One of the finest U.S. films of the 1960s, Pressure Point addresses America’s racial problems through the confrontations between a prison psychiatrist, who is black, and a Nazi-sympathizing patient who gets under his doctor’s skin by making salient points pertaining to the good doctor’s questionable allegiance to a nation that restricts him to second-class citizenship. The film’s producer, Stanley Kramer, showing good sense, assigned the film to Hubert Cornfield, one of the scenarists, to direct. (The other writer is S. Lee Pogostin; their script was based on a story by Robert Lindner.) Kramer also assigned his resident production designer, Rudolph Sternad, and resident cutter, Frederick Knudtson, to the project. The black-and-white cinematographer is none other than veteran Ernest Haller, who had cinematographed, among other things, William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938) and nearly everybody else’s Gone with the Wind (1939). The result is a truly accomplished and very moving piece of work—but one with what may strike some as a gaping hole (more about which later).
The film opens with a narrative frame, in the present, that sets up the extended flashback that makes up most of the film. A frustrated young psychiatrist (Peter Falk, endearing) storms into the office of the chief psychiatrist, insisting that he must give up the long, arduous case that his superior has assigned to him. He is Jewish; the patient in question is black and anti-Semitic. The Jewish doctor feels he is inadequate to the task of helping such a patient, given that objectivity is hard to muster when you’re locking horns with the patient. His seasoned, graying superior, the black psychiatrist, though, recalls a case of his own, twenty years earlier, when he was similarly tested by a young American Nazi who hated blacks as well as Jews. The doctor’s struggles to reach and help this disturbed, socioeconomically marginalized individual turned over to him by the courts—none of the characters in this film are given names—demonstrate that the doctor also repeatedly wanted “off” the case but persevered, albeit with unsuccessful results.
The weakest aspect here—isn’t it always in this sort of film?—is the reductive psychobabble that “explains” the patient’s psychotic nature. As a boy, the patient, who couldn’t stand the sight of blood, had been intimidated by his father, who was a butcher. At 15, the boy left home. The Great Depression found him struggling to survive as a street vendor of apples. (The film makes agile and winning use of the cliché. Perhaps the casting of Falk is an inside reference to his immediately preceding role, which won him an Oscar nomination, in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles, 1961, about Apple Annie, who led an army of street sellers during the Depression.) A well-heeled girl befriends him, reaches his heart after buying his fruit, but her father intercedes, aborting the relationship that the two young persons desire. The mezuzah on the family’s front doorpost—the camera picks this up as the boy himself sees and processes it—triggers the boy’s trajectory into the American Bund movement. This is irrational; after all, the sweet girl whom the boy loved was also Jewish. However, the boy’s irrationality may suggest the irrationality of racial, religious and ethnic hate. In any case, the film stresses the patient’s fear and hatred of his father, which we are to understand disturbs his sleep in adulthood. The patient is having delusional episodes in which he sees himself, in miniature, trying to climb up the drain of the sink in his prison cell. Now his father’s face has replaced his in these fanciful delusions. The psychiatrist’s explanation of all this, which miraculously banishes the delusional episodes so that the patient is finally able to sleep, is ridiculous. It’s so ridiculous I can’t even recall its details. I would bet neither can Sidney Poitier, who, playing the psychiatrist, mouths the explanation. That the explanation might rid the patient of the bad visions on a dime, not that I’m an expert in these matters, also strikes me as dubious—rather than a psychiatric outcome, a Freudian psychoanalytic one, and one that is wishful in the extreme.
The film is on firmer ground detailing the patient’s recollections, which we receive as flashbacks within the flashbacks corresponding to the black psychiatrist’s disclosures to the young Jewish psychiatrist. (Recall John Brahm’s 1946 noir The Locket, also involving a psychiatrist, with its tantalizing flashbacks inside flashbacks?) Two episodes of the patient scaring people are especially scary. One is briefly devastating; the other, devastating at length. The first involves the patient’s and his Bund buddies’ storming and defiling an empty synagogue—a literally shattering episode as an unexpected camera perspective reveals gigantic Hebrew characters hitting the ground in pieces from the fascists’ assault on the window on which these letters were painted. (The film is punctuated with startlingly original camera perspectives. Another example occurs whenever the incarcerated patient turns on the sink tap to drown one of his “little man” visions, which we see as a torrent of water descending on us—perhaps a surer insight into the cause of the patient’s fear than the one that his psychiatrist comes up with.) The other episode involves the Bund boy and his cohorts terrorizing a bar owner and bar hostess as they vandalize the property with voluminous painted tic-tac-toe games and apply the same artwork to the bar hostess’s naked body. Splendid filmmaking, this, because the focus on the terrified woman’s face, rather than on the boys’ mayhem with a paint brush, succeeds in keeping the film from participating in the boys’ methodical rampage and in helping the film to do what it ought to do: attend to the humanity of the victim. It is perhaps in such a scene as this that Andrew Sarris’s summary remark about director Cornfield seems especially apt: “Cornfield seemed to be striving for a Europeanized elegance of form even when his scripts seemed too sordid for serious consideration.”
