LOS ANGELES DOESN’T CARE – POINT BLANK
I realize now that I forgot to call out to one of the movies of the year, in my malformed grumbling of a year-end column over at Comics Waiting Room.
Let’s set the stage. I’m talking with Darwyn Cooke at SDCC, just after the announcement that he’d be adapting the PARKER books by Donald Westlake. And if you want something to look forward to in the coming year, there’s a big one for you. So we’re talking and he says “You know, the series that the great movie POINT BLANK was based on. This is the part where I fess up that I’d never seen the movie, to which Darwyn replies something along of the lines of “Don’t ask, just buy it.” Okay, the King said that too.
So I did, after returning home. Only, I didn’t buy it. I NetFlixed it. That’s probably not even a verb. Well, maybe it is now. I’ve been out of the loop.
Let’s just say that I wasn’t disappointed. I remember dimly hearing that the Mel Gibson movie PAYBACK was loosely based on POINT BLANK, but deviated pretty substantially (and I never bothered with the remake). Maybe that turned me off of POINT BLANK in the first place, who knows. And maybe I just needed it to hit me at the right time. The world is a funny place like that. Hit me it did. I’m going to spoil the hell out of the film, at least the plot (no amount of writing can spoil the film’s visual impact.) You’ve been warned.
POINT BLANK is the story of a thief named Walker. He’s set up by a former friend and partner, and seemingly killed after a successful job. Walker’s friend then runs off with his wife, and Walker somehow drags himself from a cell in Alcatraz, through the icy waters of the bay and back to life, to get nothing more than what he was killed for. Money, and not even necessarily a lot of it. But sometimes it’s the principle of the thing that matters. Walker finds himself aided in this pursuit by a mysterious police detective, who isn’t what he seems to be, but if not, then what is he really? Walker, by the way, is played ruthlessly and expertly by Lee Marvin. It really is the role of a lifetime for him, filled with barely-contained rage wrapped around a core of humanity. He’s damned, he knows that, but he’s not yielding in the face of that fact. The detective, played by Keenan Wynn, points Walker to Los Angeles, where Walker’s ex-wife (presumably connected to the guy who tried kill Walker) now lives. The sequence where Walker stalks his way to her apartment is minimal, but absolutely riveting. He’s not stalking like a creep, but stalking like a predator with a purpose. And the sequence after, where his rage is unleashed, if only for a moment, is stunning. When his ex-wife tries to explain what happened and why it did, Walker only responds with stone silence that dominates the scene. I’ve talked derisively about silent panels doing heavy lifting in comics, but there’s none of that here. The silence works. Is he going to explode? Is he just done? What the hell is going to happen next?
Marvin controls the scene totally and he doesn’t have to say a goddamn word to do so. Walker begins to work his way through the LA underworld, one crook at a time, to get to his former friend. But it takes a toll on him. His ex-wife commits suicide, apparently consumed by her own guilt. This ends up simply being more fuel for the fire. But it’s a slow fire, for Walker has to wait to make the connections. One errand boy leads to a crooked car dealer, which leads to perhaps the greatest scene of assault by automobile put down on film. The sprawling overpasses of the 110 (newly completed at the time of shooting, by all appearances) frame the scene wonderfully, like a perverse concrete orchard shooting out of the brown and barren dirt of California. Not soil. Soil is nurturing and capable of growing things. The LA of POINT BLANK isn’t grown so much as it is carved out of greed and bursts of brutality.
More names, more connections. This next one to his ex-wife’s sister. Apparently the guy who betrayed Walker is obsessed with her. And since we’re talking about Angie Dickinson in 1967, the basis for that is understandable. Turns out she has her own reasons to hate the criminals that Walker is after, though she’s got no love for Walker himself. That’s okay, because he’s more or less using her as bait and has no qualms about doing so.
Which turns to what we’re meant to think is a big climax, where Walker confronts his betrayer. Only it’s not what we think it is. Walker isn’t interested in an emotional conclusion or the satisfaction of merely killing for revenge. He wants what’s coming to him. An agreement was made, and yes, he was shot over it, but getting that money back would clear it right up. Or so he says.
