1950s, 1970s, Horror/Eerie, Scifi, Thriller

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) / Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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Directors: Don Siegel / Philip Kaufman
Screenwriters: Daniel Mainwaring / W.D. Richter

By Roderick Heath

I said, “Hello!” again, a little louder, jiggling the phone, the way you do, but the line was dead, and I put the phone back. In my father’s day a night operator, whose name he’d have known, could have told him who’d called…But now we have dial phones, marvelously efficient, saving you a full second or more every time you call, inhumanly perfect, and utterly brainless; and none of them will ever remember where the doctor is at night, when a child is sick and needs him. Sometimes I think we’re refining all humanity out of our lives. – Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers

Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers began life as a serialised story in Colliers Magazine and was published as a novel in 1955. Finney, a former copywriter and journalist, became adept at writing in many a genre with the discipline of a shrewd professional. He wrote many crime stories, some of which were also adapted as films, including Phil Karlson’s 5 Against The House (1955), although his biggest publishing success was the 1970 time travel tale Time And Again. The Body Snatchers was received harshly by some science fiction writers and critics as a variation on an already well-worn idea: Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick had already explored very similar notions. Even when adapted as a movie in 1956, it was following Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953) in employing the theme of people in a small town replaced by alien doppelgangers. But Finney knew how to place such a story in a resolutely believable and human context, and Don Siegel’s adaptation immediately made the story the most famous variation on the theme, lodging itself in the popular consciousness and birthing the phrase “pod people” in common parlance. The hyped-up retitling initially gave it a trashy lustre but the film’s quality quickly grabbed critical attention, helping cement Siegel’s reputation.

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Siegel himself, unlike Arnold, wasn’t drawn to science fiction by inclination, and like Finney was more associated with thrillers. But it was precisely this likeness, each creative hand’s skill in grounding a tale in an immediately substantial and quotidian sense of the world, that would lend the story its specific texture. Eventually Invasion of the Body Snatchers was lodged as a diamond-hard genre film classic, an eternal touchstone for anyone who saw it when young and had their love for dark thrills galvanised. It also proved a ready template, officially remade three times, and imitated and lampooned endlessly. Philip Kaufman’s first remake, released in 1978, rode a wave of new interest in sci-fi cinema following the success of Star Wars (1977), as studios scrambled to find genre properties that could be quickly given a new gloss with modern special effects. Kaufman’s version immediately inspired and influenced a string of remakes, including John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988), adding new lashings of gruesome corporeal detail and radicalism to a fairly clean-cut and beloved movie in a manner that divided fans of the originals. But the most interesting disparities between the two films speak more of the radical social shifts in the twenty-two years that separate them, and the distinctive perspectives of their directors.

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Siegel was noted as a studio hand who’d risen to become a master editor at Warner Bros., and fought to get a break as director. Far from finding himself washed up as the studio system declined, Siegel thrived in the grittier climes of the 1960s and ‘70s, noted for his spiky tales of antiheroic misfits and his fascination for dramas pitting avatars of anarchy and control in direct, almost schizoid opposition. Kaufman, by contrast, was a literate bohemian turned filmmaker who started making movies in the mid-1960s but who didn’t start gaining traction until his fortunes aligned with the emerging Movie Brat generation. Both films retained the same basic structure and stuck fairly closely to Finney’s storyline, although Kaufman’s version transferred the setting from the small California town of Santa Mira to the urban zones of San Francisco and altered aspects of the character drama. Finney’s lead character Miles Bennell is a doctor in his home town Santa Mira who reconnects with his former teenage flame Becky Driscoll, and they edge into a tentative romance again as both are recovering from divorce.

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Kaufman and his screenwriter W.D. Richter reconfigured this so Bennell, rechristened Matthew, is a health inspector and Becky, now Elizabeth, is a colleague and friend with an obvious spark of connection although Elizabeth’s married. In both versions Bennell begins encountering anxious people who report that loved ones have been replaced by beings that look, sound, and act just like the people they know and yet are missing some vital defining trait. Bennell consults a psychiatrist friend, named Dan Kauffman in the original and David Kibner in the remake, who insists the phenomenon is purely mental. But Bennell’s writer friend Jack Belicec and his wife call him to take a look at a mysterious body that’s appeared on their premises, looking like an unfinished version of Jack. A terrible truth begins to emerge: people are being replaced by lookalikes growing out of seed pods with an extra-terrestrial origin, mimetic organisms able to absorb every characteristic of humans save any capacity for authentic emotion.

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Finney’s book had laid down a fine blueprint for describing the tensions between communal and individual identity. The main characters cut across the grain of their surrounds and old-fashioned social presumptions, with Miles and Becky as divorcees, whilst Miles and Kauffman and Belicec comprising something like the intelligentsia of their town with just a faint hint of the siege mentality such cliques often feel, an aspect Kaufman would elaborate on, just as their names nod to the polyglot state of American society. Siegel’s version doesn’t expend a great deal of time setting up the social backdrop of Santa Mira, because he doesn’t need to: it’s so damn ordinary, the people wandering through it familiar with their howdy-neighbour grins, everyone performing a function, from Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) to Kauffman (Larry Gates) to Police Chief Nick Grivett (Ralph Dumke) to gas repairman Charlie (Sam Peckinpah). The first sign of disturbance to the status quo comes as Bennell sees young Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) running away from the family fruit stand, gripped by the conviction his mother isn’t his mother. Bennell soon finds the same apparent delusion gripping several other people, including Becky’s friend Wilma (Virginia Christine) who swears her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t her Uncle Ira. “A strange neurosis, evidently contagious – an epidemic of mass hysteria,” Kauffman judges it, and to Miles’ question what causes it, responds: “Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.”

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Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has long been the object of debate as to whether it can be considered as a political parable, with factional readings rooted in its era taking it as either a metaphor for the anti-Communist panic of McCarthyism, where a community gangs up on a small and hapless group to destroy or assimilate outliers, or rather the opposite, a vision of Communist infiltration, as the lookalikes conform to certain canards about the Red Menace, detached and enforcing a collective, hive-mind-like system. The quote from Finney’s book above indicates his target was something at once vaguer and more thoroughly encompassing, a general portrait of modernity as a state of perpetual, alienating shock, defined by a constant succession of nudges away from immediate human reference into a state of prophylaxis. Political readings blur into each-other from such a perspective, the desire to project insidious and malignant motives onto an Other a desperate attempt to return shape to communal experience, which is subject to a constant, intense process of homogenisation. Siegel had a love for characters who, for whatever reason, exist on the outskirts of society and try to operate according to their own very peculiar code. Here he’d found a perfect ironic text to explore his obsession, one that allowed him to make his heroes at once beings apart and the final exemplars of “normality,” the act of retaining their individuality valorised above all else but also doomed to cost them everything.

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At the same time, the story echoes more personally and immediately, speaking to a basic aspect of human experience that’s hard to portray dramatically. The fear of changes in people we know and love, the tiny, almost imperceptible alterations in behaviour that can signal anything from infidelity to senility, the noticing of which can often make the observer feel like they’re the one losing their wits. The way the story ties Bennell and Becky’s resuming relationship to the larger drama emphasises their frail and worldly-wise sense of becoming and cherishing, starkly contrasting the relentless assimilation of the alien invasion. When the lovers are confronted by the replicated Belicec and Kauffman, they insist it’s a blissful deliverance from all the fractiousness that defines human identity, the passion that brings pain, a sort of instant shortcut to a Zen state that represents however not triumph over flesh but the mere deadening of it. Kaufman would take up this facet, envisioning poddom as a kind of transubstantiation that fulfils in detail familiar religious visions – release from the tyranny of flesh and self, the achievement of perfect pacifism and embrace of a higher, gestalt truth – with infinitely cruel sarcasm.

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Part of what was innovative and notable about Siegel’s approach to Invasion of the Body Snatchers lay in the way he completely avoided the usual signifiers of a film in its genre. No dreamy expressionist visuals until the very end or familiar stars, no bug-eyed monsters or giveaways to suggest the alien point of view or airy, poetically meditative dialogue, but unfolding more like a mystery thriller or police procedural a succession of revelations and inferences. Pretty much to be expected, given that was Siegel’s usual purview. He was following Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954) in taking up that approach, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers took the method a step further: the most monstrous thing it can conceive is beings who look like people but who are not, the most frightening thing a horde of neighbours chasing you through the street in blank determination to erase what makes you you. Shots of Bennell and Becky running through the dark streets of Santa Mira’s downtown, glaring lights reflecting off wet tar, and dashing through empty office buildings and across the desert landscape, is more purely film noir stuff, close to Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Private Hell 36 (1954), or Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955). The connection with the latter film, a portrait of corruption and conspiracy proliferating in a nominally average small town, is especially strong, as Siegel applies the sci-fi element to such bedrock.

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The body on the Belicecs’ dining table, grotesquery in the midst of the utterly banal, alien horror manifesting in the space where the characters usually play at small town sophisticate, signals a narrative shift as an invisible phenomenon suddenly becomes substantial and paranoia becomes reality. Soon horror is suggesting itself everywhere, in cellars and greenhouses and farm fields, but remains excruciatingly hard to pin down. Siegel’s expert use of deep focus in widescreen frames constantly places his characters in coherent relationship with each-other and with strange phenomenon, containing them neatly within the same reality despite the protestations of hallucination. This leads to the crystallising moment where he films the replica Belicec’s eyes slowly peeling open, with Belicec and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) in the far reaches of the frame, trying to last out a vigil at their kitchen counter, Teddy alerted by the flicker of movement to a new and terrifying development. Another expert use of the same method comes when Bennell spies in through the window of Becky’s father’s house and sees the cabal of the replaced preparing to distribute pods, whilst a hand reaches into the frame and grips his shoulder. When the danger and perversity become more urgent and disorientating, Siegel’s proclivity for vertiginous low and high camera angles becomes more and more blatant, becoming defining aspects of the film’s most vivid scenes.

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Bennell queasily senses a likeness, having witnessed Becky’s faint disquiet at her father (Kenneth Patterson) making a mysterious trip to his basement. Sure enough, as Bennell breaks in and checks out the shadowy cellar, he finds a similar doppelganger of Becky, so he sneaks up to her room and snatches her away. In both Siegel’s and Kaufman’s films, the psychiatrist character is a rhetorical villain, offering up rationalisations in trying to convince Bennell and his friends that they’ve hallucinated or misinterpreted what they’ve seen. He almost convinces the characters the problem is all in their mind, and yet the psychiatrist is swiftly and easily subsumed to the alien purpose, or was perhaps part of it all the time. Kauffman/Kibner is identified as part of an infrastructure of detachment and learned distrust of the senses. The psychiatrist in each movie even essentially parrots socio-political readings of the narrative of the film he’s in. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you. Both homunculi vanish and Grivett grouchily reports to Bennell, Belicec, and Kauffman that the male form was found burning on a bonfire out on a farm. The many people who had insisted relatives had been replaced like young Jimmy and Wilma report to Bennell that they were mistaken and everything’s fine. This seems a victory for good sense. Except that as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs to try and leave behind the bizarreness by having a barbecue in Bennell’s backyard, they discover giant seed pods in the greenhouse that pulse and foam, and split open disgorge humanoid forms that begin taking on the likenesses of the four.

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Most good films detailing the eruption of the fantastic amidst the familiar hinge upon the question as to just when what’s logical – in the sense of what conclusion about a situation that can be reasonably deduced from the facts – ceases to obey one set of presumptions and dictates another. The heroes of such tales are usually those who make the leap a little earlier than anyone else. The discovery in the greenhouse marks the pivot in Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this regard, but it’s a narrative that cleverly obfuscates all certainty in other aspects. We never know when most of the townsfolk are replaced or even if Bennell, Becky, and the Belicecs are the last humans there. This loss of a common reality is the most insidious aspect of the narrative. At what point do the humans become aliens, threatening the native population? One detail in Finney’s novel the films intriguingly avoid mentioning is the fact that the replicas only have a very limited life span, and can’t sexually reproduce, in essence moving about the universe like a locust swarm laying each planet they come to waste. Both films engage the pod people less as a specific parasitical enemy and more as a purely social phenomenon. This might seem to rob an aspect of urgency from the films, but it does throw into relief the notion that really concerns Siegel and Kaufman: what is humanity, and what are we willing to endure to hold onto it?

