I had the great pleasure of being invited to have lunch with John Boorman during his visit to the IU Cinema. He was so sharp and intelligent, and he told wonderful stories. I ushered a screening of Point Blank just so I could hear him talk. I loved the movie, but at the time seeing it was more of a bonus compared to Boorman’s stories about making it.
Boorman’s versatility has served him well throughout his career. It has allowed him to make many different kinds of films and satisfy different types of audiences. But he has achieved something special with Point Blank and The General. Both films are about driven, principled criminals and are made with great technical creativity. They differ in several respects, but are united by the clear-eyed intelligence and clever storytelling that are trademarks of John Boorman’s work as a filmmaker. The two crime films were made 31 years apart, but bear some interesting resemblances. A viewing of both films reveals stylistic and narrative similarities that enhance the audience’s enjoyment of both films.
Point Blank and The General begin with their protagonist having a close brush with death. Walker (Lee Marvin) is shot very early on in Point Blank. Walker then has flashbacks to the events that have resulted in his shooting. The General begins with the murder of Martin Cahill, and the remainder of his life story is told in flashbacks. Both opening sequences give what comes next a tinge of mortality. For Point Blank, that results in a dreamlike feeling that makes everything seem stranger. The General, however, feels even more lively for having shown us Cahill’s death. It revels in the belief that if the protagonist can die, then anything can happen.
Crime films often move from point A to point B in linear time, like The Godfather or Scarface. There are some exceptions, such as how Goodfellas begins in the middle of its story. But Boorman’s more avant-garde fracturing of time in these crime films shows a willingness to experiment with how these narratives are told. It reminds me of something Boorman said to me when we were at lunch. I had just told him that I was planning to direct a short film, and he jokingly asked me, “Does it have a beginning, a middle, and an end?” These two films do have those three temporal elements, but Boorman shifts them around into something new and exciting. This shuffling of events also reflects the mindsets of their protagonists, and Boorman accordingly shapes these two films around the actors who portray them.
Lee Marvin was a well established star at the time he was cast in Point Blank. As Boorman said in several Q&As, Marvin had approval of the script and the principal cast, which he deferred to his then unknown director. Marvin’s exceptional performance as Walker is reserved and somewhat alien. This contributes to the film’s oneiric quality, as if what happens after the flashbacks is imagined by Walker during or after his death. It’s a strange and brave performance, the kind that takes a leap of faith on the part of an audience and a director.
The General, on the other hand, was one of Brendan Gleeson’s first major leading roles. He had prominent supporting parts in Braveheart and Michael Collins, but this was one of the first times he got to carry a film on his own. The audience can practically feel how excited he is to have a movie built around him, and this helps contribute to the energetic tone of The General. Indeed, Gleeson’s performance as Cahill is frequently the opposite of Marvin’s as Walker.
Walker was often silent, and Cahill is frequently talkative. Walker has one clear objective, which is the recovery of the $93,000 he is owed for a heist. Cahill takes part in several heists through The General, and his mind works best when he has several schemes cooking simultaneously. Walker was fictional, and he often seems like a mythic figure throughout Point Blank. Cahill was a real person who actually robbed Boorman’s house in Ireland. He stole the gold record that Boorman received for the song Dueling Banjos from Deliverance. According to Boorman, Cahill was apparently irate that the record was not real gold. This led to a scene in the film where Cahill breaks a stolen gold record in disgust. In real life, when Boorman’s record was destroyed, a replacement was provided for it. This replacement gold vinyl is now a part of the John Boorman collection at the Lilly Library.
Walker and Cahill do share some similarities. Both are criminals who prefer cash to credit. Both have a type of integrity that makes them more sympathetic protagonists. They also run rings around an antagonistic figure who is exasperated by their idiosyncrasies. In Point Blank, that role is filled by Carroll O’Connor as an angry mob boss. Jon Voight reunited with Boorman, his director on Deliverance, to portray this archetypal part in The General as a policeman who respects Cahill’s decency, but is infuriated at his ability to outsmart him.
Point Blank and The General have unorthodox approaches to color. Point Blank was Boorman’s first movie that wasn’t made in black and white, and in the Q&A after the film he said that he felt uncomfortable with shooting in color. He did want to make expressive use of it, though. This led him to frequently shoot scenes in just one color. For example, the grey of the curtains in a scene between Walker and his ex-wife matches the color of their clothes. This helps contribute to the avant-garde quality of Point Blank and reflects Walker’s single-minded pursuit of his money. With The General, on the other hand, Boorman returned to black and white. The black and white cinematography makes the film feel cleaner and more focused than if it were in color. It helps the audience focus on the story, performances, and camerawork of the film, as well as the complexity of Cahill’s robberies.
Boorman frequently uses technically excellent filmmaking to accomplish simple tasks in both films. Point Blank perfectly communicates Walker’s obsessive nature by making the sound of his footsteps very loud in one sequence. Boorman jumps decades ahead in time through a simple whip pan in The General. It really says something about Boorman’s intelligence and attention to detail that he can make such small moments essential to his films. I believe accomplishing brief yet essential tasks in a memorable manner is the essence of smart filmmaking. If nothing else, these two films prove that Boorman is a great practitioner in the tradition of intelligent filmmaking.
Point Blank, The General, Hope and Glory, Queen and Country, Zardoz, and Deliverance were among the films screened during IU Cinema’s John Boorman: Conjurer of Cinema Film Series in October. Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather screened along with the rest of The Godfather Trilogy as part of the Happy Birthday, IU Cinema! Film Series last January as we celebrated our 5th anniversary.
Jesse Pasternack is a junior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed two short films.