I’ve been a consumer of countless crime fiction novels, films, and television for most of my life now—from eras ranging from Raymond Chandler to Elmore Leonard to Dennis Lehane—yet still I find myself pausing to ask this bleeding question: what the hell does neo-noir ever mean?
Most commonly, people refer to neo-noir as anything that follows the template of the classical film noir era, which occurred in the 1940s and '50s. For that reason, films like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential often get labeled as neo-noir, but I find it difficult not to see this as a misnomer. Those films carry an authenticity that makes me feel that they were really part of the classical era.
Other people take the word more literally and feel it applies to noir-esque films with science-fiction elements in them, such as Blade Runner. But, more often than not, the noir themes in these films tend to be overshadowed by the spectacle.
Even some filmmakers seem to be less than privy to the term (don’t count on the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino ever describing their films as neo-noir). And when I talk about film in my favorite genre of cinema, you best believe I drop the “neo” in most cases. That said, there are still a handful of films I feel are best described by the aforementioned term. For that reason, I believe John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank ranks as the best neo-nor ever made.
An adaptation of The Hunter—the 1st Parker novel from Donald E. Westlake (under the pen name Richard Stark), which currently has been adapted for film three times and once as a graphic novel—the film stars veteran tough-guy actor Lee Marvin as a career criminal named Walker. After performing a heist on Alcatraz with his partner Mal (John Vernon in his first big role), Walker is betrayed when Mal shoots him, leaves him for dead, and then exits with his money and wife (Sharon Acker). Somehow, Walker survives the shooting, and the rest of the film details Walker’s revenge in a rather surreal fashion.
Sure, it’s a fairly re-hashed storyline (which is probably why the other film adaptations of The Hunter aren’t so well-remembered), but Point Blank finds its ethos in the execution. While British filmmaker John Boorman has had a most eclectic filmography (this is the guy that directed Zardoz right after Deliverance), Point Blank remains his most satisfying and all-encompassing film overall.
Being one of the first Hollywood films to incorporate techniques from the French New Wave movement, Boorman brought a layer of complexity and vision to his crime film that made it transcend its base in genre. It featured a non-linear plot, calculated use of mise-en-scène, and a sense for lighting and color that often verged on psychedelic (a fight sequence set in a night club remains one of the trippiest action scenes I can think of). Sure, it had testosterone, but its subdued tone gave it a feeling that was closer to Roberto Rossellini than Sam Peckinpah.
In fact, the film proved so dreamy that, over the years, theories have arisen questioning how much of it is actually real for protagonist Walker. Perhaps the most popular theory about the film is the belief that Walker really did die at the film’s opening and the rest of the movie is a death fantasy for the character. People stand by this theory since the film has a lot of flashback sequences, an abstract path, and an ending that’s particularly ambiguous. We never even see how Walker recovers from his bullet wounds, and the film even ends with a shot of the Island of Alcatraz, which some people have inferred means that the character never left there in the first place.
Boorman, however, has shrugged at these theories, saying that “what you see is what you get” with Point Blank. Regardless of this dismissal, others have continued to have philosophical interpretations of the film, including filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (who regularly calls the film a great influence for him), who sees it as an examination on memory. The most Boorman has said about the movie’s subtext, however, is that Point Blank is inspired by the monstrosities that Lee Marvin experienced in World War II and his subsequent gestation to regain his humanity afterwards.
In today’s cinematic climate, the one crime film that bears a similar aesthetic resonance to Point Blank (and passes my neo-noir exam) is Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. Like Boorman did five decades earlier, Refn applied European arthouse stylings to a script written for what was intended to be a generic thriller—and the results certainly appealed to a wide range of critics.
What keeps Drive from being as timeless as its predecessor, however, is that it just doesn’t have the existential mantra that Point Blank so silently implants. By comparison, Refn is an exploiter and Boorman a philosopher, which is why Point Blank is one of the most unheralded classics of the 60s, even 49 years after its release.
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.