French filmmakers have been so in love with American crime movies that they gave one strain its name: film noir. For me, this kind of film is summed up in a single image. In Detour, Ann Savage’s character has taken the phone into the other room to call the police. Tom Neal’s character yanks on the cord that runs under the door, trying to pull it out of her hands, not realizing that the cord is wrapped around her neck, that he’s strangling her. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
The world of noir is a world where small crimes lead to large ones, where good intentions don’t count, where appetite rules the day, and where the line between good and evil is often lost in darkness. Point Blank (Á bout portant) isn’t exactly an example of film noir. It’s more of an action thriller, but it borrows the imagery of noir: the gritty streets of Night and the City, the subdued lighting of, well, all of them. And it’s not a remake of the 1967 Lee Marvin movie based on Donald Westlake’s novel. Its closer cousin is Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, about a man struggling to prove his innocence for a crime he didn’t commit. At one point, our hero, played by Gilles Lellouche, protests, “I didn’t do anything!” and is told, “No one cares.” That’s the moral universe of noir. In other words, my life-story.
It’s a movie Hollywood has made and remade many times, with varying degrees of success. Three Days of the Condor falls neatly into this pattern. So does Eagle Eye, proving that following the pattern doesn’t guarantee success. The challenge is to make the movie more than a series of elaborate stunts, to make you care about the people at the heart of the story.
Side Note: I saw the movie at Filmstreams, Omaha’s glorious art-house cinema, where normally people come to worship reverently at the house of light. But who was that guy in the audience honking with laughter at every blood spatter, honking like Batman’s Penguin? A middle-aged guy, not a young guy raised on first-person shooter games and anomie. Creeped me out.
In Point Blank, Lellouche plays a male nurse who’s forced to help a man who may or may not be a criminal, played with mystery and menace by Roschdy Zem, which makes the police think the nurse is his partner in crime. But is he saving the man for his own gang or for the gang trying to kill him? The movie is an extended chase scene on the order of Taken and Unknown, but with just enough attention to its characters to make you feel for even the secondary ones.
I’m a sucker for movies in which the hero’s quirky background and native intelligence give him an unexpected edge over the bad guys, and this is the engine that drives Point Blank.
It has always seemed to me that, if you can close your eyes and still understand a movie’s story, the director has relied too heavily on dialogue and not enough on the visual. Point Blank is a movie of few words, a movie that doesn’t explain itself too much. Instead, it allows the audience to draw conclusions based on visual evidence—a gesture, a shadowy encounter, fear flashing through the eyes.
And what a relief to watch a movie in which the actors look like real people, people who’ve been smoking too many Galoises, drinking too much, worrying too much. No face conveys anxiety and world-weariness as much as a French face. In contrast, too many American film actors seem about as expressive as hair product models.
There are turns and surprises in the movie, which is why I’m not including too many details here. It plays like a French version of The Shield, but from the victim’s point-of-view.
Is Point Blank great, or even memorable? Not especially. It has its problems. The female characters remain undeveloped, though the actors are so strong you see them putting everything they’ve got, and more, into the fairly thin roles. And yes there’s an unlikely pairing of good guy and bad guy, though this pairing feels more believable than most. Don’t come to Point Blank expecting the resurrection of Hitchcock, despite what I said above and despite the throbbing strings of the Hermann-like score. Come expecting a solid B-movie with a well-earned pedigree. See it especially if American movies have left you feeling a bit under-noirished of late.