Pressure Point: Sidney Poitier vs. The Nazis
by Jason McGensy
I said I wasn’t going to write about Sidney Poitier, but I’m doing a 180 and going all in. He’s too important and in too many great films that skipping over his career would be skipping over an entire era of American cinema. He, Harry Belafonte, and Sammy Davis Jr. are pretty much it as far as black actors in the 50s-60s in Hollywood.
In 1962’s Pressure Point, Sidney Poitier plays a psychiatrist who’s helping a young colleague (played by Peter Falk) deal with a particularly difficult patient. Poitier tells him the story of his most difficult case, 20 years ago when he was a prison psychiatrist handed the case of an inmate played by Mr. Splish Splash himself, Bobby Darin. He was a mentally-unstable Nazi sympathizer, “concerned about the purity of the white Christian stock”. He has recurring psychotic episodes, black-outs, and trouble sleeping. Dr. Poitier (neither his character nor Darin’s are given names) is tasked with curing his psychotic episodes and determining his fitness for a return to society. He laughs confusedly when he comes in, surprised that he of all people has been placed under the care of a black doctor. Flashbacks to Darin’s childhood show a rough upbringing, a drunken, violent, carousing father, a mentally-unhinged mother, but as Poitier points out, lots of people have rough upbringings, rougher than this, and don’t fall into psychotic racist paranoia. He has a victim complex, he sees himself as put upon by the forces of life and has chosen to latch on to an anti-black, anti-Semitic explanation for why the world is against him. If it weren’t for those people, everything would be just fine. As he is going on one of his rants there is a shot of a giant Hitler banner, the camera pushes in on Hitler’s face, then a perfect match dissolve from Hitler’s face to Darin’s face. It’s a powerful transition that visually shows the transfer of the ideology from to the other.
Poitier tries to get through to him, to get him to see that his ideology is warped. They spar back and forth. Darin offers the notion that America is built on a lie, “All men are created equal.”, and that if it were true Poitier would be able to go into any movie theater or sit anywhere on a bus he wanted. He, of course, doesn’t see that it’s not inequality of creation but the practice of his own ideology of white supremacy that makes those conditions true. Darin posits a coming wave of white power riots, crosses burning, Nazi Youth camps, even a Kristallnacht USA.
Bobby Darin’s childhood flashbacks are highly stylized and more experimental than most Hollywood fare of the early 60s. It’s got a stage quality, but it’s still cinematic because of the way it’s employed. You could even see it as a fore-runner to the sparsely staged approach Lars Von Trier was doing with Dogville and Manderlay about 10 years ago. Combine the visual flourish with the narrative technique (these flashbacks to Bobby Darin’s past are nested inside Sidney Poitier’s flashback to this incident) and you come away with a very baroque, very original series of scenes that are definitely in a way ahead of their time.
In the image above, we see Bobby Darin’s character as a boy riding the elephant, but also as an adult, on the far right of the frame, on the couch in Sidney Poitier’s office, with Poitier on the left of the frame; you can see his desk and filing cabinet and other office bric-a-brac. You can see, even as a boy he imagined himself ruling over the poor savage negroes. It’s a conscious visual choice to literally bring the memory into the room. I think it’s inventive.
Eventually, Poitier has a medical breakthrough with Darin and he no longer has his psychotic episodes and blacking out and he is able to sleep. He becomes a model prisoner and the rest of the staff is ready to let him out. Poitier is the lone hold out. He knows that even though Darin is playing nice in prison, once he gets out he is going right back to the streets with his white power people. He refuses to recommend him for parole. His colleagues believe he’s acting in bad faith; if the man is medically okay he should let him go. Poitier maintains that he can’t say the man is mentally stable so long as he holds his racist views and refuses to be a party to letting him loose. It’s a moral quandary. Is it right to keep him imprisoned even if there’s no legal basis for doing so? He’s clearly playing the thought police, but only because he knows the thoughts will be backed up by actions, actions that are a very real threat to very real people, including himself. He makes his choice and stands by it. Eventually, though, the system overrides Poitier’s objections and Darin is released.
He comes in one last time, telling Poitier that even this decision confirms his ideology, that his trusted colleagues at the prison would take the word of a white ex-psychotic convict over the word of their own staff psychiatrist, because he’s black. Poitier unloads on him, letting him know that he is going to lose in the long run, that his ideology is going to be snuffed out and people like him will be out on the scrap heap.
We flash forward 20 years back to where we started. Peter Falk asks Poitier what happened to Bobby Darin. He says he ended up being hanged 10 years later for beating an old man to death in the street unprovoked.
The movie was likely an inspiration for 2 future masterpieces by director Samuel Fuller, Shock Corridor and White Dog. Shock Corridor is about a reporter who goes undercover in a mental institution to try to solve a murder, ends up having psychotic visions about his girlfriend and ends up going crazy and becomes an actual patient. White Dog is about a black dog trainer trying to break a dog that’s been trained to attack black people. It’s probably more relevant because you can see the direct comparison of racial animus. In that movie, Paul Winfield does everything he can for that dog, even covering up the fact that it killed a man, trying to help it. But in the end, despite all his efforts there’s nothing he can do. The dog is a killer so he has to put it down. As we learned, Bobby Darin and his racist rage are put down too.
Pressure Point is available on Netflix Instant.