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Siegel’s film is inexplicit about how aspects of the alien replication work. Part of the physical process is glimpsed in the greenhouse, fleshy human forms rapidly taking shape as would a pumpkin, a blend of familiar forms of propagation to signal the completely alien. Some sort of psychic process seems to be involved in the transference of memories and character. It becomes clear that the vital stage of replacement occurs during sleep, when the pod people have the capacity to download the minds of their models and to upload their own. Which does make one wonder why the pods bother replacing bodies at all, although there’s some potent metaphorical value in there. It makes sense that just as there are people who get by in life despite lacking any sense of integral identity or feeling by mimicking others, so too there might be other species doing it too. Kaufman would be very finicky in nailing down the details in his version. Either way the greenhouse discovery makes the source of the doubles and their nature clear to the protagonists: the psychological narrative, the problem of knowing one’s localised reality, gives way to a battle for existence, but both are seen as stations on an existential continuum. Bennell and Becky hide out from their pursuers in Bennell’s surgery overlooking the town square, where they become witnesses to the replica horde suddenly converging once the first morning bus has been through to distribute truckloads of pods.

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The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ connections reached both backwards and forwards in screen history. Siegel would more aggressively pursue the theme of the lone wolf warrior in films like Edge of Eternity (1959), Coogan’s Buff (1968), and Dirty Harry (1971), and offer a gendered examination of collision of the one and the group in The Beguiled (1971). Kevin McCarthy gained by far his best-known screen role in it, but his casting at the time certainly carried association with his performance as Biff in the Fredric March-starring adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1951), another story rooted in the superficially placid yet tense mood of post-war America where someone finds someone they love isn’t the person they think they are. Gene Fowler Jnr’s I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) would take up the alien masquerade theme as a manifestation of gender angst. One of the many later films Siegel’s would clearly influence would be George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), with its similar sense of besiegement within the superficially normal and the terror of loved-ones become emotionless shells, although Romero would twist the idea with the ultimately more marketable concept of a total removal of identity.

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Siegel’s film would echo through a host of films both within and without the sci-fi and horror genres, lurking in the DNA of thrillers in the 1970s like The Parallax View (1973), where the humdrum turns menacing and the infrastructure of daily life becomes enigmatic and oppressive. So when it came time for Kaufman to make his version, he gave the ‘70s paranoid trip a fitting terminus in also bringing it full circle. The pod people motif involves the ironic creation of civilisation that works better according to civilisation’s own ideals where the zombie tale eyes the animalistic underside of social identity. Finney’s novel ended in an upbeat fashion as Bennell’s assault on the pod growing farm results in the aliens abandoning Earth, realising it’s too tough a planet to colonise. For once a Hollywood adaptation decided to go in another direction and embrace a grimmer outlook. The climactic sequence of Siegel’s film is justly immortal as Bennell reaches a busy stretch of highway, the pod people halting their pursuit in caution as Bennell enters the lanes of traffic bellowing out hysterical warnings, Siegel’s camera viewing Bennell’s sweaty, bedraggled, mad-eyed visage as he tries desperately to alert the world only to be lost amidst the din and disdain. The good doctor has become just another nut, as Siegel switches to one of his characteristic high-angle shots and zooms out from him, leaving him stranded in his pathos.

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This, the film finally seems to say, is what we’re all offered as a choice in life: to become braindead in conformity or to be a madman howling at cars in warning. Siegel’s initial cut of Invasion of the Body Snatchers dismayed test audience, so his backers, Allied Artists, and producers Walter Mirisch and Walter Wanger, shot a wraparound sequence that turned the bulk of the movie into a tale recounted by Bennell to patient but sceptical doctors, Hill (Whit Bissell) and Bassett (Richard Deacon), after Bennell is brought into a police station in a frazzled, near-hysterical, but lucid state. It’s usually considered an awkward and obvious appendage as has been excised from some prints, particularly as it despoils the perfection of the highway scene. But it’s never really bothered me, in part because the act of narrating the story gives the film context that engages the possibility of an unreliable narrator. The very end as Hill realises Bennell’s been telling the truth thanks to a very well-timed traffic accident, leaves us on a tantalising note: can any action be taken in time? And what about Bennell, on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion?

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Kaufman and Richter (Richter would go on to write Big Trouble in Little China, 1986, and direct The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, 1984, both movies that couldn’t find an audience but which became cult objects), in updating and transposing the original’s story, radically altered aspects of its meaning. The relatively unruffled hominess of the Ike-era small town setting is swapped out for the jostling, already mistrustful environs of a mid-1970s American metropolis, where the oddball is always on the boil and the architecture already seems encoded with a disdain for the human, thrusting pyramidal skyscrapers and facades of glass and steel cutting the human connections into cubist fragments. Where Bennell in the original has the noble task as town doctor of ministering to his local flock, Kaufman’s Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is tasked with seeking out filth and carelessness as agent of benign bureaucracy resented by those he surveys: he’s introduced as a looming face distorted in a peephole lens, and infuriates the manager of the swank restaurant he inspects as he insists an object he fishes out a bubbling dish is not a caper but a rat turd. Kauffman, renamed Kibner, is not just a psychiatrist but a writer of successful advice books, peddling fashionable New Age bromides to his audience. Belicec in the original seemed an avatar for Finney himself as a modestly successful and personable writer, so Belicec becomes Kaufman’s frustrated shadow in his version, a frustrated poet and angrily authentic bohemian. Belicec decries Kibner’s work even as he hopes to ride it for a little benefit, weeping by himself after failing to get a chance to read his work at Kibner’s book launch, even whilst running a mud bath with his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright).