Walker’s friend dies, slipping from a top-floor balcony, and like so many things in POINT BLANK, it’s hard to clear away the ambiguity. Walker is unmoved, but he’s no closer now to getting his money than he was at the start of the evening. He then pays a call to some names that he got from his friend. Walker is politely met, given the circumstances (discretely forcing his way into their front offices). He’s cajoled and finally assured that his money will be delivered, in a riverfront transaction.
Yes, it’s a setup. James Sikking (who you likely remember as the glasses-wearing SWAT lunatic on HILL STREET BLUES) plays the refined, pipe-smoking killer. He’s a stone professional, without humor or pity or remorse. Sure, he doesn’t look like much, but he’d shoot you and leave you floating down the trickle of the LA River without hesitation. Walker susses the setup and tricks the hitman into killing one of his own bosses, as well as the crooked car dealer we ran into earlier. This is a striking sequence in a movie filled with them. The Third Street bridge hangs over the plain expanse of concrete that tamed the LA River as Sikking quietly and without fuss makes his shots. Walker unwraps the package that he was baited with, finding blank paper, sending bills fluttering in the breeze, shot tall and from the ground.
More names, more assistance from the shadowy cop played by Keenan Wynn. He knows a lot about the guys that Walker’s after, far too much really, but he’s indispensable. Walker is led to another name, higher-up than the last boss he’s chewed through. This is the top of the organization. There’s only one more above this guy. If Walker can’t get satisfaction from him, there’s likely none to be gotten.
Carrol O’Connor turns in a great performance as Brewster, the organization’s number-two man. Instead of a leering criminal, he’s more like a grumpy middle-aged man obsessing over how the groundskeepers are letting the grass die at his trophy estate. He’s a bean-counter, not a mobster. Walker is all channeled brute force, and Brewster, well, he’s a businessman. Brewster chides and chastises, treating Walker like a relic of a bygone time. When Walker demands his cash, Brewster answers that he’s got all of eleven dollars in his wallet.
Walker is perplexed. Here’s an answer that he wasn’t expecting. Here’s a problem to which there isn’t an easy reply to be had. The Organization doesn’t work in large sums. They work in bank balances and in ledgers now. To generate the cash that Walker requires takes time, but eventually Brewster relents and says it can be done. But still, seeing Walker buffaloed by a problem that requires a disciplined response and not outbursts of fists or gunshots (though there’s still some of that, to make the point) is an amazing moment. He’s presented with his own limitations and forced to work within them.
Finally, Walker returns to Alcatraz with Brewster, to get the money that was owed him, the thing that will put him at rest. The money arrives by helicopter, as part of a regular money-laundering run, and Brewster is there himself to make sure that Walker gets what’s his and out of the Organization’s hair. But where there’s money and no witnesses, there’s a setup. As it turns out, it’s not Walker who’s being set up, but Brewster.
Brewster’s shot after the drop is made. The shooter? Sikking, who’s on orders from the number one man in the Organization. That man turns out to be Yost, the police investigator who set Walker on this trail in the first place. Was Walker just a tool? Or was he being aided in a way that was mutually beneficial to both? That question, that ambiguity, is never cleared up.
When presented with the opportunity to collect his money, albeit with the implication that there would be strings attached, Walker melts back into the shadows. Literally backing away from the situation, as if afraid to turn around from what he’s built for himself, Walker disappears, more phantom than man. I can’t do this film justice. There’s so many stark moments, driven not with dialogue (which is minimal at best) but with acting and emotion unspoken. Just do yourself a favor. Don’t ask, just watch it.
Watch Walker hunt his prey through a clean and modern Los Angeles that’s just a memory now. There’s a moment where we get a panorama shot of the city from high in the hills, and the sky is a dazzling blue that’s mostly a lie now. Sure, you get bright blues like that in the winter, after big storms, perhaps, where the grime gets washed out of the sky. But even then, LA doesn’t care. Smog or shine, LA is eternal. As eternal as the echoes of Walker’s footsteps through the terminals of LAX or as eternal as the singular moment when you regard the journey that you yourself have taken, and you see only horrors so grim that the only response is to back away.
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