Pressure Point (1962) ****

Central to this under-rated tale of psychopathy and racism is one extraordinary scene, possibly the most exceptional bar-room sequence ever filmed. In the annals of imaginative repulsion, it ranks alongside the rape committed by Alex and his “droogs” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). It begins with mere intimidation as an unnamed young man (Bobby Darin) begins to etch into a bar counter the lines and symbols of Tic-Tac-Toe (a.k.a. Knots & Crosses or Noughts and Crosses). Discovering tins of paint, the man and his gang proceed to cover the entire bar – floor, walls, ceiling, even tables – with the same symbols.

The humiliation is ratcheted up a notch when the gang leader forces tavern owner (Howard Caine)  to lie on the floor behind the counter where he cannot see the bar hostess (Mary Munday), rigid with fear, being tormented. Using lipstick rifled from her handbag, the man decorates her face in the same fashion before pulling down the back of her dress and doing the same there. Fortunately, the rest of the scene, presumably ending in rape, is left to our imagination.

Italian poster showing image from the Tic-Tac-Toe scene. A variation of this was shown in the main image which removed the domineering man and concentrated on the humiliated woman.

Other potent scenes show how the man arrived at his crazed state, smothered with affection by a weak mother (Anne Barton) who has taken to bed in order to escape his drunken, raucous father (James Anderson) who taunts his ineffective wife by flaunting in her face his casual pick-ups and making love to them in the same room. Indicative of the lonely child’s disturbed personality is that when he invents an imaginary playmate, it is to have someone to subjugate, making his fictional friend lick his boots.

Imprisoned during the Second World War for sedition, the man, suffering from blackouts and nightmares – in which he imagines himself clinging to the edge of a giant plughole before being swept away by a torrent of water from the taps – becomes a patient of a young, also unnamed, doctor (Sidney Poitier) whom he subjects to racial abuse.  The doctor, physically bigger and more imposing than the patient, would like to simply give him a good thumping, but his profession necessitates that he treats this objectionable person as just another patient. And eventually they come to enough of a concord that the patient accepts treatment although the doctor suspects that his core personality has not changed.

The U.S. poster was different to that used in Italy. This is pretty much a straight rip-off of “The Defiant Ones” (1958).

The movie is layered with themes other than psychopathy and psychiatry. While the racist element is to the fore, including the doctor’s need to prove himself in a white man’s world, and the lack of diversity in this particular medical field at that time, director Hubert Cornfield also explores the growth of right-wing extremism among the disaffected who see no contradiction in still espousing traditional American values, for example giving the Nazi salute while singing in all sincerity the national anthem. The African American doctor has to come to terms with lack of objectiveness when dealing with such an abhorrent person.

The movie flits between scenes between the two protagonists staged in a stagey manner and  expressionistic almost dreamlike sequences representing the patient’s upbringing such as being menaced by his butcher father among the swinging carcasses of the store. The patient flashbacks are shown without dialogue, explanation given in voice-over by either the patient or the doctor.

The father torments the mother by bringing a casual pick-up to their bedroom.

Reliance on visual dexterity, however, detracts from the tension and director Hubert Cornfield (The 3rd Voice, 1960) is also hampered by an unnecessary framing device which results in the story being told in flashback – leading to a conflation of flashbacks: the older Poitier explaining his earlier problems dealing with a difficult patent and listening in turn to the patient’s own life story. So the pressure indicated by the title is often undercut and does not build as much as you might expect. Critical reaction in those days pivoted on the racism elements, but a contemporary audience is almost certainly going to be as influenced by sequences involving the patient, so the picture automatically becomes more involved and Cornfield’s visual mastery more appreciated.

You can detect the influence of producer Stanley Kramer. In his capacity as director he had explored psychiatric therapy and anti-semitism in Home of the Brave (1949) and racism in The Defiant Ones (1958) also with Poitier. As producer he was responsible not only for selection of the original material, based on a short story The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert M. Lindner, but also imposed the framing device, which Kramer wrote. Those scenes relate to another psychiatrist (Peter Falk) coming to a much older and experienced Poitier for advice after hitting a brick wall with a similarly repugnant patient, Poitier telling the story of his treatment of the Bobby Darin patient as a way of showing that even the worst patients are treatable.

This is quite a different Sidney Poitier than you might be used to. Wearing suit and tie, and spectacles, this is a more restrained, measured performance. Poitier’s taboo-busting Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones had not progressed his career that much, still restricted to starring roles in low-budget pictures. But Kramer broke another taboo in Poitier’s favor with this one, casting him a role not initially written as an African American.

Bobby Darin (Come September, 1961) had parlayed his status as hit recording artist into a burgeoning movie career but does not quite display the menace necessary for a fully-fledged psycho. The likes of Richard Widmark would have been a more convincing adversary. Peter Falk (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) has a small one-tone role. The jazz-nuanced music by Ernest Gold (Exodus, 1961) is worth a listen. And if someone can tell me who designed the striking credit sequence I would be very pleased.

Incidentally, the title of Lindner’s short story is ironic. Patients pay for one hour of a psychiatrist’s time but in reality only receive 50 minutes in order for the professional to achieve a swift turnaround and keep his/her appointment timetable scheduled to the hour. Tic-Tac-Toe, in case you are unfamiliar with this two-person childhood game, consists of drawing lines to create nine squares and filling those with either a zero or a cross. The object of the exercise is to create a complete line of either symbols.

