90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon
Directed by Hubert Cornfield, Pressure Point (1962) is one of producer Stanley Kramer’s social message pictures. Unfortunately, the theme of racial intolerance is more timely than ever. Ernest Gold’s jazz influenced score sets the frenetic mood over the opening credits. After an introductory sequence featuring Peter Falk, there’s a flashback to 1942. Sidney Poitier is an unnamed prison psychiatrist. One of his patients is an American Nazi. The young prisoner went beyond exercising his first amendment right of free speech when he incites a riot and is serving three years for sedition.
Cornfield adapted the screenplay from The Fifty-Minute Hour, therapist Robert Linder’s stories based on interactions with patients. The psychiatrist in the book is Jewish. In the film, it is Poitier who attempts to discover what makes the Nazi tick. As expected, he had a tough childhood. The mother (Ann Barton) was sickly and weak while the father (James Anderson) was a sadistic butcher “quick to anger and hard to please.” Barry Gordon [A Thousand Clowns (1965)] plays the patient/prisoner as a boy, revealing his sensitivity and trauma. Showing the father slicing meat works as a frightening visual metaphor. Ironically, Franz Kafka’s grandfather was a (kosher) butcher and of him Kafka wrote,”I have to not eat as much meat as he butchered.” He was also haunted by an authoritarian father as the R. Crumb drawing shows. While Kafka went on to become one of the world’s great writers, the Nazi becomes a bully and a dedicated member of a German American bund. “They’re even more dangerous (than blacks),” he says of the Jews. “Because they pass for white and they’re smart.”
At one point, he and a friend terrorize a tavern owner (Howard Caine) and the bar hostess (Mary Munday), possibly committing rape though that isn’t what he’s serving time for. The psychiatrist is more disturbed by hearing the Nazi describe the assault than by any of his racial taunts.
Darin was a pop star before becoming an actor. He hit it big in 1959 with “Mack the Knife,” winning two Grammies that year. He starred in a handful of features. Pressure Point is one of the best along with Too Late Blues (1961) where he plays a character closer to home, a rebellious jazz musician. In Pressure Point, he humanizes his character to a degree though the Nazi’s ideas are completely repellant. He candidly explained in a 1962 Ebony magazine article “Why I Played a Film Bigot.”
To get inside the head of the Nazi, Pressure Point uses oblique camera angles and inventive tracking shots to create fantasy sequences reminiscent of Jean Cocteau or Salvador Dali. “I wanted that strange surrealism,” said Cornfield. Filmed in black-and-white by director of photography Ernest Haller, acclaimed cinematographer Conrad Hall [Fat City (1972), Marathon Man (1976)] was the camera operator. The Turkish born Cornfield began as a graphic designer and made the French poster for All About Eve (1950). He later joined The Actor’s Studio. That combination enabled him to work with actors well and to set up shots quickly.
The movie centers on the escalating conflict between prisoner and psychiatrist. The more abusive the prisoner becomes, the more difficult it is for Poitier’s character to restrain his rage. While the young Nazi freely expresses his prejudices there’s also the hidden, less overt racism of the black psychiatrist’s bosses at the prison and society, at large.
From the beginning of his film career, Poitier’s characters face these issues. In No Way Out (1950), his Dr. Luther Brooks has to treat a fanatical race baiter played by Richard Widmark [See Silver Screenings’ The Sidney-Poitier-as-Social-Barometer Film Theory]. His New York detective Virgil Tibbs travels to the heart of American apartheid in In the Heat of the Night (1967). Playing yet another doctor in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Dr. Prentice tells his old-fashioned father that he sees himself not as a colored man but “as a man.” Who but Poitier could deliver the line with such poignancy?