Watching 1962's Pressure Point for the first time, I was often reminded of 1998's American History X. Both films tell a similar tale (how a young man evolves into a hateful neo-Nazi) and share the same narrative structure (the bulk of the story to told in flashback). But while American History X is already considered a classic, Pressure Point has largely been forgotten. Too bad, really, because it's dark and fairly disturbing in its own right, with social commentary on racial tensions as relevant today as they were five decades ago.
Sidney Poitier is a prison psychiatrist assigned to treat a troubled inmate (Bobby Darin) suffering from sleeplessness and hallucinations. The prisoner also happens to hate blacks & Jews, and is reluctant to open up at first. However, he does relent and, through flashbacks, we learn of his terrible childhood (an abusing, drunken father and sickly mother), troubles in school and inability to maintain any steady relationships or hold down a job. Eventually, he falls in with an American neo-Nazi group and becomes a prominent member before being incarcerated. While there are times when we, as viewers, are tempted to empathize with what he's had to endure, we're snapped back to reality whenever he attempts to bait the psychiatrist with racist rhetoric. Unlike Derek Vinyard in American History X, this man ultimately feels no remorse for the things he's done.
|"Be honest, Doc...do these pants make me look fat?"|
For a film that is essentially a series of sessionss between two people (with highly artistic and bleak flashback sequences detailing past events), this is a tension-filled, cynical look at race relations of the time. The brilliant decision to shoot it in stark black and white could be perceived as symbolic. But even if that wasn't the intention, from a narrative standpoint, it's hard to imagine Pressure Point being nearly as effective if shot in color.
Of course, any film of this nature depends largely of the performances. Poitier is always a pleasure to watch, and he's once-again terrific here, torn between being the consummate professional and giving in to the rage he feels when listening to the unrepentant hate spewed by his patient. But the real star here is Bobby Darin, who turns in a remarkably complex performance...hateful yet charismatic, like most real-life psychotics who somehow get others to follow them. The tic-tac-toe scene alone makes this distressingly apparent.
Being a product of its time, Pressure Point doesn’t have quite the visceral impact of a film like American History X, but is still an emotionally intense treasure waiting to be rediscovered. And, in a small way, its resolution might be even more unnervingly pessimistic.
PURR...LIKE A GOOD SCRATCH BEHIND THE EARS