Pressure Point (1962)
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The film is most impressive for its refusal to pander to an audience whose enjoyment might be enhanced if all the conflicts between the protagonists were resolved at the conclusion, but "Pressure Point" does not compromise its own integrity by pretending to provide easy answers to the questions it raises. Doctor and patient do not reach an understanding-- they do not embrace each other at the end, nor does the film suggest that society has benefitted from the encounter between two such disparate souls. Life simply goes on, and so do its troubles. "Pressure Point" makes its point subtly without a lot of sanctimonious preaching, and is more effective as a result.
The two stars are well matched with Poitier bringing his usual humanity and quiet pride to a role that does not place as much emphasis on his skin color as one would expect in a 1962 production. Darin is simply superb as Poitier's patient, and one can't help but admire the popular crooner for having had the courage to inhabit such an unappealing character at a time when he was still one of pop music's most prominent "teen idols" (and husband of America's sweetheart, Sandra Dee). The cinematography, music, and direction (by Hubert Cornfield) match the performances perfectly.
Darrin, however, has no interest in having his head shrunk. It's just that he can't sleep and wants some pills to help him out. No dice, though. Poitier elicits from Darrin the personal history of a "psychopath," raised by a sadistic father and a clinging, seductive mother.
These scenes are shown in flashbacks in which Darrin is played by another actor, a boy of about ten or eleven. (Man, is that kid ugly.) The child soon sees that the only road to satisfaction and self esteem lies in having the kind of power that derives from a charismatic leader. The leader that Darrin chooses is you-know-who. The power is exercised over minorities like Jews and Negroes.
It doesn't end happily. Darrin is released over Poitier's objections and later gets into terminal trouble.
Robert Lindner was a psychiatrist who wrote the best-selling "The Fifty-Minute Hour" about a dozen or so of his cases, and this story is based on one of them. Lindner's approach was typical of the times. A patient's problems were rooted in childhood experiences and exacerbated by adult experiences. The drive for power was only compensating for internal feelings of weakness, the subconscious dread had to be brought to light, and so forth and so on. I won't criticize this psychoanalytic approach but it's pretty much discredited today.
Bobby Darrin does a decent job as the patient. He's far from stereotypically stupid, a bright guy in fact, if uneducated. He'd been a psychiatric patient before, in "Captain Newman, M.D.", and gave a shattering performance in at least one scene. And he may be just about right for this part -- small, a little chubby, and repugnant. (He may have been plumped out because of congestive heart failure.) Poitier is the soul of reason and restraint. He looks right and he never steps wrong. He can make even the most stilted lines of dialog sing. He was probably one of the best dramatic actors of his time in Hollywood. Comedy was outside his range.
I felt -- seeing this for only the second time since its original release -- that there were four weaknesses undermining the film's strengths. One was the direction. Too many close ups, for one thing, of Poitier's sweating face and Darrin's over-sized schnozzola. And the constant switching around of identities during Darrin's tale telling was confusing. Sometimes it's not Darrin in Poitier's office. It's that ugly kid. And sometimes the kid's voice issues from Darrin's mouth, or his MOTHER's voice. Good scene, though, when Dad, James Anderson, shoves a piece of liver in the boy's horrified face.
Didn't care for the musical score either. Weird and intrusive. Art direction looked as if it had been executed on an almost infinitesimally tiny budget, almost at the level of my annual income. The city, the store fronts, the brownstone apartments, looked like cheap outdoor sets. The interiors were spare boxes, mostly empty. Nothing seemed cluttered or lived in. And when Darrin is selling apples on a street corner during the depression, it's supposed to be mid-winter and he doesn't look cold -- and he's just had a nice close shave.
The fourth, somewhat bothersome element was the script itself. I understand that what has appeared in print needs some cosmetic surgery before it can be presented on screen. Events must be squashed together, or excised, or rearranged, or simplified. But simplification shades into oversimplification. Example: Darrin has had only one "meaningful relationship" with a girl. She's pretty too. She buys all his apples and then invites him into her home. It's a nice home, everything Darrin yearns for, but the girl's father throws him out as an unworthy suitor, and the family is Jewish. Thereafter, Bobby Darrin hates Jews. Well, I mean -- really. He's been a little slow on the uptake all along, having failed to notice the mezuzzah on the door jamb or the mogen David around her neck.
