On August 25th 1977, the Walker Art Center screened two films as part of its tribute to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: Sam Peckinpah’s second feature film, Ride the High Country (1962), and John Boorman’s trippy actioner Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin in what may be his most iconic role. (Point Blank also played, incidentally, as part of the Walker’s Summer Music & Movies series in 1999.) A double-feature that would surely inspire fist-clenched euphoria in any fan of classic Hollywood action movies, Ride the High Country and Point Blank remind us of a time when action movies bankrolled by major American studios—at least when commandeered by gung-ho iconoclasts like Peckinpah, Boorman, Samuel Fuller, or Robert Aldrich—could pulsate with more subversive energy and intense creativity than many other Hollywood releases. They were tough-guy movies, but they also happened to be unassumingly smart (and distinctly weird).
The 1970s saw the swift decline of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which at one point had been arguably the wealthiest and most elegant of the Hollywood studios. Their roster of stars once included Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, William Powell, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy, and their staff of directors featured such names as King Vidor, Erich von Stroheim, and Tod Browning. This is the company that, in 1939, released both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Under the semi-tyrannical rule of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, MGM was synonymous with Tinseltown elegance.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, however, MGM—even more than contemporaries such as Paramount and Warner Bros.—underwent a drastic decline that coincided with the increasing popularity of television and several court cases that limited the oligopolistic power of the Hollywood studios over American film production, distribution, and exhibition. This negative trend continued into the 1970s, a decade which saw MGM decrease its rate of production, close numerous sales and distribution offices, sell large portions of its backlot to other production companies, and focus its energies on its more lucrative hotel and casino establishments. Even at this low point, however, MGM’s esteem and vast collection of classics were great enough to garner retrospectives from national cinematheques and arthouses like the Walker—comparatively rare tributes not to directors or stars, but to a movie studio.
Ride the High Country was Peckinpah’s second film after the low-budget The Deadly Companions; most avid Peckinpah fans consider it his first great movie and the first indicator of his thematic interests (among them the difficulty of upholding honor and justice in a corrupt society, the destruction of the Old West and its myths by encroaching modernity, and camaraderie among men). It concerns two aging ex-lawmen, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), old friends who are hired to transport a shipment of gold from a mining camp to a bank. The two men actually plan to steal the gold right from under the noses of the industrialists who have hired them (more as a matter of principle than of wealth), but these plans are unsettled by a young, reckless sidekick named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) who falls in love with a young woman named Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley). (Even the names of the three male protagonists are satisfyingly true to Western form.) Elsa is engaged to marry a horrific, drunken miner who plans to prostitute her to his equally despicable brothers; when the trio of heroes rescues her from the mining camp, they also gain a threesome of psychotic villains on their tail, further disrupting their planned heist. The sequence in which Elsa is nearly raped by both of her fiancé’s brothers is intense, rapidly-edited, and disturbingly nasty in a way Peckinpah could manage better than nearly anyone else—one of several sequences in Ride the High Country that point towards the brutal yet operatic treatment of violence for which Peckinpah would eventually be known.
Another standout scene which predates (and, in some ways, rivals) Peckinpah’s later films, with their aesthetic precision and breathless intensity, is the final shootout sequence. Westrum and Judd approach the three villainous brothers proudly, confidently; guns are drawn, the wind is still, good and evil are demarcated more clearly than they will be in later Peckinpah films. But the meticulous style of this climax clearly belongs to this director: editing with increasing swiftness between swooping crane shots, low-angle dollies, and off-center close-ups, all of which take full advantage of the widescreen CinemaScope format, Peckinpah both embraces the Western genre and points towards the stylistic and thematic changes it would undergo throughout the following two decades. (Paradoxically, Peckinpah was both a purist and a revisionist.)
Since this was one of Peckinpah’s first studio jobs, however, Ride the High Country exhibits little of the grubby nastiness to be found in later films like Straw Dogs or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The director was not yet able to fully embrace his predilection for brutal, somber fatalism. Death and violence in this film are tragic, but not apocalyptic; at times the tone is even light and comedic, as in this early fight scene (with its priceless reaction shot of Westrum and Judd protecting some fine chinaware). It wasn’t until 1965’s Major Dundee—financed by Columbia—that Peckinpah would gain a reputation as a renegade troublemaker, consistently drunk onset, ignoring producers, abusing his cast, and firing crew members for little to no reason. Ride the High Country, on the other hand, was a relatively problem-free production, one of MGM’s finest Westerns and the work of a director continuing to hone his craft and develop his artistic sensibility.
If Ride the High Country offers solid craftsmanship with subtle indications of its director’s uniqueness, Point Blank goes much further: it’s one of the most psychedelic, bizarre, mind-expanding action movies ever made. It also may be the best showcase that Lee Marvin ever received, a role tailor-made for the actor’s almost hyperbolic manliness and gruff iconicity. (Marvin didn’t even have to speak in most of his roles—his one-of-a-kind face, with its toughness seemingly etched in stone, did all the talking for him.)
Marvin plays Walker, a professional thief who is betrayed by longtime friend and partner Mal Reese (John Vernon). At a post-robbery drop point (atmospherically set at the recently-abandoned Alcatraz prison), Reese shoots Walker and absconds with a small fortune, $93,000 of which rightfully belongs to Walker (Reese also manages to flee with Walker’s wife and partner-in-crime). Left for dead in one of Alcatraz’s barren cells, Walker stirs back to hallucinatory life in a completely insane prologue which shuffles back and forth in time (and space) without even trying to ease the viewer comfortably into the proceedings. After recuperating, Walker makes it back to San Francisco and seeks vengeance, single-mindedly and viciously, against Reese and against the monolithic Organization, a crime syndicate headed by a series of increasingly shadowy villains. In the amoral, existential world of Point Blank, Walker isn’t that much more heroic than any of the badguys he offs—it’s mostly an arbitrary matter of principle that sets him on the side of good rather than evil (in reality, he just wants his share of the take from the last heist). Point Blank’s dreamlike coolness and psychedelic nihilism accommodate a loose interpretation of the film: that Walker does, in fact, die at the beginning, and that the rest of the film is his mindless, inhuman quest through hell, defined by alienation, violence, greed, and meaninglessness.
Yes, it’s the same plot as Mel Gibson’s Payback (both films are based on Richard Stark’s novel The Hunter), but the two movies couldn’t be further apart. In fact, Lee Marvin only agreed to star in the film with the assurance that John Boorman would direct—and the first thing Boorman did was throw out the script, making up the chronology and much of the dialogue as they filmed. This helps to explain the disorienting leaps in space and time (and logic), but only Boorman’s intuitive skill as a vibrant pop-philosophical stylist can explain the astounding visceral setpieces in Point Blank. Marvin’s footsteps echoing ominously as he ferociously stomps through a fluorescent hallway; a bubbling brew of perfumes and otherworldly liquids commingling in the sink of a mod apartment bathroom (see below); Marvin’s aggressive torture of a suspect by ramming his car relentlessly against two concrete pillars under a highway overpass—these scenes are breathtakingly intense, raw and angry, as cool and terse and irresistibly mean as Marvin’s antihero. Point Blank is still the strangest, most electrifying, most unsettling action movie Hollywood ever made, a pinnacle of style and overwhelming soullessness made, astoundingly, by a studio that used to be the most powerful in Hollywood. It’s a product of its time and place: a distressed howl of late-1960s anomie, with a main character who finds it so difficult to discern a meaning for his existence that he (like the U.S. itself in the ensuing years) comes to desperately embrace violence as his very essence.