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Kaufman makes his Invasion of the Body Snatchers a more literal horror movie than Siegel’s, with flashier camerawork mediating realism with a slow dissolution into a neo-expressionist nightmare, and extended sequences of nascent body horror and gore. And yet Kaufman takes a more leisurely and quirk-sensitive time in setting up the story with flashes of wit and menace as well as incidental characterisation. The credits unfold over visions of alien spores flocking on the surface of a strange planet and being disgorged into space, floating through the void before landing on Earth in rainfall, making the presence of the aliens explicit from the start. Kaufman zooms in to study the alien spores growing parasitically on Earth trees and eventually growing into small, blooming pods. Elizabeth picks one and tries to identify its species, whilst contending with her dentist husband Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle), who takes time out from watching football immersed with headphones on to come ravish her: theirs is a marriage that seems cheerful but has the quality of a college hook-up nearing its use-by date. The next morning Elizabeth awakens to find Geoffrey already well-dressed and acting in a taciturn, almost robotically severe manner, cleaning up the broken glass she kept the pod in on her bedside table, and spiriting out a strange load of matted material to a garbage truck.

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Whereas Siegel kept the slowly metastasising invasion in the shadows until the last portion of film, Kaufman offers, mostly through Elizabeth’s eyes at first, a sense of a cabal forming and taking grip. She glimpses Geoffrey meeting strangers around town, handing each-other strange objects wrapped in blankets or bags, unspoken accords forming. Michael Chapman, who had shot Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver two years earlier, was called upon here to expand his feel for inner city psychosis, expounded through shots that play with diffused and disturbed vision. Grainy zoom shots of ambiguous dealings. Faces seen through or reflected in distorting mirrors or glass, or looming out of shadows. One shot of Bennell hiding in a cupboard in Geoffrey and Elizabeth’s house is pure Expressionism. Handheld camerawork to capture a sensation of woozy, disoriented isolation. Chapman’s camera notes a man dashing across the street as it pans onto Elizabeth heading to work, faint screeching sounds and people starting to chase after the man unnoticed by her, just more city weirdness to tune out. Soon she’s pounding pavements seeing strangers all around on buses and the like who seem somehow charged with strangeness, the din and frenetic movement of the cityscape not quite obscuring the change at its heart. Bennell’s shattered windscreen, broken by an angry cook at the restaurant he shuttered, becomes a quasi-abstract pattern. It’s through this that Bennell and Elizabeth glimpse a panicky, urgently warning man they almost run down as he dashes in front of them: why, it’s Kevin McCarthy, still sounding the alarm, only this time to be swiftly run down and killed by pursuers.

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This inspired cameo gives Kaufman’s film less the lustre of a remake than a quasi-sequel, taking up where Siegel left off. He left Bennell as the incarnation of a world spirit crying out for attention and awareness, whilst Kaufman runs over it. Siegel himself appears later as a taxi driver. When Bennell takes Elizabeth to meet Kibner, the psychiatrist’s encompassing roster of condemnation and proposed causes for paranoid conviction now includes a disintegrating family unit and people who can’t handle responsibility because life is too confronting. Belicec sticks up for the bohemian spirit as bawls out Kibner’s book: “Where’s Homer? Where’s Kazantzakis? Where’s Jack London?” Meanwhile his wife Nancy accidentally draws attention to the problem of trying to alert people to disintegrating reality when one is already deeply plugged into New Age kookiness, as she brings up Von Daniken-via-Quatermass notions. Then again, who’s to say she’s wrong? The omnipresence of the garbage trucks in which the replicas dispose of the shrivelled remains of the replaced become Kaufman’s most bitterly amusing touch, the most fitting etude for a consumerist society to be deposited in the rubbish by a parasitical species.

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Despite their differences in outlook and temperament, Siegel and Kaufman were nonetheless united in their fascination with and determination advocacy for individualism. Perhaps indeed it’s one trait shared by just about any creative in the western tradition. Abel Ferrara’s awkward, misjudged 1992 version, which to a certain played as less as another remake than as a companion story simultaneous to Kaufman’s, nonetheless included one brilliant sequence rooted precisely in this artistic sense of humanity, in which the one remaining human child in a class is outed when the kids are all made to draw: the human offers colour and form whilst the aliens all come up with static-like fuzz. Kaufman’s sense of political parallel is more pointed and self-conscious, however. Kaufman senses in frustration an oncoming conservatism after the flowering of the Counterculture that would soon bring about Reaganism. Perhaps his most memorable tweak to the way Siegel presented the pod people was to give them a distinctive shriek they release to alert others of their kind when a normal human has detected them, usually with a finger thrust out in identifying accusation.

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This nerve-rattling touch gives the pod people a more immediately alien, monstrous quality, but also more draws out the notion of social horror acutely: the humans become the hated enemy, the deviation, that must be abhorred. Holocaust metaphors are hard to miss, particularly in a late scene in which Bennell watches, in deadpan distress, as a busload of school children are unwittingly ushered into a building to be assimilated. As in Siegel’s film, Kaufman builds to a sequence where Bennell and Elizabeth are confronted by the fake Kibner and Belicec, calm proselytisers for the change who Bennell finishes up killing in a terribly intimate struggle. Like Siegel, Kaufman would devote the rest of his career to celebrating gutsy people apart after having defined his personal nightmare. But where Siegel’s vision became increasingly antisocial, Kaufman tried to celebrate an ideal, helping create Indiana Jones and glorifying the Mercury astronauts and turning Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin into bohemian swashbucklers. Kaufman stages his take on the original film’s greenhouse scene out in Bennell’s backyard, where he, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are resting: Bennell falls asleep sprawled in a sun chair. Fine tendrils from one of the pods are seen attaching themselves to his body for the sake of absorbing his physiognomy and then mind.

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This brilliantly executed scene did for makeup and prosthetic effects what Star Wars had done for spaceship action the year before in showing an audience a sudden leap forward in a special effects art, presenting a convincingly corporeal vision of the replication of process, twitching, shivering bodies growing rapidly. Only Nancy’s interruption, screaming out to Bennell as she spies the malefic scene, awakens him and forestalls the process. Bennell hacks his replica to pieces with a shovel and the gang flee the house. In both films Bennell can’t bring himself to attack Becky’s replica and so attacks his own instead. Another of Kaufman’s great scenes, a moment charged with the essence of ‘70s screen culture, is a montage sequence in which Bennell tries to alert authorities from pay phones in the San Francisco downtown. Random voices from a distant regime fending off his warnings drone on audio as Kaufman’s visuals employ swooning hand-held camerawork, tracking Bennell as he wanders the city and makes his calls, all sense not just of structured society and authority disintegrating but reality along with it, as Bennell falls down the rabbit hole into complete disconnection from the world, the city completing its transformation from enveloping community to enemy territory.

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As the conspiracy busts loose and the heroes are driven out onto the streets, the style becomes increasingly baroque. Bennell, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are glimpsed under a flight of stairs, only their four sets of eyes visible through gaps in the woodwork, as their pursuers pound down the steps before them; then the fleeing foursome’s shadows are seen dancing upon the wall of the Embarcadero like they’ve become refugees from a Murnau film. Kaufman’s genuine engagement with the original is also nodded to in two sequences that are also inspired enlargements upon Siegel’s. In the original Bennell and Becky’s efforts to move undetected amongst the pod people by acting emotionless are foiled when Becky screams in concern for a dog that nearly gets hit by a truck. Kaufman has Bennell encounter the bedraggled, homeless busker Harry (Joe Bellen) who sleeps with his dog in the park: Bennell kicks at a pod lying near him to save him from assimilation, but later as Bennell, Elizabeth, and Nancy escape a locale teeming with pod people a grotesque chimera comes loping towards them, the dog with Harry’s head, tearing a scream from Elizabeth. It feel like a black-hearted gag taking aim at too-little too-late liberalism as well as an episode seeking some genuine perversity in the evocation of new frontiers of flesh.

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The second variation plays on a haunting sequence in Siegel’s where Bennell follows the sound of eerie music only to find it’s only on a radio ignored by the replica people working on a pod farm. In Kaufman’s version, this becomes a more expansively operatic moment as Bennell hears a mass bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” echoing from the waterfront and thinks they might be able to escape on a ship still crewed by humans, only to find as he ventures close that pods are being loaded onto the ships for exporting. The simultaneously mocking and plaintive sense of spiritual longing and human grandeur takes Siegel’s ironic scene to a new place here, all the more tragic in the sense of such art and feeling being erased. Perhaps the greatest moment in Siegel’s film comes when a completely exhausted Becky collapses as she and Bennell try to flee a cave where they’ve hidden. As Bennell tries to pick her realises she’s fallen asleep just long enough, no more than a few seconds, to be possessed by the aliens, her black eyes opening slowly with impassive and depthless regard: Siegel cuts from viewpoint to viewpoint – Bennell’s horrified reaction, eyes wide with shock and revulsion, mirrors the possessed Becky’s – as it becomes clear at last this is a nightmare there’s no waking up from.

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Kaufman’s version of the same moment is less immediately vivid, but it has its own sick power. Bennell returns from the waterfront to find Elizabeth asleep and lost. He sits cradling her body until it crumbles into a fibrous mess, and her replica arises from the scrub nearby, naked and remade as a blankly carnal thing that mocks the way Bennell and Elizabeth played at platonic friendship that finally became passion with the sarcastic permission of the alien invasion: Elizabeth becomes a mere body there’s no point in trying to make love to. Faced with the choice between honouring Finney or Siegel’s endings, Kaufman and Richter chose to do both, which makes for a slightly awkward if still vigorous set of climaxes. Fleeing the fake Elizabeth, Bennell comes across a warehouse where the pods are being cultivated, and he manages to lay waste to the place by dropping lighting rigs on the nursery and starting a fire. But faced with no chance to escape the city, Bennell returns to the Department of Health building and seems to make a play of operating normally amongst his colleagues, now all silent, pokerfaced, utterly futile beings for whom the workaday treadmill has become a robotic routine, a bleak and tedious reductio ad absurdum for all late capitalist life.

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The sting in the tale waits until the very last shots, as Bennell wanders solitary in the town only to encounter Nancy, who gives away her humanity by giving him a complicit grin: Bennell lifts a hand and points at her, releasing the demonic alien scream of accusation. Kaufman’s camera zooms into the black void of the screaming maw. It’s one of the most memorable and ghoulish endings in fantastic cinema, capping the movie with a note of bottomless angst and horror. And yet it’s also ambiguous. Many critics felt the end of Kaufman’s film implied there had never been much point fighting the pods and that the pod Bennell simply represented clapped-out acquiescence. But what does it mean that Bennell became a pod person? His yawing-mouthed cry evokes both his counterpart in Siegel’s film as he raved his desperate warning, and also his own choked-off scream as Elizabeth crumbles in his arms. Did he simply run out of steam, unable to keep himself awake? Did he give in because it was too painful to be alone? Or did he, as the last glimpses of him gazing at the replicated Becky possibly suggest, give in in order, in whatever pathetic, degraded, impotent state, to share it with her? The horror of the ending of Siegel’s film is that Bennell seems inhuman when bellowing and crying out in a most human way. The horror of Kaufman’s is that our most human need, for other humans, could lead us to abandon humanity.

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1960s, Film Noir

Point Blank (1967)

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Director: John Boorman

By Roderick Heath

John Boorman, born near the banks of the Thames in Middlesex in 1933, worked his way up to become head of a BBC documentary unit before his 30th birthday. Poised amidst a rising tide of young talents ready to break out of TV work and onto the film scene, Boorman got his chance when offered directorial duties on a film intended as a quick cash-in on the success of the Beatles-starring A Hard Day’s Night (1964) to showcase a rival pop band, the Dave Clark Five. The result, Catch Us If You Can (1965), gained him some attention, but only middling success. Boorman’s career took a hard swerve towards becoming a major Hollywood filmmaker when he encountered Lee Marvin. The towering, famously wild-living, but covertly intelligent and cultured actor was in London shooting The Dirty Dozen (1967). In spite of their diverse origins and experiences, the two men found themselves in close accord, and eventually decided to adapt writer Donald Westlake’s novel The Hunter as their first collaboration. They chose that property because both Marvin and Boorman liked its main character, Parker, who had featured in a string of Westlake’s books published under the regular pen name of Richard Stark. Marvin, who had gained serious clout in Hollywood since his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965), declared to Warner Bros. he was handing total control of the project to the sophomore director, presenting both filmmaker and actor a chance to make films completely according to their own instincts. Boorman, who would soon become alternately lauded and derided for his unique, erratic talent, seized the opportunity with both hands. He and Marvin would make two films together, both charged with Boorman’s eccentric vision and Marvin’s desire to explore his own complex and troubled psyche.
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Like his debut, Point Blank again only gained Boorman good reviews and tolerable box office, but it was destined to slowly emerge as the rock-steady base of his reputation amongst cinephiles and an archetype and benchmark for the cinematic adventurousness of the period, all the more interesting and rich for being matched to genre storytelling. In Boorman’s hands, the script, credited to Alexander Jacobs and David and Rafe Newhouse, was transformed into a fractured and hallucinatory experience, the filmmaking’s experimental bent meshing perfectly with a tale exploring mean justice, wintry love, and mysterious politicking. Above and beyond this, Point Blank reveals the director’s fascination with characters on journeys laden with mystical, even mythical overtones, already mooted in jokey fashion on Catch Us If You Can, emerging more fully in a context seemingly far removed from the remote and primal stages of Boorman’s later works like Hell in the Pacific (1968), Deliverance (1972), or The Emerald Forest (1984).
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The genre is film noir, the settings the chitinous environs of 1967 California, where the cyclopean vaults of highways and sweltering reaches of concrete and tar wear occasional flourishes of counterculture colour but more often lurk under the garish hieroglyphs of advertising, and homes have become blank, entrapping boxes of glass and brick. Boorman’s vision of this New World shore, like Richard Lester’s in Petulia (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s on Zabriskie Point (1970), is both dazzled and estranged, surveying vast stretches of prefab housing and modernist infrastructure like cities on the moon. But the overall tone of the film is oneiric, taking as both its key setting and stylistic gambit the environs of Alcatraz Prison, where blocks of rude geometry and twisting, gothic aesthetics are strangely mated, a dank dream heart for Boorman’s American nightmare to well from.
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Marvin plays Walker, a derivation of Parker, renamed for the film with a specific evocation of the man’s relentless movement, as well as to give him a subtle but definite distinctness from Westlake’s creation. He is first glimpsed awakening in the shadowy recesses of an Alcatraz prison cell, trying to remember how he got there. The opening credits come less in the traditional bracketing manner than wound into the film’s discombobulated texture, abstracted against the prison’s metal and stonework whilst the film captures Walker in the act of escaping in spite of terrible wounds, but not in motion, shot like tableaux vivants. The stuttering motion resembles film winding up towards proper speed, and Walker’s spiritual life is tethered to the texture of Boorman’s filmmaking. Slowly, in a skittering flow of images that eventually coalesce into something like traditional scenes, Walker’s memory returns, and with it Point Blank comes together from a miasma into something like a movie.
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Walker recalls his friend Mal Reese (John Vernon), who came begging him for succour in the midst of a frenetic, boozy party: so desperate was Reese that he socked the drunken, garrulous, distracted Walker, knocking him to the floor, and climbed down to shake the dazed man and plead for attention down amongst the jostling feet of the crowd. Reese, a criminal in big with a crime group referred to only as the Organization, has screwed up badly, and the only way he can make up a debt he’s incurred is to rob a mysterious transaction that takes place regularly on Alcatraz during which a helicopter arrives to pick up a load of something in exchange for a big haul of cash. Walker, an old pal of Reese’s, agreed to aid in the plot, but soon Reese, ready to push things to the limit, guns down the two bagmen at the Alcatraz drop-off. This job turned near-fatal for Walker because of two ominously conjoined elements: his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker), third partner in the robbery, was also having an affair with Reese, who realised that the split loot couldn’t cover his debt. So his solution was obvious—he gunned Walker down. Walker is glimpsed during the credits slowly and agonisingly making his way out of the prison and tackling the dangerous swim to the San Francisco shore.
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Boorman cuts to a year later when Walker, recovered, fit, with a cold, hollowed-out glow in his eyes, rides a tourist ferry to the island and converses with an enigmatic man (Keenan Wynn) who seems set on helping Walker exact revenge on Lynne and Reese, who bought his way back into favour and stature in the Organization with the proceeds of the heist, and gives Walker Lynne’s current address, a house high above L.A. Walker zeroes in on Lynne, an approach of fate she senses psychically, not empirically. She prepares like a pharaoh awaiting the angel of death, glimpsed dressing, making up, getting her hair done, all in static, entrapping frames replete with lenses and mirrors, whilst the image (and sound) of Walker on the march through the alien spaces of airports becomes a rhythm of menace and approaching reckoning. Walker thunders into her house and fires his gun into Lynne’s bed on the assumption Reese is in it, but all his bullets do is make smoking holes in the empty mattress, his load shot off impotently.
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Marvin had the inspiration on set to leave out all his own dialogue in the scene that follows, as Lynne robotically explains her own sad and sorry lot since his shooting of being used and discarded by Reese, whilst Walker sits in silent boding, emotions unreadable. Lynne sounds like someone whose nerve and sense of self has been worn out by guilt, still attached to her husband on a psychic level and able to answer his unspoken questions. This shot goes on forever, Boorman turning the frame into a merciless trap that Lynne can only escape through self-destruction. Her explanation, illustrated in more of Boorman’s jagged, contrapuntal flashbacks, depicts her relationship with Walker and Reese with sublime economy: Walker and Lynne’s first meeting (“It was raining…”) a romantic vignette with the younger Walker cockily charming Lynne as she dances about him and a gang of fishermen look; Walker’s reunion with Reese and the burgeoning of his, Lynne, and Reese’s friendship into something like an unspoken ménage-a-trois.
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Walker goes to sleep on her couch and sees his own actions replayed in languorous, analytical slow motion—the strange dance Lynne performed as he burst into the room and silenced her charged with a savage brand of intimacy; the jarring recoil of firing his gun depicted as a self-enervating force emphasised by Marvin’s physical acting, and followed by a dreamy shot of him emptying spent cartridges from his gun like he’s wasted his most vital seed. He awakens and finds Lynne has killed herself with an overdose, her body splayed like a forlorn husk on the sheets of her chic bed. Walker stumbles into her bathroom in a daze and accidentally knocks some of her perfumes and cosmetics into the sink, and stares dazedly into the stuff pooling there, the muck left behind by Lynne’s collapse, all the makings of her beautified façade now a psychedelic stew. Wynn’s mystery man, Walker sees, hovers outside, waiting for the conclusion of this first act in a campaign directed at the Organization.
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Westlake’s Parker was the definition of antihero, a cool, remorseless, virtually amoral career thief whose purpose was to buy himself extended periods of rest at the price of occasional forays into danger and crime in a world defined less by familiar morality than varieties of criminal enterprise. Boorman and Marvin’s Walker is just as hard-bitten and enigmatic, but emerges in the course of the film as a bundle of contradictions. Gifted in violence and detached from both its infliction and reception, he could be ancestor of such later hulking, remorseless bogeymen of screen lore as Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers or the titular cyborg of The Terminator (1984) when he sees his goal and marches after it with chilly focus. But Marvin, with that scooping nose like a cocked police special and sledgehammer chin poised with grim intent and eyes swivelling slyly under heavy lids, emphasises Walker’s strangely passive, almost bewildered state when he doesn’t have a clear goal in mind or given to him. He’s clearly well removed from the world of organized crime except when pressed by a real motivation, and he even seems rather boyish in glimpses of his younger self flirting with Lynne and when he’s drunk as Reese comes to him for help. There are hints Walker and Reese were once army buddies. Walker’s actual aim isn’t specifically revenge but to get his money, and he seems bewildered when one of his prey doesn’t believe this is his only motive. Hilariously, the sum he’s after is both too big and too small to be easily pried out of the Organization, which represents the criminal enterprise transformed into a modern big business, its fiscal layout all sublimely contained within ledgers.
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Walker buries Lynne in a cemetery perched on a hilltop above suburbs unfolding like lunar colonisation projects where it feels like even the intimacy of burial has become an instant consumer experience. Still with Wynn directing his efforts, Walker starts after Reese, following a breadcrumb trail first to Reese’s fellow middle-level members of the Organization, ‘Big John’ Stegman (Michael Strong), who has a day job as a smarmy car salesman. Walker shakes Stegman up by the novel means of luring him out for a test drive in one of his cars and then turning the car itself into a vehicle of torment, driving it wildly and jerkily until Stegman feels like he’s inside a washing machine. Stegman coughs up one vital piece of information: Reese now has designs on Lynne’s sister Chris (Angie Dickinson), who runs a nightclub called The Picture House that the Organization has taken over. Chris is resisting their efforts to exploit it and Reese’s advances with equal determination. Walker goes to the nightclub in search of her, but is met instead by several Organization goons. This sequence, theoretically a minor action scene, becomes another of Boorman’s fiendishly creative filmic arias, using the nightclub with its high psychedelic-era aesthetic. including pop art swathing the walls and a dynamic soul singer (Stu Gardner, who would later write The Cosby Show’s theme) on stage, as a place where underground nudges normality in surrounds deliberately contrived to resemble the cacophonous modern id with its dialogues of zeitgeists and images. This concept inflects the action on a deadly straight plane, as Walker fights off villains in the wings amidst churning movie projections and thundering noise. But it’s also reflected in a slyer, more blackly humorous way at the same time. The singer gets plump, pasty patrons to join him in screeching lyrics, and the screeches give way to a woman’s scream as she sees the sprawl of pummelled, writhing men left in Walker’s wake, whilst Walker himself lurks in a corner, volcanic cauldrons projected on his face.
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Although as a whole original, Point Blank reveals Boorman, like many young directors stretching their legs, referencing and remixing freely. The themes of corruption and cleansing, fate and chance, describe classic film noir territory, merely translated into an unfamiliar aesthetic. Point Blank was the product of a production template that had fashioned Marvin’s earlier collaboration with Dickinson and director Don Siegel, The Killers (1964). The result can be read as a spiritual sequel to Siegel’s work, albeit moving beyond Siegel’s atavistic but entirely immediate sense of human abnormality into a more overtly surreal and interiorised setting. As Boorman himself noted, one of Point Blank’s funniest scenes reverses a moment in Siegel’s film where Marvin roughs up Dickinson’s character—it’s Dickinson thrashing and beating Marvin, though Walker stops bothering to fight her off and instead stands stoic and unblinking, her fiercest blows bouncing off his chest, squinting at her all the time like one of those dinosaurs whose nervous systems don’t register fatal wounds for minutes. Boorman also trod in the footsteps of Sam Fuller’s Underworld USA (1961): Boorman, like Fuller, surveys crime as an extension of big business, the upper echelons of which have become a sterile zone populated not by bruisers and heavies, but rather by canny plotters and managerial sharks into which a man resurging from the realm of the dead crashes like a wrecking ball. Siegel’s harsh surveys of the prefab cubist wonders of postwar Californian landscapes, long prefigured in the likes of The Line-Up (1958), provide some of Boorman’s palette, much as Boorman’s would inflect Siegel’s on Dirty Harry (1971).
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But Boorman’s more radical efforts here reflect the strong imprint of a more fanciful breed of filmmaker, signalling the young director’s overboiling imagination and ambitions to move well beyond the prescribed limits of genre cinema. The jagged, often dizzyingly perched visuals, themes of interchangeable identity and resurrection, and islets of warped eroticism reference Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) as a significant touchstone, particularly apparent in a scene where one character dies falling from a rooftop. Orson Welles’ works surely also loomed in Boorman’s mind, in the obsessively baroque use of shadow and light, the fascination for strange environs and monstrous architecture, interest in power transactions between individuals, and distorted time as both method and motif. The fractured, subjunctive cutting and sound interpolation looks to France and the New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard had actually unofficially adapted one of the Parker novels the year before for Made in U.S.A. (although Godard, with characteristic wit, remade Parker into a lead role for Anna Karina), but Boorman’s approach owed more to Alain Resnais, who had found a way to translate psychological angst and evocation of a tormenting sense of past-in-present into the very texture of filmmaking, with works like Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Muriel (1963). Boorman repurposed his technique for a ghostly survey of the fallout of violence and feeling that seems much less opaque but that becomes, through such manipulation, an equally elusive statement on liminal experience and the slippery nature of character.
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Chris has both great attraction to her sister’s former husband (“The best part of Lynne was you.”) as well as deep internal conflict about it. She’s eventually driven to express that conflict in spectacular fashion, but it’s still not hard for Walker to talk her into helping him when this is added to the balance along with a desire for revenge for Reese’s virtual murder of both Walker and Lynne. Reese has been ordered by his immediate senior in the Organization, Carter (Lloyd Bochner), to hole up in his penthouse apartment under heavy guard in an attempt to bait Walker into an attack. Walker takes the bait, but twists the trap inside out, firstly by using Chris to penetrate the apartment and distract Reese, whilst he creates diversions to distract the guards and enter a neighbouring apartment. Whilst Walker interrogates Reese, he semi-accidentally causes him to stumble back over the railing of his balcony and plunge to the ground far below.
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Boorman’s sense of queasy eroticism crops up constantly throughout the film. Reese’s death comes humiliatingly when he’s naked, after a session in bed with Lynne, who’s actually desperately awaiting Walker to come and get him off her, and falling to his doom leaves his draping towel in Walker’s hand. Later, Boorman mischievously provides a sex scene between Chris and Walker where two men and two women, Walker, Reese, Lynne, Chris, are seen as interchangeable, urged along by seemingly perverse but actually entirely natural urges towards similar ends manifesting in sexual desire, the will to power, the search for an essential state of being. The violence they do to each other becomes the only way their egos can fend off dissolution into one another.

