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Some New Hollywood Era Hardboiled: Point Blank (1967), The Outfit (1973) & Charley Varrick (1973) July 25, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, 1970s, Movies.
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These three films overlap a lot for me – they’re all pretty much from the same era & have similar plots – our protagonist is a small-time criminal who runs afoul of some big invisible (and non-ethnic) criminal syndicate and must fight back somehow.

They’re also all well worth seeing and indicative of a gritty hardboiled style (or self-conscious overstyle in the case of Point Blank) that you unfortunately don’t see made anymore.

Both Point Blank & The Outfit come from the “Parker” series of crime novels by Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark. Parker is a machine-like criminal, plowing through the crime syndicate known as “the outfit” methodically & most often dispassionately, only interested in whatever money they owe him.

In Point Blank (based on The Hunter), Parker becomes Lee Marvin as Walker, left for dead at Alcatraz – shot by his girlfriend who has run off with his criminal cohort. Walker wants the money from that particular job as well as revenge, and works his way up the criminal ladder of the organization, beating the crap out of everyone as only Lee Marvin can. What makes Point Blank even greater than it would have been if it had been simply shot as a straight fist-puncher shoot ’em up with Marvin fighting suit ‘n’ tie corporate style Los Angeles mobsters is how director John Boorman basically turned it into his resumé film for Hollywood.

Boorman throws everything he has at the thing – the entire movie is framed in a way to leave us guessing as to whether it really happened, or if it’s Lee Marvin’s dying fantasy, or if he is some sort of avenging ghost. We get flashback, flashforward, intercutting with continuous sound, cuts that signify time passing without seeing time pass, and an overall surreal feel. There’s wonderful stark & sharply bright photography of 1967 LA, as well as interesting use of color – each character often has a color theme, reflected by their clothing and then, in turn, those colors are used in surrounding objects or lighting to symbolize plot themes.

Offhand, the only other movie I can think of that does this is Russ Meyer’s Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens,  – a very different movie, although the first 20 minutes and the last 15 or so are absolutely hilarious & I think Lee Marvin would have enjoyed co-starring.

But I digress.

For example – in Point Blank, there’s one scene where Angie Dickinson must get into John Vernon’s penthouse bachelor love nest to help Lee Marvin gain entrance stealthily. She’s clad all in yellow, Vernon goes from orange to red as he gets hornier (and bloodier). Previously, Marvin had used a bright yellow telescope to case the place. As he enters, we see bright yellow flashing police lights & bright yellow garage pillars. After he’s done the job and exits, both police lights and garage pillars are bright red.

If you want an example from Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens, you’re on your own – but if you can avert your eyes from Kitten Natividad’s fantabulous winnebagoes long enough to look at the furniture & walls, you’ll know what I mean. I highly recommend this article which compares it to Soviet film montage.

Are you back from that one? Told you it was worth your while.

Anyway, besides being a solid crime film, Point Blank‘s art house stylings and ambiguous realities elevate the material to something far more interesting.  It’s got a great cast, too – besides Marvin, Dickinson and Vernon (in his film debut), we also have Keenan Wynn, Lloyd Bochner and Carol O’Connor. And from Star Trek, Michael Strong! And from Hill Street Blues, James B. Sikking!

The Outfit follows a similar plotline from a later Parker novel – this time Robert Duvall plays the relentless criminal bent on revenge against “the outfit” after they kill his brother & try to kill him as payback for a past bank robbery at an outfit front. Duvall teams with the third member of his former gang, Joe Don Baker, to commit a series of robberies at other outfit operations until syndicate chief Robert Ryan pays him off. Unlike Point Blank, this one is directed in straightforward gritty-early-70s fashion, without the mysticism or art house touches – but it’s still a solid film with a good cast. Duvall & Ryan are great as always (I’ve lost count of how many times Robert Ryan has played the angry barking head of a crime syndicate), and the supporting cast includes numerous familiar faces in small roles, such as Sheree North as a horny wife.

Sheree North – did she ever play anything other than a floozy? I can remember her as an ex-hooker on Mannix, a sleazy lounge singer girlfriend for Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore, a hooker on Archie Bunker’s Place… jeez! I guess that’s how you get typecast when you basically look like the Peggy Lee dog from Lady & The Tramp.

The Outfit reminded me a lot of an admittedly better film with a similar plot – Charley Varrick. In this one, Walter Matthau plays the leader of a group of thieves who mistakenly rob a syndicate front bank, only to incur their wrath and get hunted down. This time Joe Don Baker is the bad guy, doing his familiar redneck schtick as before, hunting down Matthau (who plays the action hero against type very well here) who has a zillion con man tricks up his sleeve. Don Siegel’s direction is tight & economical, more of that early ’70s gritty feel.  Sheree North, another overlapping cast member from The Outfit, appears, along with Andy Robinson (everyone’s favorite psycho from Dirty Harry) as a member of Matthau’s gang.  Charley Varrick is a fast moving con game of a movie, right up to the very end, a real underrated gem from the early ’70s.

It’s nice to watch action movies where there is no need of huge explosions, CGI, or 360-rotation through slo-mo martial arts BS. It kinda makes you pay more attention to… GASP! Character and story! Combine that with solid cast members and you have a sure winner. I’ll watch Lee Marvin beat the crap out of people any old time.

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Here comes Lee Marvin! Oh, thank God! He’s always drunk and violent!” Only this time, he’s sober & REALLY violent! Yay!

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