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Point Blank (1967. Screenplay by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, and Rafe Newhouse, based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake. 92 minutes.)

Point Blank

Breaking up is not that hard to do. Donald E. Westlake, one of this country’s most prolific crime novelists, has developed almost as many pseudonyms as blacklisted writers did in the ’40s. One pseudonym was Richard Stark, which he used for a series of novels about Parker, a tough, cool professional thief. The first Parker novel, The Hunter (1962), became the basis for this film (and also for the 1999 film Payback). The first drafts of Point Blank were by David and Rafe Newhouse, and their final draft got to British director John Boorman, who was getting ready to make his American film-directing debut.

Boorman set to work on the script with Alexander Jacobs, who had been an assistant to Boorman on Weekend. Both felt that the Newhouses’ screenplay was “a straight-forward gangster melodrama.” (The quote is from an interview Steven Farber conducted with Jacobs for the Winter 1968/69 issue of Film Quarterly, as is most of the factual additional information in this item.) Boorman and Jacobs wanted to make the script something more. Jacobs’s idea was to develop the character of “Walker” (Westlake would not let them use “Parker,” since he would only allow its use if they intended to make a series of Parker films, which they didn’t want to do), and he wrote scenes that explored Walker’s emotions as he deals with trying to get back the money a friend stole from him from a heist they did together. Boorman was less interested in showing Walker’s emotions directly. Jacobs told Farber that the difference was that while he was a passionate Jew, Boorman was a colder Anglo Saxon. Boorman felt Lee Marvin’s face would give them enough of what they needed. Jacobs’s screenplay lays out the emotions Walker has when he discovers his wife has committed suicide. Jacobs makes the scenes into a sequence, but Boorman broke them up in the cutting so we don’t get the development of Walker’s feelings. Boorman, like many directors of the period, was enchanted at the way the Europeans were breaking down conventional filmic narrative structure. So the focus in the film becomes more on Boorman’s filmmaking style than on the story, not unlike a lot of films of the period. Boorman assumes that just cutting back to Walker and his wife’s body will be enough to provoke emotion in the viewer, but it doesn’t. Leslie Halliwell quotes Boorman in his Film Guide as saying, “The fragmentation was necessary to give the characters and the situation ambiguity, to suggest another meaning beyond the immediate plot.” It’s not ambiguity so much as a lack of clarity, and yes, in the ’60s directors really talked like that. (Boorman may also have been influenced by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, as were a number of other filmmakers. McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message,” which many filmmakers took to mean that you didn’t have to tell a story with characters, but just, you know, make pure cinema like Hitchcock.)

On the other hand, Jacobs and Boorman agreed about a lot. Both men loved Los Angeles (and hated San Francisco). I had a chance to meet Jacobs a couple of years after the film came out and listened to him talk about Los Angeles. He had an extraordinary mind, which threw off so many ideas in such a short amount of time it was hard to keep up with him. You could see why Boorman, or anybody, would want to work with him. It’s the particular vision of Los Angeles that we get in the film (slick, modern, vaguely corrupt) that sticks with the viewers. One of the more memorable scenes, which is in the script, has Walker taking a car out on a test drive with the car-lot owner in it and wrecking the car with both of them in it while trying to get the owner to tell him where his former friend is. All of it happens under a distinctly Los Angeles freeway interchange.

For all their disagreements, Boorman and Jacobs collaborated very well, and followed up Point Blank with Hell in the Pacific (1968), which has even less dialogue than the earlier film. Jacobs felt that screenwriting should be as sparse as possible, saying, “I hate spare flesh on a script.” He thought that it was part of the job of the screenplay to write not only the characters, plot, and dialogue, but the tone of the film. His script for Point Blank impressed the young Walter Hill, who then tried for the same sparseness in his scripts.

Downton Abbey (2012. Season three written by Julian Fellowes. 585 minutes.)

