Crale lost his right shooting hand in a gunfight, and replaced it with a steel hand; he always wears black leather gloves on both of his hands and wears two guns to hide his weakness). Crale is accompanied by a saloon-girl named Molly, who is both sickened by Crale’s job and fearful of his eventual fate. Molly is one of the many people in town who live in terror which must be overcome, the other, more significant example is the Mexican farmer Mirada, who finally faces up to his fear and stands up to Crale, only to be shot and killed, finally precipitating the vengeful ending. I think it’s quite significant that it is the two people who finally stand up to Crale, Molly and Mirada, leads directly to his downfall (and that the people finally standing up to their oppressors is a not so subtle dig at McCarthyism); Mirada’s death in particular seems to affect the somewhat sociopathic Crale, who initially seemed to feel rather guilty about murdering Hansen’s father, Crale remarks after he killed Mirada “I saw something remarkable today; I saw a man who wasn’t afraid to die.” Lewis’s forward-thinking, sometimes outré style, the twist on the narrative conventions of a genre already beginning to enter it’s revisionist phase, and a concentration on character makes me think I saw something remarkable today (well, actually Sunday).