Point Blank (1967)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Warner Home Video, $19.95

After MGM selected John Boorman to direct Point Blank, the young director received an unusual gift from the film’s star, Lee Marvin. The actor was so popular that MGM gave him script approval, final cut and other creative controls, all of which he handed over to Boorman. The director and his collaborators used that gift to create one of the most original crime movies ever made, a modernist thriller that combines elements of film noir, the French New Wave and pop art.

The film’s story is deceptively simple: Marvin plays Walker, a criminal betrayed by his wife and best friend who survives an attempt on his life and prowls the streets of Los Angeles, seeking revenge. Point Blank equates organized crime with big business and American politics; the syndicate that Walker battles, known as “The Organization,” serves as a metaphor for any American institution that has been corrupted by men obsessed with money and power. Naturally, the social commentary that infuses the film hasn’t dated a bit.

Although this is a classic revenge tale, the execution is anything but old-fashioned; Boorman used MGM’s vast resources to generate a striking, hallucinatory experience for the audience that calls into question whether Walker is alive at all. An intricate flashback structure adds to the sense that the story exists outside the normal bounds of space and time.

In attempting to create a bold and expressive palette, Boorman couldn’t have picked a better collaborator than director of photography Philip H. Lathrop, ASC. The cinematographer had done stunning work on a series of pictures for Blake Edwards, notably Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and he applied a similar sense of compositional precision and intricate color design to Point Blank. The film moves from cold colors to warm ones as Walker regains his humanity, and each scene is defined by a particular color that is applied to the costumes and sets. (This approach led one of MGM’s production designers to declare that the film would be “unreleasable.”) The stylized use of color and production design never feels like a gimmick, because the images are perfectly calibrated to match Walker’s inner state.

Although occasional, minor scratches are visible in the source material, this new transfer from Warner Home Video is an improvement over MGM’s laserdisc release and beautifully preserves the broad range of Lathrop’s palette — no small feat, considering that dramatic contrasts define the film’s look. The subtle gradations of particular colors, as in a scene where each member of the criminal underground wears a different shade of green, are evident. The monaural sound mix sounds terrific; it brings out the dialogue while remaining true to the film’s experimental sound design.

In a superb commentary track, director Steven Soderbergh — exhibiting the enthusiasm of a fan, the insight of a critic and the eye of a filmmaker — interviews Boorman about his work on the picture. (This conversation is on par with the one between Soderbergh and Mike Nichols on the recently released DVD of Catch-22.) Boorman acknowledges his debt to Lathrop and provides plenty of fascinating details about cameras, lenses and the joys of working in the anamorphic format. The other supplements are two brief featurettes on Alcatraz, where the picture’s opening scene and dramatic climax were shot, and a theatrical trailer.

Lathrop went on to film a number of significant action films, most notably the cult classic The Driver (1978), which was recently released on DVD after years of legal entanglements. The cinematographer’s body of work, which includes a brilliant Western (Wild Rovers), a number of popular disaster films (the Airport sequels, Earthquake!), and a beloved slapstick comedy (The Pink Panther), is essential viewing for cinematography fans, and there’s no better place to start studying his oeuvre than Point Blank.

— Jim Hemphill

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.