I'd like to be able to say that the film's message -- and, boy, is there a message -- is out dated because you have to look under boards to find anti-Semites today, but I can't. Oh, we don't have the German-American Bund or Father Coughlin anymore, and the KKK seems dormant for the moment. The voices of the right are more political than racist, but we still have Evangelicals who believe only they will be saved when The Rapture arrives, while Jews and Muslims and everybody else will go straight to hell. And every once in a while there is an outbreak of anti-Semitic vandalism, not just here but around the world, even in places we prefer to think of as enlightened.
It's an interesting story but it's also a misleading story. I don't want to get technical but a major effort was made sixty years ago to find proto-Fascists in California (Adorno et al, if you want to look it up) and the high-scoring subjects weren't psychopaths at all but little old ladies and retired dock workers. A similar study in a Texas city found that authoritarian personalities were affable community leaders who had risen to the top by conforming to the values of the people they grew up with. In other words, Fascism doesn't come only from psychopathology. It comes from some as-yet-unidentified social wellspring.
"Pressure Point" is a powerful exploration into the circumstances that bring about race prejudice. I don't want to give away any of the rich turns and curves of this deep and exciting story that is filled with twist and turns. Mr. Poitier plays as a prison psychiatrist who is assigned to treat Bobby Darin who plays a mentally disturbed racist. These two bring vivid and truthful life to their disparate characters.
This film is compelling and sometimes hard to watch even today, but it is worth your time to check it out. Writer/Director Hubert Cornfield does a great job in telling this story and allowing these two actors and the rest of the cast to do work as a great ensemble.
A word about Bobby Darin. He was an excellent actor, very underrated and quite capable of working in comedy and drama. He accomplishes the very, very difficult act of allowing the audience to feel sympathy for an awful human being, a true lost soul, full of pain to the point of almost extinguishing his own humanity. Quite an accomplishment for the teen idol and singer. He had a life-long dream of eclipsing his idol Frank Sinatra as both a singer and actor. It would be splitting hairs to debate that, but no doubt the kid from Brooklyn gave "Old Blue Eyes" a run for his money. Too bad we lost him so soon.
I've heard "Mack the Knife" and other snappy songs by him, but I only recently realized that he was an actor as well. I'll admit that this was not a rented movie or something I sought out, just one that I caught from the classic channel, but it was from beginning to end, no commercials or cuts and I cannot express how much admiration I have for Bobby Darin. He came from a weird life (a life only Jack Nicholson could relate to) and add to that a disease that shortened it, but Bobby Darin made his time around one to be remembered. This man's performance in 'Pressure Point' stunned me.
Darin plays a man who's childhood was not one to be envious of. This man's life became even less envious, because the story takes place inside a prison where he is a convict. Sidney Poitier plays the prisons psychiatrist and Darin is sent to him because he cannot sleep due to anxiety. Poitier's character has a hard time with Darin's due to the fact that he is extremely racist (a Nazi even) and is continually treating Poitier as though he understands how he feels is wrong but doesn't care (that is the attitude that I got from it). That he knows everything he feels is based on a lie but he simply does not care...it allows him to be violent and hateful and that is why he does what he does. It's pretty scary and even though sometime you think, "goodness, I hate that sometimes what Darin's character is saying makes a little sense, what in the world is Poitier going to say to that?", that's when the doctor sets him straight.
I am a pretty emotional person and this movie really knows how to pull at them, even for an older movie, it has its 'I can't believe he said that' moments, but it was very impressive for Bobby and Sidney to do a movie with such a point, when others at the time were doing such cheesy things.
Bobby Darin plays the charismatic young man who is imprisoned during WWII for Nazi activities in the U.S. Poitier is riveting as the doctor who treats him for insomnia, but discovers pathologies many times more horrifying. If you're looking to see this timeless conflict wrapped up neatly at the end or overinflated with empty gimickry, be warned. It doesn't happen. Thank goodness. Instead we see a very real ending that explains why events like the World Trade Center tragedy can still happen today.
A lot of great films; Prince of Tides, Silence of the Lambs, The Cell and many others owe their existence to such brilliant antecedents.