POINT BLANK (1967) revisited

January 31, 2016

point blank Greetings again from the darkness. In the not-inconsequential sub-genre of 1960’s tough guy crime thrillers, it’s tough to beat this neo-noir that carries the lineage of a fine wine, but the taste of a stout beer. Familiar faces are everywhere, bullets fly, double-crossing is expected, Angie flaunts, and revenge is the mission.

While not a box office hit on its release in 1967, the film grew into a cult classic and is now appreciated as one of the era’s best. The set-up is certainly not too complicated. During a heist (filmed at Alcatraz), one of the gang members shoots another at “point blank” range and takes off with both the money and the poor guy’s wife. The shot guy survives and seeks his money ($93,000) and revenge on those who wronged him.

Sure it sounds simple and common, but it’s made special thanks to top notch work from the writer, director, cinematographer, composer and cast. The story (adapted by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse) is based on “The Hunter” from acclaimed crime novelist Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark). The book was also the source material for Mel Gibson’s 1999 movie Payback. Oscar nominated director John Boorman (Deliverance 1972, Hope and Glory 1987) works with Oscar nominated cinematographer Philip H Lathrop (Earthquake 1974) to create a stylish and gritty look and feel, while Oscar winning composer Johnny Mandel (The Sandpiper, MASH theme) adds just the right musical touch.

If that’s not enough for you, Lee Marvin commands attention as the revenge-obsessed tough guy who won’t get fooled again. To call Lee Marvin a tough guy seems redundant and unnecessary, as his screen presence oozed dominance. He was coming off an Oscar win for Cat Ballou and one of his best performances in The Dirty Dozen. In other words, he was an actor at the peak of his Hollywood power.

Joining Mr. Marvin on screen is a prestigious group led by Angie Dickinson and Carroll O’Connor. With a career that spanned more than 50 years, Ms. Dickinson starred in such films as the original Ocean’s 11 and Brian DePalma’s homage to Hitchcock, Dressed to Kill. Of course, she also starred in one of the biggest TV shows of the 1970’s “Police Woman”. And speaking of 1970’s TV, few were more jarring to the culture than “All in the Family” with Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker. In this film, Ms. Dickinson plays the sister of Marvin’s double-crossing wife and she gets to flail away in anger at him before the two fall into bed together … a terrific piece of editing. Mr. O’Connor plays Brewster, one of the three heads of “the Organization”, and one of the targets that Marvin chases to retrieve his money.

Playing another of the three heads is Lloyd Bochner, who capitalized on his smooth demeanor and velvety voice during a 7 decade career in TV and movies. Mr. Bochner is the father of Hart Bochner, who (as Ellis) tried to out-smart Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Keenan Wynn appears as a mysterious figure feeding information to Marvin’s character to assist in his quest of taking down the organization. Mr. Wynn is the son of legendary entertainer Ed Wynn who was known for his work in vaudeville, Ziegfeld Follies, TV and movies (Mary Poppins). Keenan also appeared in many TV shows and movies, with Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb being his most famous. Appearing as Lynn, the two-timing wife, Sharon Acker was on the verge of movie stardom … only that stardom never came. By choosing to focus on TV roles, she had a nice long career, but never reached the superstar status many had predicted. Sandra Warner plays the waitress that Marvin talks to, and Ms. Warner simply walked away from the business after this role … despite a successful career that started when she was 18 years old. Yet another familiar face in the cast belongs to John Vernon, who was making his feature film debut. Here he plays the guy pulling the trigger at point blank range, and many will recognize him as Dean Wormer in Animal House. James Sikking plays the sharpshooter employed by the organization, and fans of “Hill Street Blues” will remember him as the slightly annoying Howard.

There are a few other notes of interest regarding actors in the movie … though you’ll have to look quickly. Sid Haig plays a henchman at the hotel. Mr. Haig has had a prolific career as a heavy, bad guy, villain, horror film staple, and even Tarantino favorite. Barbara Feldon, the beloved Agent 99 in “Get Smart” makes an appearance on a Ponds face cream commercial as Marvin watches TV, and Lauren Bacall is seen/heard quickly on a TV set as well. Also, Felix Silla has one scene as a hotel guard. The diminutive Mr. Silla also starred as Cousin Itt in “The Addams Family”. As a final note and shout out to “the Chevies”, it must be noted that Angie Dickinson and Keenan Wynn would also appear together in the deliciously twisted 1971 film Pretty Maids all in a Row from that lover of the female form, director Roger Vadim.

