PRESSURE POINT made just a ripple in the box-office wakes of 1962s blockbusters, only tagging 89th place for the year. Produced by Stanley Kramer, the trim 91-minute psychological examination of inner rage projected outwards as hate earned some critical notice before being filed away and relegated to obscurity. Recent re-looks have upped its reputation. Bleak and unpleasant stuff, not a fun watch by any means, but interesting as a social comment document of the time and arresting as a dramatic showcase for its two leads. It’s nice that the acting holds up, but deplorable that the material has not lost its currency.
Frustrated by his inability to break through with a hateful African-American patient, a ‘Young Psychiatrist’ (Peter Falk) tells his supervisor he’s quitting. ‘Doctor’ (Sidney Poitier) shares his own story from his WW2 days work with ‘Patient’, a venomous and paranoid homegrown racist and Nazi admirer (Bobby Darin). Flashbacks within the flashback delve into the sordid formation of Patient’s twisted character.
“For although psychopaths are a small minority, it seems significant that whenever organized and militant hate exist a psychopath is the leader, and if, for instance, one hundred disgruntled and frustrated individuals fall in line behind one psychopath then, in essence, we are concerned with the actions of one hundred and one psychopaths.”
Directed by Hubert Cornfield, the script by Cornfield and S.Lee Pogostin was suggested by the short story “Destiny’s Tot”, one of the chapters in psychologist Robert M. Lindners’s pioneering 1955 book “The Fifty-Minute Hour”. Kramer’s vehicle for another take on race relations with Poitier, his magnetic star from The Defiant Ones and the later, light-year lighter Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? can be viewed not just as part of their collaborations and of a piece both with Poitier’s growing status and the clutch of trenchant dramas from stellar 1962, but as sadly prescient and still-relevant in the renewed fear & fight mongering of today’s Trumpsylvania and its bottomless “Make America Hate Again” playground for cretins and lunatics. “The more things change….”
The tight budget shows in the bare bones art direction, but class-A cinematographer Ernest Haller does his best to make up for the shortcomings. Busy child actor Barry Gordon, 14, plays Darin as a creepy kid (Gordon a very interesting fella if you’ll chance to do some casual info-surfing) while dependable “get-me-someone-vile” James Anderson plays the brutish father (Anderson cornered the bastard market that year, being the villain in To Kill A Mockingbird).
Poitier, 35 here, plays the Doctor with his trademark quiet authority; he’s allowed one scene near the finish where he can blow off some overdue and well-earned steam a bit (for us as well as his character). His tested authority figure here was flanked by his poverty-frustrated family head in 1961s A Raisin In The Sun and his ’63 Oscar-win as the sunny Homer Smith in Lilies Of The Field.
It’s Bobby Darin who really surprises as the glib, intelligent but warped and malignant Patient: he struts off with the role and takes the movie with him. At 26, Darin was hopping that year, co-starring in State Fair, Hell Is For Heroes and If A Man Answers, plus he copped a #3 hit song with “Things”. Next year he’d get a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, as another disturbed character—one with redeeming characteristics—being treated by Army psychiatrist Gregory Peck in Captain Newman, M.D., but I think he’s better in this nastier, darker, less-popular picture. His most disturbing sequence is the infamous “tic tac toe” humiliation ritual conducted in a bar. I vividly recall seeing that five decades back when this aired on NBCs Saturday Night At The Movies, and its vise-grip-repugnant ick-factor held up on a recent revisit. *
Cogerson has the film grossing $2,300,000, which would have cleared its layout of just under $1,000,000, but other sources say it only made $665,000, which had United Artists taking a loss of $991,000. People passed on this and lined up for the more digestible To Kill A Mockingbird.
With Carl Benton Reid, Anne Barton, Frank Maxwell, Mary Munday, Howard Caine, Lynn Loring, Richard Bakalyan and Yvette Vickers. The unfortunate imaginary playmate of Barry Gordon is 8-year-old Butch Patrick, soon to become hairy ‘Eddie’, one of The Munsters.
* Darin wrote an article for Ebony magazine, “Why I Played A Film Bigot”, which concludes with “The way I see it, Pressure Point says, in the final analysis, ‘Do not fall asleep to the hazards of fascism that have occurred not once, but twice in this century. Be able to recognize the individual for what he is under the guise of whatever he’s preaching.’ I will get hate letters from both sides of my role, or I will have failed. And if I’m any kind of hero in this picture, then we’ve defeated the whole film.”
Kramer on Darin: “I think he was a wonderful actor. I think he felt pain. And when you feel pain and frustration and some failure as well as success, which he had an inordinate amount of, I think those things make a person who has talent a person who has much greater talent. I look at that performance and I think to myself, ‘Yeah, I sure didn’t make any mistake there,’ and however the film may have failed or succeeded, his contribution was major.”