Is “Point Blank” a Ghost Story?

by <Original Source>

If you haven’t seen the 1967 movie Point Blank, stop reading now and watch it. It’s easily the best artsy crime movie I’ve seen from that era (a list that includes some real classics) and if you’re at all into art films or crime movies, you won’t regret it.

Now, for those who know the movie (or don’t mind a few spoilers), I want to discuss the most common conjecture about it: that the main character, “Walker,” is meant to be a ghost.

Just to briefly review the plot: Walker (Lee Marvin) is a small-time criminal who helps his friend with a heist at the (recently shuttered) Alcatraz prison. After the job, his friend shoots Walker in order to steal his share of the money and run off with Walker’s wife (who he’s already been having an affair with), leaving Walker for dead on the island. Despite his injuries, Walker manages to stagger into the water and start swimming. A year later, he shows up alive and well, looking for revenge and his share of the money. His friend is now a well-established member of a corporatized mafia called the Organization, and Walker spends the rest of the movie hunting down one Organization member after another to get his money.

There are a lot of hints that what we’re seeing isn’t quite real: the odds against a gravely wounded man being able to make that strenuous swim across the San Francisco bay; the ending, in which Walker appears to vanish once he finally gets his money; a few ambiguous lines; and some general elements of the cinematography.

After re-watching the movie recently, I was struck by something else: Walker never actually kills anyone. Instead, his presence induces them to kill themselves and each other.  The closest he comes is in the famous scene where John Vernon goes off a balcony during their struggle, and even then it’s somewhat ambiguous how deliberate that was on Walker’s part, especially since his last lines before it happens are “I’m taking you to Carter [the mob boss] — we’re going to do this one together,” suggesting that he’s planning to keep him alive at least a bit longer to help get his money.

Every death in the movie could be explained without Walker’s presence. His wife’s suicide, of course, could have just been a matter of her own guilt. (Her one-sided dialogue with Walker beforehand is the scene where he seems the most unreal.) In the balcony scene, Angie Dickinson’s character was there too and could have easily been the one to push him off — remember, her character hated the Organization just as much, because they’d killed her boyfriend when he wouldn’t sell them his nightclub. The two men shot at the storm drain could easily have been set up by Fairfax (the final surviving mob boss), just as he apparently set up his rival Carol O’Connor at the end. As this essay points out:

[Walker] has apparently been used as an instrument of furthering Fairfax’s position in the “company”, but he has also used Fairfax to allow him to act with impunity. In fact they have used each other to their mutual benefit.

The whole thing reminded me a bit of Michael Haneke’s Caché, in which the identity of a cryptic stalker is left unresolved, leaving viewers (including Roger Ebert) to pore over the details of the film looking for clues as to who it really was. I wonder if a similar exercise would reveal that Angie Dickinson or the little-seen Fairfax were plausibly behind the whole chain of deaths in Point Blank. If so, that would mean the story was not Walker’s dying fantasy, nor a traditional ghost story in which the ghost has real agency in killing people or driving them to their deaths, but rather a sort of alternate explanation of real events, a set of different means to the same ends. The conversations that each character had with Walker may have been hallucinatory or just speculative, while their interactions with each other and the way they died were still completely real. And what would that make Walker’s character exactly? Not the amoral, existential anti-hero that he’s usually described as, but more of the passive observer type of ghost, watching along with us as the same type of criminal corruption that killed him goes on to grind through the lives of his associates.

Whether you buy my theory or not, a lot of the standard rhetoric about the film is just wrong. Most importantly, Walker is not amoral and does not seem totally indifferent to human life and suffering. He’s not a human battering ram leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. There are lots of scenes where you would have expected such a character to just shoot someone dead (particularly his wife when he first comes back) but he never does. He spends the whole movie waving a gun around, but only fires it once, into an empty bed.

The novel behind Point Blank, The Hunter, presumably treats the character as completely alive and real, given that it was followed by twenty sequels. And the later adaptations of the book — with Chow Yun-Fat (1992), Mel Gibson (1999) and Jason Statham (2013) — seem to treat him as more of a standard action hero. But none of that means that Point Blank wasn’t up to something more complicated. I’m just still not sure we know exactly what it was.