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John Boorman: Point-blank genius

The director has just celebrated his 90th birthday. We should celebrate, too—one of the finest, widest-ranging careers in cinema
January 25, 2023

John Boorman, one of Britain’s great visionaries, turned 90 in January. “All movies are bad; mine are often acutely embarrassing,” he once said. Still, how many directors have shown his range? Starting out in the early 1960s with state-of-the-nation social documentaries for the BBC, he moved on to beady-eyed pop romances (Catch Us If You Can), spiritual quests (Excalibur), charming Second World War dramas (Hope and Glory) and hard-boiled gangster films (The General). Sceptical both of nationalism and social realism, he has made features in Burma, South Africa and Brazil. In the 1980s, he helped to galvanise the Irish film industry by directing funds towards Neil Jordan’s debut, Angel. The following decade, he helped set up the sorely missed film journal Projections.

For many, Boorman’s greatest achievement is Point Blank (1967). Hailed by David Thomson as “the most authentic film made by an Englishman in America”, it stars Lee Marvin as heist-geniusWalker who, having been double-crossed and left for dead, is on a mission to reclaim his money. A pulp story is transformed into a zeitgeisty slice of arthouse Euro-modernism with echoes of Godard’s Alphaville andResnais’s Hiroshima mon amour. The quest is told using flashbacks and flashforwards, sequences where it’s unclear if Walker is dreaming or not. Meanwhile, the dialogue—its eloquent silences and viciously sculpted one-liners—is pure Pinter.

Walker, exquisitely tailored, methodically takes out one rival after another. Each fight or shootout is bloody, shocking, rather beautiful. Yet he never seems to answer the riddle of who his enemies—“the Organization”—are. The mysteries of money and the impersonality of modern finance find visual expression in the city’s sleek, anonymous architecture—its storm drains, car parks, corporate towers. Then there’s Angie Dickinson’s yellow dress, Marvin’s ruddy cheeks—Boorman felt he was making a noir movie in colour and each scene has at least one blazing, incandescent tincture.

Almost as powerful is Deliverance (1972), in which a group of business pals (among them Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds) set out on a canoe trip down a southern-state river that’s about to be dammed. They’re city boys, full of swagger, patronising to locals whose “genetic deficiencies” they mock. Things quickly turn dark. Two are held captive by mountain men, who force one of them (played by Ned Beatty) to “squeal like a pig” while being raped. Stanley Kubrick claimed that scene was “the most terrifying ever filmed.”

Deliverance, partly shot along the Chattooga River in the Appalachian mountains, is a discomforting exploration of American primitivism as well as a still-resonant parable about metropolitan condescension. Boorman, who almost drowned in the Thames when he was 12, has written lyrically about his reverence for trees and for water; looked at today, the film can be seen as a work of eco-criticism. It salutes the wild vitality of the river and chafes against the idiocy of developers who seek to harness its power merely to pipe air conditioning to suburban homes. 

Boorman is a famously inconsistent director. The Heretic, his 1977 sequel for William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, was widely panned. Meanwhile, Zardoz (1974), made after plans to film The Lord of the Rings fell through, is set in 2293, revolves around the motto “The gun is good, the penis is evil”, and features giant flying stone heads inside one of which is stowed a bare-chested Sean Connery who proceeds to prance around like a fake Hispanic wrestler on World of Sport. Test audiences were so befuddled that a prologue had to be added to explain, not entirely successfully, its key themes. Since then, perhaps inevitably, it has gained cult status, its baroque, brazen energy redolent of Ken Russell or even Derek Jarman.

For me, Boorman’s finest film is perhaps his least known: Leo the Last, for which he won the best director award at Cannes in 1970. It stars Marcello Mastroianni as an exiled European prince who moves to his father’s mansion in Notting Hill. Obsequious -servants and crooked rentiers mill around, but he’s more drawn to the view from his pile. There, on the streets of west London where working-class Caribbean immigrants strive to get by, he experiences a liveliness that contrasts with the torpor of his own milieu.

Leo the Last is strange, volatile, all over the place. It’s a wonderful evocation of pre-gentrified Notting Hill, an early example of racial scopophilia (many sequences show Mastroianni with a telescope, staring transfixed at his black neighbours), a chaotic social satire influenced by Bertolt Brecht and Luis Buñuel. The film ends in a conflagration— in the darkest of ironies, it was shot in a street that was demolished to make way for Grenfell Tower.