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

Wings of Desire (1988)

7ebbf-wingsofdesireposterDirected by Wim Wenders, this German film has almost a stream of consciousness feel. It opens over the skies of West Berlin where a couple angels watch over the humans as unseen and unheard guardians. They pay attention to the thoughts, desires, joys, and fears of a plethora of folks from all walks of life and act as unobserved comforters. These angels are immortals and although they are familiar with humanity they are not a part of it. 

Among others, the angel Cassiel observes an old man named Homer who dreams of a world of peace. Damiel on his part finds himself infatuated with an utterly lonely circus trapeze performer, and he also watches over the actor Peter Falk as he begins shooting his next film. Because of his newfound love, Damiel desires to feel what it is to be human. Aside from affection, he yearns to be able to do the little things that go along with being mortal like drinking a hot cup of coffee. Finally, determined Damiel does indeed shed his angel wings and immortality for a chance to be human. He knows what it is to breathe, to tell colors apart, and he finally does get his cup of coffee. 

Quite by chance, he has an encounter with Falk who tells Damiel a secret and encourages him in his new life. Cassiel, still an angel, tries to stop a suicidal youth from jumping, but he is unsuccessful and it hits him hard. 

In the final moments of the film, by fate, Damiel meets his girl at a concert, and they embrace as if they had known one another for an eternity and in a way they had. This film is beautifully photographed in a sepia tone that reflects the viewpoint of the angels. It is only the humans who see the world in all its glory, bursting with different colors. This film was quite fascinating, and it is the type of film I would want to make that really gets up close and personal with some many people without actually focusing on them. Furthermore, Peter Falk was a wonderful addition to this film, and he was a pleasure to watch because he gave off the impression that he was simply being himself. And I think he was.

Next on my list to see from Wim Wenders is Paris, Texas, but I would also like to explore more of the New German Cinema from the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. 

4.5/5 Stars

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

a6338-awomanunderinfluenceWow, this film from John Cassavetes was truly gut-wrenching and powerful. Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk are wonderful as Mabel and Nick. At their core they both seem like essentially good people. They love their kids, their family, and friends. Except Mabel’s problems tear them apart and in turn hurt the ones they love. The drama is not created my major plot twists, but the mundane and the typical. Dinner conversations, picking the kids up from school, gatherings with friends. This is when the film takes place and this is where we see their family unwinding at the seams. It is a personal story and the cinematography and the script for that matter are not polished. They are allowing us to see into this situation and thus the heartache and the pain washes over us and we become engaged with it.

Supposedly Richard Dreyfuss threw up after watching this film. Some may not be able to claim that same reaction, but there is no doubt that your heart goes out to not only Mabel but her children who are caught in the middle of it all. Even Nick, who can be a callous and even violent person is given a heart because he was portrayed by the great Peter Falk. This is definitely powerful stuff that is worth seeing.

This film may actually be more difficult to watch than some gorier films for the simple fact that it will hit the audience close to home. Literally. This is my first film from the director John Cassavetes and hopefully there will be more in my near future. Take a chance with this one because there is a chance that it is different than many of the polished Hollywood films you have seen in the past.

4.5/5 Stars

The Princess Bride (1987)

f1a6c-princess_brideDirected by Bob Reiner and starring an esemble cast this has to be the best action-comedy-romance-fantasy ever. It starts with a grandpa (Peter Falk), reading his grandson a fairy tale. In the story there was a peasant boy (Cary Elwes) devoted to a beautiful girl (Robin Wright). However, she treated him poorly and is eventually married off to the Prince Humperdink against her will. She is then kidnapped by a group consisting of a giant, a swordsman, and a self-proclaimed genius. Her devoted love comes to the rescue but Humperdink takes her back and has her true love tortured. Joining forces with the giant and the swordsman Inigo, along with the help of Miracle Max, Wesley leads a daring rescue. He arrives in the nick of time and his friends show great bravery. He saves his damsel in distress and they live happily ever after. This film is in a category all by itself and it is very quotable if not in fact inconceivable.

4.5/5 Stars