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Boorman would revisit this catalogue of vital motifs in different settings—the city men and rednecks of Deliverance, the immortals and savages in Zardoz, the warring, often magically disguised knights and sorcerers of Excalibur (1981), the dichotomous twins of The Tiger’s Tail (2008). Much like the hunt for the Grail in Excalibur, Walker’s mission has a stated, totemic goal but involves instead an attempt to understand what life is, what it can be, in the face of death. He grazes the edges of such life in Chris’s arms, and their last moments together evoke both their relative anonymity to one another (“What’s my last name?” Chris asks; “What’s my first name?” Walker replies), but also the truth in such bareness, something that also looks forward to the identity-void sexuality of Last Tango in Paris (1972). Simultaneously, thanks to Wynn’s mysterious sensei, Walker is set on the path to ruthless, methodical exposure of the food chain of the quasi-corporate mob, trying to find a beating heart somewhere that he can attack, and discovering, eventually, there isn’t one, only a shifting series of actors whose attempts to grasp the big brass ring set in motion their own downfall. Carter hires a pipe-smoking assassin (James B. Sikking) to take care of Walker and gets Stegman to be the bait, but Walker senses treachery in any meeting arranged by the Organization. He barges into Carter’s office, drags him out, and forces him to be the one who ventures into the assassin’s field of fire.
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This sequence, set in the Los Angeles River, is both a beautiful piece of staging, with Boorman utilising the vistas of the setting and the human architecture of his actors in alternations of grandeur and diminution, and also a vital nexus of references. Boorman locates the same discomfort in the locale Gordon Douglas exploited for scifi-accented ends in Them! (1954), that myth of atom-age horror, whilst the mechanics of the scene reference the similar punishment-by-substitution in a hard classic of noir, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946): the psychic precincts of two disparate genres combined to describe the new age. The assassin does Walker the neat service of killing both Stegman and Carter (in fact, Walker, for all his potent gestures and aura, doesn’t kill anyone in the film), and so Walker has to move another step up the Organization’s food chain to Brewster (Carroll O’Connor), a fatuous executive whose house Walker and Chris occupy at Wynn’s direction. Brewster, arriving in town in a private jet, shrugs off Sikking’s assassin when he wants to be paid for his perfectly executed killing of the wrong target, and instead suggests he go talk to another of the Organization’s bosses, Fairfax, or better yet, kill him, too. Walker is able to capture Brewster once he arrives home, and he nervously, but honestly explains to Walker the basic problem: the Organization barely works with cash anymore. The only option open to him to obtain what he seeks forces him to (nearly) return to the setting that put him on this path, the money drop in San Francisco, which has been shifted from Alcatraz to the Presidio.
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This sequence provides the last, most beguiling, but also inscrutable stage in Walker’s journey, as it proves not to be the culmination of his efforts, but those of Wynn, who is revealed to be the last, hitherto unseen Fairfax. He has engineered the whole business because his underlings were planning to unseat him and has the assassin gun down Brewster to set the seal on the business. Fairfax then call for Walker to come out and take his pay, but Walker remains hovering in the shadows until the assassin emerges, whilst Fairfax becomes increasingly angry, shouting out, “I pay my debts!” But Walker has learnt a lesson, and he retreats into the darkness. Boorman scans Brewster’s dead, splayed body on the bricks of the Presidio, from high above, pulls back and scans the San Francisco vista before zooming in again on Alcatraz, as if closing the loop on a circle.
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Some have seen this shot as proof that Walker died, and that all we’ve seen is simply his dying fantasy turning into desperate existential surrender. But to me, Point Blank is ultimately not reducible to such a literal resolution. What is certain is that Walker, at the end, sees his mission as fruitless, the final prize illusory and doomed to lead him into the same trap he stepped into before. He will remain a ghost haunting the underworld, literally or not. Boorman felt that for Marvin, who had been badly wounded in his gruelling WWII service and carried both physical and figurative scars throughout his life, Walker became the vessel of his angst, and so Point Blank is both an oblique investigation of his experience and its most specific exploration. It’s a statement purely dedicated to exploring that strange state of being, at once dead and alive, cold and loving, perpetually afraid and entirely justified, empty of knowledge and gifted with wisdom.

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