Downton Abbey

On the events leading up to the death of Matthew Crawley. Several years ago, when the production of Downton Abbey was being organized, nobody connected with it knew it would become a monster international hit. There were as yet neither Downton Abbey tote bags nor “Do As the Dowager Countess Says” T-shirts. Nobody knew if the thing would work. As is typical on a potential series, the actors were hired for a limited time, in this case three seasons, undoubtedly with options for more. Actors are strange people, God bless them. Some of them love long runs, either on stage or in film or television, and some always want to move on. Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey, is one of those who wants a variety of experiences (I suspect the huge success of the series has meant a lot of offers have come his way), and at the end of the second season, he told the powers that be that he didn’t want to re-up for the fourth. So the writing problem facing Julian Fellowes was how to get rid of Matthew.

He could have just left, but since the Matthew-Mary romance was at the heart of the show, a sudden split seemed unlikely, even though Lady Mary can be a pain in the ass. Well, he could have gone a little crazy in the head and been institutionalized, a viable option if Fellowes thought there was a chance Stevens would come back to the show. But his return seemed unlikely, so the obvious approach was to kill him off. So does his old war wound come back, and after he can’t get it up, does he commit suicide? Darkly funny, but not quite what Downton Abbey is all about. Does somebody from his past come around to kill him? Or somebody we already know? Does Thomas Barrow, the gay valet, become insanely jealous and, aiming to shoot Lady Mary, hit Matthew instead?

Here’s how Fellowes handles it. The first episode deals with the wedding of Matthew and Lady Mary. You may remember from US #92 that even though Matthew had proposed, I thought he and Lady Mary were such diddlers that they may not actually tie the knot. Well, Fellowes has Stevens for the entire third season, so he might as well use him. It’s a nice wedding, although the arrival of Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother didn’t turn out to be as enthralling as we had all hoped. Apparently the cast loved having her around telling stories about working with Hitchcock and Wilder, but Fellowes never quite gave us the great double act with Dame Maggie that we all assumed he would. MacLaine may be back in the fourth season, so we can still hope.

By episode four, Lady Sybil has returned to Downton, very pregnant by her Irish husband, Tom Branson. She goes into labor, and while the local doctor, Dr. Clarkson, sees a potential problem, the high-society doctor Robert brings in, Sir Philip, dismisses it. Obviously Sir Philip never watched E.R., or he would have known from the 1995 “Lover’s Labor Lost” episode that pre-eclampsia is serious shit and often fatal. As it is with Lady Sybil. Fellowes has killed off minor characters before, but Lady Sybil is the first major character to go, suggesting that more death is coming to Downton.

Meanwhile, Matthew has been given money by the father of Lavinia, the woman Matthew was engaged to in the first season, and Robert lets him invest it in Downton. This involves Matthew and Tom Branson trying to persuade Robert to modernize the Downton estate, especially the arrangements for those who have houses on it. Fellowes’s writing here is a little too general, and it never becomes as clear as it might be exactly what it is Matthew does, but everybody agrees that it works, even the reluctant Robert. Late in the season, Fellowes has the family visit an estate in Scotland of a relative (I think he’s the Dowager Countess’s brother, but don’t bet the farm on it; I checked a bunch of websites, but they were all about how terrible Matthew’s death was). The family, headed by “Shrimpy,” an officer in the Foreign Service, is the anti-matter version of the Downton crowd. One element of that is that they haven’t modernized their estate, losing their money, and Shrimpy tells Robert that he did the right thing. That increases Robert’s understanding and even affection for Matthew.

Over the course of the season, Bates continues to struggle to get out of prison and is finally released, after which he and Anna bill and coo like two idiot teenagers, but given what they’ve been through and how much we like the characters, we won’t object too much. And Matthew and Lady Mary are happier than we thought they might be. The end of episode six is a cricket game between the people, including those downstairs, of Downton and the townspeople. It’s a beautiful warm summer English day. Robert and Matthew are on the same page on the estate, and, did I mention, Matthew and Lady Mary are deeply in love? The last line of my notes for this episode was: “Nothing good can come of this.”

So Fellowes has set us up beautifully. Lady Mary goes into labor and delivers a baby boy. Ah, someone to carry on the family line. And Matthew is ecstatic. He drives his convertible, with the top down, the wind blowing in his gorgeous blond hair. My wife, who was unaware of what was coming, said, “Nothing good can come of this” (well, we’ve been married for 48 years), and bang, Matthew was gone. But Fellowes has left us with more than enough to carry on in a fourth season.



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