Like a lot of actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Sidney
Poitier’s movie career is made of popular hits, some box office flops, a really bad film here and there, and, from time to
time, some little-known, overlooked or forgotten films that deserve a second or even
a third look.
One of those films is the 1962 drama “Pressure Point,” produced
by Stanley Kramer, who later went on to direct one of Poitier’s
most popular films, such as “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” “Pressure Point” was directed by the truly unique
Hubert Cornfield, the son of a movie studio executive, who was a close friend of the French directors of the New Wave of
the 1960’s, such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard. Cornfield directed only
six films in his career, from the mid-1950’s to late 1960’s, of which “Pressure Point,” and his very strange 1969 thriller, “Night of the
Following Day” with Marlon Brando, are his two best films. He later directed a
lot of French TV during the 1970’s before leaving directing for good.
But “Pressure Point” is truly something else. Very unusual and quite daring for its time, the film actually is just as relevant today as when it came
out, and perhaps even more so. A lot of films have dealt with racism, but what films
you can name that focus on the causes of it?
It’s easy to make a character
in a film a cartoonish racist villain. Someone for the audience to easily root
against. But what’s more intriguing at the same time is to
examine what made that person the way he/she is. Was he born that way or conditioned? Is it nature or nurture? At the same time, the film must dance a very delicate balancing act. How do you make a person like that understandable, without making him sympathetic?
That is at the heart of “Pressure Point” (which has an interesting, but never complicated flashback within a flashback narrative structure). In it, Poitier plays the head of the psychiatry department in an institution, who is approached
by one of his young mentors (Peter Falk) about a particularly tough case he’s
handling: a young black patient who
hate whites and, as a result, the young white doctor cannot get through to him. That in turns motivates Poitier to relate to Falk his experiences some 25 years earlier when he
was a young prison psychiatrist and was asked by the warden to deal of one of the inmates. Turns out he’s not just any regular prisoner, but an
unabashed member of the American Nazi Party, and an out and out proud racist (played scarily well by popular 1960’s crooner Bobby Darin), who was sentenced for plotting against
the U.S. government.
Despite Poitier’s best efforts to remain calm while
enduring Darin’s endless racist taunts and insults, and subtle manipulation
tactics, he manages to get Darin to reveal himself to him, discovering that, years earlier, he was a decent guy, even in love with a Jewish girl.
But growing up with an abusive father, his lack of employment
or even a future, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, his self loathing and his hopelessness, all made him perfect fodder for the then growing American Nazi movement. The party
convinces him that his failings are not his fault, nor of a capitalist and
political system purposely designed to take advantage of him. Instead, they make him believe that it is all a vast conspiracy
created by Jews to promote “inferior” black people in his place, to his disadvantage. Not so far removed from Fox News, and cartoon characters such as Donald Trump and Ted
Poitier tries, without much success, to show Darin the reality
of what’s really going on, and in the film’s climatic scene, Poitier, who has had enough of Darin’s abusive behavior towards him, lets Darin have it in a shocking and long
building fit of anger.
Though some of the symbolism in the film is somewhat clumsy and handled clumsily at times (such as the sequence with Darin in the drain as seen in the trailer below), and
Cornfield’s habit of almost tripping
over himself to make a point that was already established earlier, it’s still a
fascinating film, anchored by two exceptional performances. Make no mistake, it’s
not light entertainment, but a very unrelenting film with an urgency that is compelling.
For many years, the film was only available to be seen occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, or via a sub-par, non-anamorphic MGM/Fox
DVD released ten years ago.
The good news today is that the specialty DVD label, Olive
Films, will release the film for the first time in a new remastered anamorphic Blu-ray
edition, in February. Unfortunately, there won’t
be any director’s commentary on the Blu-ray release since Cornfield died in
2006. But no matter, it’s well worth checking out “Pressure Point.” They don’t
make films like this anymore.