It’s pretty easy to see how all of these factors came together to create this cult favorite. From a filmmaking perspective, the use of flashbacks, editing and sound effects (footsteps) all add to the experience, as does Brewster’s stunning home – which in real life, now belongs to Drew Barrymore. If you are a fan of 1960’s film, it’s one you probably already have seen a few times, but if not, it’s one to watch if for no other reason that Lee Marvin firing shots into an empty bed … I’m still not sure how that was supposed to help him obtain his $93,000, but he really wants his money!

watch the trailer (it’s a hoot!):




November 2, 2012


Greetings again from the darkness. Difficult to decide if it’s more shocking that this film is almost 50 years old, or that it ever got released in the first place. No other black comedy satire on such a sensitive political issue has ever had its theatrical release right smack dab in the middle of the ongoing issue. The cold war between Russia and the US was in high gear and the Cuban Missile crisis had just occurred. In fact, President Kennedy’s assassination caused the film’s opening to be delayed.

 Stanley Kubrick only directed eleven feature length films, and ten of them can be considered classics (A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, to name a few). Dr. Strangelove is regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all-time, though it’s difficult to imagine anyone under 30 really “getting” much of the humor – unless they happen to be a history buff. The movie could come across as one big “inside joke” to those unfamiliar with the times.

 Loosely based on Peter George‘s “Red Alert” novel, Kubrick decided to take the source material and turn it into satire. He brought in Terry Southern (“The Magic Christian”) to help with the script, and then he turned the incomparable Peter Sellers loose in 3 roles (originally 4, but he broke his leg and gave up the Commander King Kong role). Stories abound with Sellers causing multiple takes and significant editing due to his ad-libbing cracking up other cast members (and even Kubrick).

 The structure of the film involved three separate, yet intertwined sequences. We see Burpelson Air Force Base Commander General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden) issuing the order to Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers) to lock down the base. It turns out, Ripper has gone a bit loony and somehow issued the strike first command against Russia. Mandrake spends much of this segment trying to calmly obtain the Recall Codes from Ripper. We also meet the crew of one of the multiple B-52 bombers in route to Russia. Led by Commander “King” Kong (Slim Pickins), they are on the way to deliver two nuclear bombs. One of his crew is played by James Earl Jones in his screen debut. Lastly we go inside the War Room where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) is meeting with his Joint Chiefs of Staff and advisors. A key player here is General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) in full kill and be killed mode.

 There are so many interesting bits to discuss, but let’s limit to just a few. Watch the camera angles that Kubrick uses to film Hayden. He is made to look both powerful and nuts. Hayden (so great in Kubrick’s The Killing) has the voice and tough guy stance to make us believe he could start a war due to a Russian plot to pollute the “precious body fluids” of Americans. Sellers plays two roles in the War Room, but his straight man performance as the President allows George C Scott to really shine in one of his few comedic turns as an actor. Scott’s performance is somehow over the top AND right on the button (so to speak). When watching Slim Pickins in the iconic final image, keep in mind that he was a real life rodeo cowboy prior to breaking into acting.

 Obviously the character names are outlandish (Keenan Wynn plays Col. Bat Guano), but it should be noted that the character of the President was based on real life politician and Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. The General Turgidson character is based on real life General Curtis LeMay who was infamous for his kill ’em first attitude. Also, General Ripper was based on General Thomas S Power, who was LeMay’s protégé and ultimate replacement as Joint Chief of the Air Force. It should also be noted that Tracy Reed is the only female character who appears … and yes, that is her in the Playboy magazine that Commander Kong is perusing.

There are so many classic lines and sight gags in the film that it’s challenging to keep up on the first viewing. Also, it’s been a few years since a pay phone and coke machine played such vital roles. When Kubrick killed the original pie fight ending, he added more frightening images and the poignant closing song – “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn. Director Sidney Lumet did a film version of this same basic story told in a straight-forward and thrilling manner. His Fail-Safe was released less than a year after Dr. Strangelove.

**NOTE: While it’s now common to refer to the film as “Dr. Strangelove”, the actual title is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  It is the longest title of any film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  The film received four total nominations, but it turned into the year of My Fair Lady (Best Picture), George Cukor (Director), and Rex Harrison (Actor).

watch the unusual trailer: