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.