Catch-Up: Sidney Poitier films previously reviewed in the Blog are The Long Ships (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) and Duel at Diablo (1966).

The Hill (1965) ****

Set in a British Army prison camp in North Africa during World War Two ruled by sadistic Sergeant Wilson (Harry Andrews) who believes himself above the regulations he forces others to follow, The Hill is a parable about the hypocrisy of totalitarian rule. And much of what is shown would be offensive to modern sensibilities. Although the commandant (Norman Bird) and medical officer (Michael Redgrave) are his superior officers, Wilson runs the unit by force of personality. He believes his ruthless treatment of the prisoners turns them into proper soldiers. Into his fiefdom come five new prisoners including coward Joe Roberts (Sean Connery), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), African American Jacko King (Ossie Davis), another Scot Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and weakest link George Stevens (Alfred Lynch).

Most films about prisons emphasize imprisonment, most scenes taking place in cells or other places of confinement. Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1964) directs this film as though it is a paeon to freedom with incredible shots of the vista within which the men are contained. He uses some of the most bravura camerawork you will ever see outside of David Lean. The film opens with a two-minute crane shot credit sequence that begins with a prisoner collapsing on the titular hill and pulls back to reveal the entire encampment and follows with a one-minute reverse tracking shot of Andrews striding through his domain. And while the camera controls what we see, our ears are constantly assailed by the constant drumbeat of other marching prisoners.  

Climbing the hill in full pack would break any man and those who collapse are roused by pails of water. The first to crack is Stevens who is constantly tormented by homophobic jibes. Continuous racist abuse is heaped on Jacko King until driven to the point of madness he begins to behave like a gorilla which frightens the life out of his superiors. Obeying orders, says Joe Roberts, is “like a dog picking up a bone.”  RSM Wilson is out of control, the commandant spending his nights with a prostitute, the medical officer clearly sent here as punishment for some previous misdemeanor. Of the senior staff only Harris (Ian Bannen) comes away with any dignity, constantly trying to thwart the worst bullying.

When Stevens dies suddenly, the film changes tack and becomes a battle for survival among those who could be blamed for causing his death and those who dare to point the finger.  Wilson has no problem stitching up his colleagues and blackmailing the medical officer while Roberts is beaten up for his effrontery in standing up to authority. But the astonishing presence and self-confidence and, it has to be said, courage of Wilson lords it over everyone, and there is an extraordinary scene where he forces the entire battalion of prisoners to back down when they are on the brink of open rebellion.

Connery as Roberts is superb in what is his first dramatic role in a bread-and-butter dramatic production rather than the glossier Marnie (1964) and Woman of Straw (1964) and while he has his moment of defiance he gives enough glimpses of vulnerability and fear to ensure we do not mistake him for his alter ego James Bond. Ian Bannen delivers a touching assured performance far removed from the nasty sarcastic personalities he portrayed in his other desert pictures, Station Six Sahara (1963) and the Flight of the Phoenix (1965).  Ossie Davies, as defiant as Connery, is brilliant as the man who works out a way to beat the enemy by confusing them; the scene in the commandant’s office where he treats the officer as his inferior is a tour de force.   

Although the Army is meant to run according to established regulation, where obedience to a superior is paramount, it is equally apparent that it can also become a jungle if those who are the fittest assume control. Sgt Wilson demands unquestioned discipline even as he is breaking all the rules in the book. But he retains his authority not just by bullying, but by intelligence, exploiting weakness, coolness under pressure and by welcoming confrontation, his personality as dangerous as any serial killer.   

Cool Hand Luke (1967) *****

Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) has none of the truculence of the ordinary rebel, consequence not part of his vocabulary, “it seemed a good idea at the time” his unfailing mantra. Outside of Butch Cassidy, a more amiable criminal you would struggle to find. He defies authority with a smirk, indiscriminate in opposing the system, whether devised by guards or prisoners and they are indiscriminate in return, swiftly punishing anyone who steps out of line.

First-time director Stuart Rosenberg’s meditation on martyrdom remains an iconic curiosity and one of a handful of great performances that showcase Paul Newman’s immense acting skills. It is about ten minutes too long, unremitting sequences of lorries travelling to and from work detail, in the morning or at night, and the work itself, way too repetitive, suggests a director who did not quite trust his audience to get it.

In a prison movie, the main narrative is always escape, but Luke is as much trying to escape from himself as his circumstances. There is a self-pitying aspect in him blaming God for making him the way he is. But beyond these gripes it remains an astonishing and involving work. This is a world reduced to a single common denominator – brutality. For a man who loathes rules, this is hell.

While no other character apart from Dragline (George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role) and the Warden (Strother Martin in one of his best mean roles) is given much to do, nonetheless the rest of the cast do not merge into the background, facial expressions and tiny actions revealing character.  

There are a number of terrific scenes – Newman refusing to give in when beaten to a pulp in a boxing match, the egg-eating contest, the digging-the-hole method of destroying a man’s spirit, the guard bewailing the death of his dog. But the movie also examines the universal need for hero worship, Dragline’s bewilderment when Luke eventually fails to live up to expectation is affecting.

Two other aspects stand out. With every prisoner in the same uniform and the countryside bleak and undistinguished, Conrad Hall’s cinematography is miraculous while Lalo Schifrin’s score, with the wonderfully evocative simple theme, is continuously inventive. As definitive an examination of the outsider as the later Easy Rider.