Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter listens to two epic filmmakers talking Point Blank.
Ask people to name some of the great movies about tough guys and odds are you’ll hear the same response more than once. John Boorman‘s 1967 feature, Point Blank, delivers a monstrous antihero in the form of Lee Marvin’s Walker, and the film remains a terrifically aggressive thriller about one man’s quest for what’s his. Warner Archive recently released the film onto a sharp-looking Blu-ray complete with a commentary track from the director and superfan Steven Soderbergh.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
Point Blank (1967)
Commentators: John Boorman (director), Steven Soderbergh (fan and filmmaker)
1. Soderbergh refers to Point Blank as “a film that I’ve stolen from so many times.”
2. Marvin showed the script to Boorman while filming The Dirty Dozen (1967), and both agreed that the main character was incredible even if the script itself wasn’t. They agreed to make the film on one condition, at which point Marvin threw the script out the window. “When Mel Gibson did a remake of this picture, the script that he shot very much resembled the script that Lee Marvin threw out of the window. I can only imagine a very young Mel Gibson was walking along and picked it out of the gutter.” That is brutal. As a huge fan of Brian Helgeland’s Gibson-starring remake Payback (1999), I wholly disagree with this assessment, but damn, I appreciate the brutal honesty.
3. Boorman acknowledges that there are theories that Walker (Marvin) is dying from the opening gun shots and simply dreams the rest of the movie. Soderbergh asks his opinion on that argument but also wonders if it even matters. “I don’t think it does, but… what it is is what you see.”
4. The fractured structure was intended from the start despite it being highly atypical for a studio picture at the time. Marvin actually called a meeting at the studio with the big wigs to confirm that he had final approval over the script, casting, and more. They said yes, and he replied “I defer those approvals to John” and then walked out of the meeting. Boorman adds that once the film was completed the suits watched his cut and immediately began mumbling about re-shoots. It was released as he intended.
5. Boorman says that Marvin was “a huge contributor to this picture, he has an extraordinary sense of gesture, of finding visual metaphors.” They worked together to develop the script both before and during the production.
6. Rehearsals started from a scene’s initial premise, but from there Boorman would allow the actors to explore the character and story beats. Once they worked it into something Boorman and Marvin liked they shot it.
7. The scene where Mal (John Vernon) shoots Walker in the cell shows him accidentally shooting Lynne (Sharon Acker) in the hand with the blank at the 4:32 mark. “She suffered far more pain than Lee Marvin.”
8. Boorman says the Arthurian legend is one that’s informed several of his films — Excalibur (1981) is probably one of them — and he always felt the character of Yost (Keenan Wynn) was “that figure you often find in Arthurian legends, this mysterious figure who comes and goes.”
9. Soderbergh comments on the sound of Walker’s footsteps as he walks quickly through the airport, and Boorman adds that when Marvin died his widow asked the filmmaker if he wanted anything to remember him by, “and I took the shoes from that scene.”
10. Marvin added a recoil to his use of the .44 Magnum when they shot the slow-motion version, but when they shot live rounds on Alcatraz island there was no actual recoil at all.
11. The scene where Walker surprises Lynne, shoots the bed, and then gets information from her was written to have him interrogating her, but when they shot it Marvin chose to stay silent. Acker continued with her side, and Boorman realized the brilliance of Marvin’s choice. “Lee never made suggestions, he would just show you.” They made the alterations and shot it with Lynne providing all of the info responding to his presence rather than his questions.
12. Marvin didn’t think Vernon was good for the role as the actor “wasn’t strong enough to contend with him.” It came to a head during filming when Marvin punched Vernon in the stomach during a fight scene causing Vernon to cry and protest that he was an actor not a fighter. Vernon followed it, though, with a visibly increased energy and anger.
13. The shot of Lynne’s perfumes spilled and mixed in the bathtub is meant to show “the effect of her essence just draining away here.”
14. Boorman had Walker’s suits “made like armor, they’re very close-fitting.”
15. The story was originally set in San Francisco, but when Boorman visited the city he felt it was “just so pastely and pleasant, and I wanted something harsher and stark.”
16. Marvin had previously worked with Angie Dickinson on The Killers (1964), and it left her no fan of the man. “She hated Lee, and he dangled her out of a window in that one and she never forgave him for it.” It led to some tension on set, as did Marvin’s preference that the role should have gone to Peggy Lee.
17. Boorman was called in for a meeting with MGM President Robert O’Brien in which the executive immediately began expressing concern, but part way into the meeting the phone rang. It was David Lean making requests in advance of his next film, Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and O’Brien was so excited to speak with him that when the call ended he simply ushered Boorman out saying only “make a good one.” Boorman told Lean years later how he had saved him.
