Two films: both set in the two major Californian cities (San Francisco for one, Los Angeles for the other), both plotted around fictionalised activities of the real-life crime syndicate The Chicago Outfit, and both star vehicles for a coolly stoic leading man. Their characters, however, exist on different sides of the law, and despite both films belonging to the same amorphous canon of late-60s New Hollywood crime pictures, Bullitt and Point Blank (starring, respectively, Steve McQueen and Lee Marvin) make for an illuminating study in contrasts. Each film is organised around its central character, with the latter offering a jagged, hallucinatory plunge into a subterranean criminal underworld, while the former – both the film and its eponymous character – a model of cool professionalism.
Bullitt is mostly famous for the nerve-wracking car chase sequence at the film’s midpoint, but otherwise it’s a leisurely-paced police procedural, with an almost documentary-like rendering of its San Fran locales (a specificity of location that director Peter Yates would again bring to his superb 1973 Boston crime saga The Friends of Eddie Coyle). The name "Frank Bullitt" alone suggests an extreme case of nominative determinism, and his lack of backstory implies an existence defined by the no-nonsense professionalism on display (a love interest, played by Jacqueline Bisset, doesn’t seem to figure into his life much at all). When that professionalism falters, and the star witness he was supposed to protect is assassinated, he embarks on a mission of revenge driven as much by wounded pride as moral outrage (“To you, it was a job and no more”, one of his superiors accosts him). The film ends with another chase sequence, this time on an airport tarmac at night with both hero and villain made diminutive by the abyss-like expanse above them – a literalisation of the film’s unfussy existential undercurrent that led Renata Adler to promise “its ending should satisfy fans from Dragnet to Camus."
Point Blank likewise concerns a stony-faced man (Walker, played by the gaunt, imposing Marvin) on a single-minded mission, but director John Boorman’s approach to his pulp material can hardly be considered ‘unfussy’. As much as Jean-Luc Godard reinvigorated noir tropes seven years earlier with Breathless, Boorman wastes no time setting his film apart from the average Hollywood crime film, with editing that fragments the short timeframe of Walker’s double-crossing and murder by his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) and best friend Mal (John Vernon) during a heist on the defunct Alcatraz prison. We instantly share Walker's confusion and disorentation upon being betrayed, and we're prepared for a film that, with its non-linear progression and heightened sense of reality, always feels like it could be Walker's own hallucination as he lies dying in a jail cell. The sense of temporal discolation reveals the influence of director Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad), and was in turn homaged by Steven Soderbergh in his underseen 1999 cockney-in-L.A. revenge thriller The Limey (Boorman’s film was also remade - or rather, untangled - the same year into the comically macho Mel Gibson vehicle Payback). Equally noteworthy is the extreme stylisation in composition, colour and choreography of bodies; a wordless, musical-like flashback scene in which Walker and Lynne, at the peak of their romance, are circled on a pier by a group of gawking sailors is emblematic of the friction between the film’s flamboyant form and hardboiled content.
The steely Marvin might not smile once in the film’s present tense, but the film isn't humourless, and Walker’s mission – the pursuit of his share of the score – is ultimately a romantic one; an attempt to restore the equilibrium between the three parties involved, rather than enacting eye-for-an-eye vengeance. He’s at once entirely confident and out of step with a world that’s left him for dead, and accordingly, fifty years since moderate box office and faint praise from critics, Point Blank looks and feels more modern than nearly every 'reinvention' of the genre made in its wake.
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