If Resnais made crime thrillers…The grimy smudge in the Alcatraz cell at the onset might be Proust’s “little patch of yellow wall” (The Captive), the dying Bergotte here becomes Lee Marvin’s double-crossed thug Walker, sprawled on the floor. “Did it happen? A dream?” In John Boorman’s hands, Donald E. Westlake’s pulp novel becomes a boundlessly inventive modernist welter of alienation, identity, and memory. Walker’s meeting with his duplicitous wife (Sharon Acker) is wondrously strange: He unloads his pistol on the empty bedroom, then sits on the sofa silently as she dazedly goes into her incantatory speech (“Gone. Cold … Can’t sleep. Haven’t slept … Dream about you … How good it must be, being dead”), neither looking at the other. The next morning she vanishes into a rainbow of vanity liquids splattered on the bathroom floor. (The bullet-riddled mattress is just the first of the protagonist’s violent encounters with inanimate foes; later victims include a telescope, kitchen appliances, a telephone and, most spectacularly, an automobile.) As Walker pummels his way through “The Corporation,” propelled solely by that the claim that “somebody’s gotta pay” him $93 grand, Boorman maps out an otherworldly Los Angeles—psychedelic nightclubs, blanched buildings against a cobalt sky, storm drains like a concrete gulch viewed from the vantage point of a pipe-smoking hitman.
The image is hard and sleek, largely composed of glass panels and color-coded chambers and continuously broken up with slats. Even masses of people, like the raucous party where Walker meets his partner in crime (John Vernon), are used architectonically; the faces and bodies of Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Lloyd Bochner, Michael Strong and Carroll O’Connor, all coolly blended into the setting, are like the wide-angle billboards adorning Strong’s used-car lot. (The hired goon who says “God is Brazilian” in passable Portuguese is a droll touch.) Manny Farber’s theory that what an audience really wants to see is a movie star in movement couldn’t ask for a better illustration than Marvin’s rhythmic walk under phosphorescent lights. (Another fabulous bit of movement: The seamless motion as he leans down to whisper into a secretary’s ear, pulls out a revolver, and stomps on the microphone under her desk.) The tough-guy automaton “chasing shadows” reaches the top of the syndicate only to find a buffoon who has no cash, just checks. This is crystalline, sci-fi noir. Godard’s own take on Westlake in Made in U.S.A. is concurrent; hands in close-up against a sparkling blue pool anticipate the magnificent image of the silhouetted palm over the static TV screen (Prenom Carmen).