18. Soderbergh visited the rooftop of the high-rise at 40:44 “just because you had shot there, I just wanted to go up and see it.”
19. “Your car mount stuff is always good,” says Soderbergh, adding that he himself finds it really difficult to find something interesting to do with it. “It’s always such a drag isn’t it,” says Boorman in agreement.
20. Soderbergh re-watches Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) “pretty regularly because I still find there are things in it that are extraordinary.”
21. The studio was concerned because their Timing Department had the script clocked at only 71 minutes, so Boorman went and talked with them to describe what he was going to do with scenes. The woman replied, “oh, you mean there’s gonna be a lot of leering and peering in this picture?”
22. The film’s color palette grows in phases, from early monochrome to more vibrant greens and yellows, and Boorman had elements painted at times to compliment that effort. The telescope Walker uses to look up at Mal’s penthouse is painted yellow as are columns in the parking garage. Soderbergh loves it and wonders why so many filmmakers don’t even consider that as an option to help shape the emotional impact of an environment. “It’s an effect that the audience would never be able to articulate but that they absolutely feel.”
23. Soderbergh asks about the scene where Dickinson is in nude profile in the background, and Boorman recalls a famous comment of hers after she was asked if she dresses for men or women. “She said ‘I dress for women, I undress for men.'”
24. Boorman likes shooting at night because “it takes a lot of the color out.” He’s not much of a color fan in part because cutting between shots can be visually jarring when you jump from one bold color to another. Soderbergh likes it for personnel reasons — “a lot of people don’t like shooting nights, and I just feel like there’s a different kind of bonding when you’re shooting at night and it’s four in the morning.”
25. It was Marvin’s genius idea to have Walker whisper to Carter’s (Lloyd Bochner) secretary without letting the audience hear his threatening words.
26. Boorman says he owes his career to critic Pauline Kael as she praised his first feature, Having a Wild Weekend (1965), which led to him receiving offers.
27. The film did extremely well in South America, and Boorman believes it’s because they all wanted to see the scene with the “American kitchen” filled with whirring appliances.
28. “This was a scene which has often been copied,” says Boorman at the transition from Walker and Chris fighting on the floor to being in bed. “Uh, I’m one of the people that copied,” says Soderbergh.
29. When James Sikking auditioned for the role of the assassin Boorman declined saying his face was too nice for a killer. For the next week, though, Boorman would look out his office window at MGM and see Sikking standing outside, partially concealed by a bush or a column, just watching him menacingly. The director eventually walked out and offered him the part.
30. Boorman recalls Carroll O’Connor telling him about almost buying a house in Los Angeles. He and his wife had been there for a decade and she convinced him it was time to buy a house, but the homeowner told him he was excited to take the profits, retire, and move to Greece for the rest of his life — “and Carroll couldn’t bear the idea that he was going to be paying for this man to have this beautiful life and refused to buy the house.”
31. They shot O’Connor’s death scene, but noticed while watching dailies that he was making ridiculous sounds that elicited laughter. He was already driving back down Route 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, so they had the Highway Patrol stop him so he could return. O’Connor wasn’t happy, but he returned to redo the scene.
32. One night while filming the finale’s Alcatraz-set scenes an exhausted and spent Boorman realized he had no idea what he was doing. Marvin realized it too and asked if the director was in trouble. He told Boorman to leave it to him, and “suddenly he was drunk, he was shouting, laughing, and screaming,” and the production manager approached Boorman saying there was no way they could keep filming. “Soon as I was off the hook, the pressure was off, it took me ten minutes to work out the shots, and Lee made this amazing recovery.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“This is the scene where they sent for a psychiatrist when they saw these rushes, they thought I’d gone mad.”
“You couldn’t write this.”
“Now he’s got a different suit on which also people worried about terribly at that studio.”
“Let’s talk about lenses for a minute.”
“I was horrified by Los Angeles in a certain sense.”
“Looks like a bent frame to me.”
“Did you get any flack for him punching the guy in the genitals?”
“Later on there’s a scene where she beats him, and she did that with great enthusiasm.”
“Green’s an interesting color because it’s possibly the only color that depending on circumstances can be warm and cold.”
“I certainly learned the hard way that if things are going well to keep your mouth shut.”
“I was intoxicated with anamorphic.”
“There are so many scenes in this film that you couldn’t have pulled off with another actor.”
“One of the building blocks of great noir is revenge.”
This is a great commentary. Boorman has a sharp memory for the film’s production, and Soderbergh is both knowledgeable and curious. The combination makes for an engaging track that covers both filmmaker intentions and onscreen action. It’s fun, informative, and highly informative for fans and amateur filmmakers alike.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.