Parker is many different people at the same time. He’s a lover, a hater, a criminal, a vigilante. He’s driven by greed, but then he doesn’t care about money. He’s driven by revenge, but then he doesn’t seem to know when he’s gotten it. In John Boorman’s Point Blank, Parker’s not even Parker — he’s “Walker”, a change made for reasons unknown. Lee Marvin is the man in the role for this go-round, but again, Parker’s never the same guy twice. Marvin was only the first to walk in Parker’s shoes (park in Walker’s?), followed over the years by Jim Brown (Parker changed to “McClain”), Robert Duvall (“Macklin”), Peter Coyote (“Stone”), Mel Gibson (“Porter”) and Jason Statham (finally, just “Parker”). Technically, there are as many Parkers as there are James Bonds.
One of the few people who rival the bank-robbing Parker in terms of crisis of identity is Parker’s real-life creator Donald E. Westlake. Westlake has more than a hundred books — hardboiled crime novels, comic capers, science fiction yarns, nonfiction, biographies and, oh, let’s not forget: porn — to his credit, very few of which are actually published under his name. Westlake had no fewer than seventeen pseudonyms over the course of his lengthy writing career. Curt Clark, Tucker Coe, Barbara Wilson, Judson Jack Carmichael — they’re all Westlake, though none of them are.
This moniker-shuffling was usually employed for the hell of it, but it’s probably a safe assumption that Westlake published under different names out of necessity at least once or twice. In 1959 he published a book as James Blue, ostensibly because his other names (including, you know, his actual name) were already published in magazines that maintained exclusive publishing deals with certain authors. A little contract-skirting here and there never hurt anyone, right? James Blue was the name of Westlake’s cat. Between 1959-64, a guy named Allan Marsh or Allan Marshall churned out nearly thirty “romantic novels” that were essentially softcore pornography, with such colorful titles as Apprentice Virgin. Allan’s really Westlake, of course, which explains why the porno novel So Willing is dedicated to Westlake’s wife. Or, wait. Does that explain it?
Westlake’s first and most prolific alter-ego is Richard Stark, the name under which all of the Parker novels are published. The Hunter is the one that Point Blank adapts (ditto Payback, the Mel Gibson one, decades later) and by all accounts it’s a classic revenge tale. The master thief is double-crossed by his partner and left for dead, leading to a quick recovery and a whirlwind tour up the criminal food chain. The original title is apt, despite the fact that no film adaptation sees fit to use it: the hunted has become the hunter.
Marvin plays Walker with a cool sense of remorselessness for the majority of Point Blank. At the start of the film he’s manic, seeing red, kicking down doors and emptying his gun before he even bothers to check whether anyone’s in the room worth killing. He pumps a pillow full of bullets then realizes his enemy isn’t in bed. But as the film goes on and Walker ticks off more and more bad guys, Marvin swings from red-hot to cool-and-calculating. In one scene he hops in a Pontiac GTO for a test drive with a car salesman who’s also involved with Walker’s betrayal, so we figure he’s about to give this guy the ride of his life. He certainly does, but he calmly puts on his seatbelt first. The salesman waves his hand and says he doesn’t need it, but Walker knows better: “Most accidents happen within three miles of home.”
As Marvin stands motionless in the shadows at the end of the film, Walker might have come full circle from the seething, blind revenge-seeking maniac of the beginning of Point Blank. In this Marvin fits the role beautifully, as he convincingly portrays not only both extremes but also the tough journey from one to the other. He’s not the best Parker (at least in my book), but hey, he’s a hell of a lot better than Jason Statham.
It’s director John Boorman who’s a bit of an odd choice here, because while Marvin seems to “get” Westlake’s hardboiled noirish vibe Boorman seems to be shooting for the stylized, dreamlike imagery of his more fantastical films like Zardoz and Excalibur. Sometimes it works — the fight scene in the mean-lit club is cool — but most of the time it’s extremely distracting. The beginning of the film is really the only piece of evidence you need: Walker’s betrayal, the impetus for the entire film, occurs in the first ten seconds. He’s shot and left for dead all while the title of the film is still fading in and out. If you’re watching this in theaters you might still be trying to figure out which portion of the armrest to claim as your own and which to relinquish to that guy next to you. That’s point-blank filmmaking, alright.
On the whole, though, Point Blank captures the drive of Westlake’s most famous character (whatever his name is). His may not be the original honor-amongst-theives revenge tale, but I’d submit that Westlake’s influence on the American crime genre is greater than most would give him credit for. Unless you’re content with reading the hundred-odd books Westlake put out (except those naughtier ones, naturally), Point Blank is a good place to start. For now, here’s an awesome fan-made trailer: