A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro
Y’ever see an old movie that’s clearly well-made, clearly well-meaning, clearly a work of the human conscience…that suddenly strikes a note so discordant with your modern sensibility that you cannot help wince?
I see a lot of old movies, and am sometimes forced to overlook or forgive such moments as the product of their time. For instance, Ingrid Bergman calls Dooley Wilson a “boy” in CASABLANCA, and you can wince at that, but the character of Sam is largely well-treated (though subservient), and not central to the story. The brilliant comedies of Harold Lloyd and some of Buster Keaton are marred by painful cameos by stereotyped Black people and in some cases by stereotyped Jews, but such fleeting appearances are not central to the stories they tell and can be forgiven; your mileage may vary.
Then there’s a case like the movie I saw today, PRESSURE POINT.
It’s not a bad film, at all, though it’s not the shocking and searing drama it was intended to be at the time. One of producer Stanley Kramer’s many “message” pictures — a number of which weather the years untouched — it involves the conflict between a Black prison psychiatrist (Sidney Poitier) and a disturbed Nazi-sympathizing inmate (Bobby Darin) during World War II.
Poitier is as powerful as he always is. He was too versatile an actor to be relegated to the function he usually served, that of the Black platonic ideal; but it needs to be said that because this WAS his usual function, he was exquisite at communicating dignity, righteousness, and simmering moral strength. (It’s hard to name many actors, white or black, who so clearly communicate intelligence.) In this film, he’s a man who puts himself on a tight leash, because of his revulsion for the inmate he is duty-bound to help, and he’s riveting in it. So is Darin, who — I apologize to his fans, but it happens to be true — has a face that makes him very, very persuasive as a nonentity who will never amount to much.
The film takes the form of an extended flashback, told by a much older version of his character (with gray added to his temples), to a new prison psychiatrist (a very young Peter Falk) having his own professional crisis of faith. For some reason that escapes me, Poitier’s character decides that the best way to keep Falk’s character from quitting on his own revolting inmate patient is to tell him this story of an inmate he never quite reached — one who, we eventually learn, ended up being paroled because Poitier’s superiors believed his claims of rehabilitation over his black doctor’s, and who was ultimately executed after committing another murder on the outside. Gee, that’s motivation! If I was Peter Falk’s character, I’d run right back to my office!
The now squirm-worthy moment comes after the extended flashback, after the faith of Peter Falk’s character is somehow restored by this long and dispiriting anecdote of psychiatry’s ultimate failure, and after he rescinds his resignation and resolves to return to his problem inmate.
He says he even has a plan for how he’s going to handle the job.
What follows are the closing lines of the film.
“I’m going to get some burnt cork,” he says, “and cover my face with it.”
Poitier’s character nods. “Just don’t fail me because you’re white.”
Ow. Ow. Ow.
No. No. No. What an awful clunk THAT dialogue was!