Pressure Point (1962)

Peter Falk with Sidney Poitier sounds like as good a place as any to start a movie. There he is a young man charging into his superior’s office, telling him he’s just about had it with his latest case. Surely, what we have is a story of mentorship on our hands.

Although this review is meant to be standalone and films do not need to be watched in tandem, there’s something to be said when they can interface with one another. Recently, I’ve been delving into the early works of Poitier, and his partnership over several films with Stanley Kramer certainly cannot be understated. Likewise, though John Cassavetes joined forces with Poitier in Edge of the City, it was Falk who would become one of the actor-director’s foremost collaborators. You can rarely imagine one without the other.

However, it shows where my mind goes because all these mental extrapolations are all for naught; it’s only a ploy. We barely catch sight of Falk again because this is not his movie. Instead, we drift into the recollections of the veteran doctor and the one case that almost broke him. Hokey setup aside, you can appreciate the unspoken and altogether unprecedented nature of Pressure Points.

Poitier’s lead doesn’t feel like an explicitly black part, but Kramer earmarked him for the role, and it adds a dimension to the movie that would be unavailable with almost any other actor of the era. In Poitier’s own words, “Obviously a picture about a black psychiatrist treating white patients was not the kind of sure-fire package that would send audiences rushing into theatres across the country. But Kramer had other gods to serve, and he was faithful to them.”

The dynamic of the movie is established thereafter when a new patient (Bobby Darin) pays a visit to the doctor. What becomes apparent after a few minutes is that Darin is really going for it. His giggling neo-fascist is all over the doctor from the outset, and here the mind games begin. He can’t figure out why “people” try to be white and respectable — doctors, psychiatrists — it’s not the place for them. 

However, as Poitier’s character scours the other man’s memories, he begins to establish who he is as a person — what his fears and vices are — all born out of his traumatic childhood. After the shaky narrative device, it’s a relief to admit Pressure Points has some artistic invention at its disposal, namely, in the trippy childhood scenes.

In his youth, Darin’s alter ego flees through a meat locker from the grotesque liver his domineering father waves in front of him, while bouts of paranoia overtake him in the present. The only friendships he forms are through hooliganism and a kind of sadistic dependence on invisible playmates.

It feels a bit like Norman Bates’s splintering dissociative identity disorder but playing out in real-time within Poitier’s office. Darin’s voice dissolves in and out of his adolescent personality in an eerie melding of his psyches. A small but crucial detail is how young Barry Gordon’s rounded features somehow mimic his older doppelganger, thus making the connection between them that much more pointed.

Two scenes that succinctly color his antisocial personality involve a tavern and a Bund Meeting. He takes a bit of artistic license with the Nazis’ early strong-armed tactics. In his version, they use tic-tac-toe to systematically vandalize the hapless owner’s establishment (Howard Caine who was Jewish in real life), while effectively scandalizing his onscreen wife. It’s totally perturbing to witness and one of the most evocative scenes I’ve been privy to in some time; the later Bund meeting causes some queasiness in its own right.

To echo Poitier’s words, it’s no surprise that Pressure Points was far from a box office smash. Take a moment to consider what was going against it. Whether people believed in its message or not, it’s a resolutely unnerving picture causing us to take a long, deep look at the very spine of American nationalism.

One of its primary characters spews rhetoric rallying white Christian Americans. Jews and Blacks are necessary. They need them as a scapegoat so they can mobilize the populous against something. It gives them something to hate and be against. Because they are the unchosen people — somehow oppressed in their own way — and breeding resentment and fear.

What strikes me about Darin’s performance is not the pure evil of it, but if we were to evoke Bates again, there are moments where he feels sane even momentarily reasonable. This unnerves me. How many people has this man taken in? How many people believed his methodologies and had their sense of self and right and wrong twisted by narrow-minded vitriol and hate speech?

Is there any of Darin’s character in me?  Wasn’t Norman the one who said we’ve all gone a little crazy sometimes?  It’s frightening to come up against a man who shows no emotion. Although sometimes I see that very same apathy in myself. But I brush it off. Surely we’re nothing alike. We have nothing in common…

I remember when The Atlantic first premiered the footage from a “Night in the Garden,” with Madison Square Garden full of German-American Bund supporters in 1939. Those feelings of discomfort and dissonance are not easy to dispel because the history we are taught tells us that the Allies are good and the Nazis are bad. Here there’s something fundamentally wrong. We wonder why there is still anti-Semitism. We wonder why there is still race hatred and violence against Blacks.

It seems contrary to the country we know and love. And yet if these newsreel images, Darin’s neo-Nazi, and current events tell us anything, it’s that we need to take a hard look at how these poisonous ideologies take root. They are not fantastical, they are not innocuous, and they certainly are not dormant.

What a horrible thing if these insidious things gain legitimacy and become normalized. Watching Pressure Points, it seems good and right to acknowledge mental illness and to acknowledge our shortcomings as human beings, but there is also a time and place to label evil for what it is.

3.5/5 Stars

Too Late Blues (1962): Art and Commerce

It’s hard not to instantly think of Too Late Blues as a historical curio. Here’s a studio film from John Cassavetes that seems fully aware of the context of Shadows. Shadows, of course, was his independently-made directorial debut that took improvisation and a jazz-like mentality to the streets of New York and the beat generation.