Another scene is heartrending. A Bund meeting concludes with everyone singing the U.S. national anthem, the “Star-Spangled Banner.” This moment, though they do not realize it, also shows these American fascists defiling and defacing.
For the rest of it, the film largely relies on the brilliance of its two lead actors as, in 1942, the Bund boy of the 1930s pursues his battle of wits with the African-American psychiatrist who recognizes his sociopathic tendencies. Poitier is superb as he shows the doctor struggling to maintain poise and dignity as his malevolent patient, arrested for sedition, picks at his racial sensitivity, at one point (correctly, as the plot eventually reveals) pointing out that the doctor’s superior and colleagues, when push comes to shove, will eventually believe him over the doctor, and “choose” him over the doctor, because, unlike the doctor, he is white and they are white. Bobby Darin, nearly as terrific as Poitier, plays the patient, putting us through an emotional wringer. We feel for the boy’s heartache and brushed-aside feelings, we admire his quick intelligence, and we are terrified of him. Both actors would shortly have a rendezvous with Oscar; in 1964, Darin was nominated as 1963’s best supporting actor, in David Miller’s (apart from Darin, dreadful) Captain Newman, M.D., and Poitier won the 1963 best actor Oscar for his charming work in Ralph Nelson’s hugely entertaining Lilies of the Field. But it’s the previous year, in Pressure Point, when both actors really soared to the peak and depth of their talent.
I mentioned a potential “hole” in the proceedings. The thoughts of some viewers might pause over the film’s implicit equation of psychosis and “political incorrectness.” I don’t think that the problem occurred to the filmmakers, but it scarcely needed to, in my opinion. Nothing in the film states or implies that this is the way things ought to be; but, in the case of a self-righteous, paranoid nation such as the United States (or, contemporarily, for that matter, the Soviet Union), that’s the way things are. Someone opposed to the “good ol’ U.S. of A.” must be nuts. Isn’t this the greatest nation on earth? What other explanation is possible? People who put down this film on these grounds are, at best, being silly, because officialdom is always finding “things wrong” with those who protest or contest the status quo. Cornfield, Kramer & Company thus, from me at least, get a “pass” on this alleged shortcoming or blindness of theirs.
Pressure Point ends unhappily and honestly. So, more or less, did Cornfield’s career, although he would direct Marlon Brando in The Night of the Following Day (1968). (This was the ill-fated film that accompanied Brando and co-star Rita Moreno’s love affair, which led, you may recall, to Moreno’s attempted suicide.) The monster who slew Cornfield, though, was producer Kramer, who, driven by twin motives, sabotaged Cornfield’s career. Kramer was jealous of Cornfield’s gifts as a filmmaker—gifts that Kramer couldn’t hope to duplicate. (Like Spielberg, Kramer was a producer—and a valuable one—who nevertheless insisted, on occasion, on also directing, for which he had next to no aptitude.) Moreover, the man whose career he had already tried to sabotage, and thought he had succeeded in sabotaging, writer-producer Carl Foreman, had returned (with 1961’s The Guns of Navarone) from the dead. The Hollywood blacklist that Kramer had banked on to keep Foreman crushed forever—what a bastard Kramer was—had dissolved, restoring Foreman to popularity. As a cowardly way of fixing the psychic imbalance that this outcome induced in him, Kramer turned on Cornfield, blackballing him. Kramer, though Jewish, was quite like the patient in Cornfield’s marvelous little film. Who knows? Perhaps Kramer perceived this, giving him another motive to assail and assault.
One would like to be able to say this: The world would have been better off had Stanley Kramer never existed. But who else in Hollywood at the time would have produced Pressure Point?
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