The images here are sleek, but they feature much of the same world carried over from the previous film with a young black audience watching as a group of white musicians play their set. We come to know the boys through their daily rituals: they hang out, shoot pool, drink beer, and play music in parks and beer hauls for pennies. It’s not much of a life, but they seem generally content with what they’re doing.

Cassavetes originally wanted Montgomery Clift and his wife Gena Rowlands in the leads. I would definitely have paid to see that film, but there’s still more than enough that’s intriguing about what he ended up with. Bobby Darin doesn’t sing a lick and it’s a daring career decision because it rests on the bearing of performance.

His Ghost Wakefield is at his best as one of the boys because they function together as a mirthful and inspiring unit. As was thinking when they show up at a local gather how I dig a John Cassavetes party. It’s lively and a packed room, but there’s a cool, relaxed ambiance to it as the boys get greeted by their host and Bobby Darin makes his way up the spiral staircase to mingle.

Cassavetes feels like he’s giving us so many great perches to watch and observe the social experiment going on around us. There are optimal spaces from which to focus on the actors, whether through close-ups or a camera that constantly seems to be following them from the hilt with grave interest.

It’s a bit cleaner, it has the bangles, the bells, and the whistles that give off Hollywood, and yet there are still elements of his directorial debut and future works that bleed into this picture. If you’ll pardon the term, it’s “tainted,” but it still fits fluidly into Cassavetes’s body of work even as it functions at its best as a group effort. It wouldn’t work without the many voices and faces who are more than ready to oblige.

Rupert Crosse as Baby is one such figure as is Seymor Cassel, beginning his own auspicious collaboration with the writer-director. If you’re like me, you also get a private satisfaction in seeing Ivan Dixon even for the briefest of moments.

However, we have yet to mention our heroine: Stella Stevens. We meet her stationed by a piano accompanied by a lively crowd. She’s a flustered young singer and as parties such as these are not for the faint of heart, it’s an excruciating moment to watch her try to perform.

In the aftermath, her eyes flutter like a beautiful deer caught in the headlights. Ghost watches her and compliments her. It seems genuinely sincere. Instead of sticking around, they set up in a booth at a local bar. If it doesn’t sound like Too Late Blues is about anything consequential, at least in theatrical terms, then we’ve come to an understanding of why the movie was never a box office smash.

The sinews of the story are all an examination of characters as only Cassavetes might be fascinated in documenting, and the narrative gladly moseys along at its own predetermined pace. The wheeling-dealing agent Benny with his crewcut wears a crooked smile, though he generally means well. He does his best to scrounge up work for Ghost and the boys as well as Jess with varying degrees of success. The bottom line is that Benny tries and he really is tender at heart.

With all this groundwork, what’s really appealing about Too Late Blues are individual scenes or ideas that have been assembled together to create something else. Take, for instance, the interludes where Jess goes from self-loathing to loving Ghost, even lusting after him. They head to her apartment and on the way take a detour onto the diving board.

She lets him in. Coaxes him to keep the lights low and to wait on the bed. She’s prepared to make his evening as it were, but that’s not what he’s looking for. He wants her common, everyday unadulterated love. It flips the script even slightly as she becomes the aggressor.

However, if Ghost’s masculinity is ever in jeopardy, it’s during a bar room brawl. Vince Edwards gets the most prominent cameo as a rowdy pool player who stirs up trouble after a line of drinks. He gives everyone the business, but as he’s got the pianist in a helpless headlock, his girl looking on, it’s like his dignity has been snapped like matchwood. If she is a fragile human being, his ego is more fragile still, and he lashes out. They are actions he cannot take back.

The one false step might be the arc of Ghost. He’s not altogether the most interesting part of this picture. It’s an endeavor functioning in the crowd and the ensemble — him paired with Princess or the barman or his agent together — living out their lives in these standalone moments strung together. The luster is gone when we start seeing a version of A Star is Born or Limelight. We hardly need another. Time flashes forward and we see he’s just another phony. There is no revelation here.

Thrown back together with Jess, they have a renewed moment of rage. For once the camera shakes, and it feels telling. We are aware of the movie again, and in one glorious bathroom drain shot, there is a cinematic directness of Hitchcockian proportions. The camera cuts to the core of the moment, this final act of drama and duress. Graciously we are allowed an exhale afterward.

It occurs to me this movie is a lovely bit of metanarrative. During their recording session, when Ghost charges into the sound booth vowing to play the music his way, it’s like a switch has been flipped. He intimates that he thought the financier wouldn’t tell him how to play his music — that the Man would just listen. He’s rebuffed. This is not the way the world works; it’s not what people want. Commercialism is what makes the world go round.

Whether there’s more than an ounce of truth in the analogy, it’s easy enough to cast Cassavetes as the jazzman fighting against the constraints around him to make his art as he sees fit. Like Ghost, he’s trying to navigate an industry trading in commerce and art.

To his credit, it seems Cassavetes never became totally beholden to one or the other straddling the line between both quite spectacularly and even holding together some semblance of a personal life. By that I mean he had a wife and family and of course, it helped that his wife Gena Rowlands was an actress, and they remained on the same wavelength for most of his career. In the end, he didn’t fulfill the destiny of Ghost. He found a way to live his own life.

3.5/5 Stars