In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
To a large degree, artistry consists of making brilliantly counterintuitive choices. The more you can zig when you’re expected to zag—without violating internal logic or common sense—the better your odds of provoking a complex response, or at least of holding people’s attention. Those qualifiers are tricky, though. Deciding to subvert audience expectations by casting clean-cut pop singer Bobby Darin as a neo-Nazi thug—and, further, to have said thug exude menace via games of tic-tac-toe—is one thing. Actually making such a thoroughly preposterous-sounding scenario work on screen, however, is quite another.
That bizarre confrontation can be found roughly halfway through Pressure Point, a largely forgotten 1962 drama starring Darin and Sidney Poitier, which was recently released on Blu-ray by Olive Films. It’s a bold provocation in several respects, though sometimes clumsy and didactic. Present-tense scenes constitute a blistering duet between the two lead actors, with Poitier playing a psychiatrist at a mental hospital who’s been assigned to determine whether Darin’s patient has reformed and is fit for release. (Neither character is ever named, so I’ll be using the actors’ names throughout.) Along the way, a series of flashbacks reveal the circumstances that pushed Darin to the grotesque embrace of the German American Bund, a WWII-era hate group that espoused Nazism in the U.S. One of those flashbacks involves a truly surreal sort of intimidation—a scene so unusual, and so starkly ugly, that it’s impossible to forget once seen. Take a look:
Pressure Point was directed by Hubert Cornfield, a name with which I was previously unfamiliar. His relative obscurity surprises me now, because this movie rivals John Frankenheimer’s work for aggressive expressionism, 1960s style. While the Turkish-born Cornfield wasn’t prolific—he made only seven features, including such enticing B-movie titles as Lure Of The Swamp and Plunder Road—he was apparently perceived as a potential major talent at some point; his Wikipedia entry is all of three sentences long, but the third sentence notes that Billy Wilder, William Wyler, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz were signatories on his Directors Guild Of America application. That’s some heavy-duty support. And this scene alone suggests that their faith was by no means misplaced. In addition to being visually striking, it’s also rhythmically complex, making expert use of both a whirlwind of quick cutting and prolonged moments of disarming stillness. The entire film is formally impressive, but even if I’d only seen these few minutes, I’d be curious enough to explore further.
Let’s come back to that, though. Possibly the most interesting decision Cornfield made (assuming he had at least some say in casting—not always the case with directors in the studio era) was to position Darin as a tough guy. We’re talking here about a singer whose first big hit was about being surprised by a party in his house after emerging from the bathtub, and who sounded debonair even when crooning about a serial killer. John Cassavetes had used Darin to good effect the previous year in Too Late Blues, but that role—the leader of a jazz band, who at one crucial point refuses to fight when provoked—was firmly in Darin’s wheelhouse. It must have required much more imagination to perceive the potential for smug hostility that Darin embodies in Pressure Point. His scenes opposite Poitier are considerably richer than this flashback, which merely asks him to be a macho brute, but he manages to make the threat credible, finding a curdled variation on his glad-handing stage persona. At no point does he turn off the dead-eyed smile, which somehow looks genuinely scary on that baby face. It’s easy to believe that he means business.
Still, it’s Cornfield’s arresting execution of an outré idea that really sings. He kicks off the flashback with a device that I’ve always loved (extensively employed by Michel Gondry in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind): transitioning seamlessly from present to past by constructing a replica of the present-day set adjacent to the flashback set. The camera drifts past Darin, telling his anecdote to Poitier, and reveals the bar where that anecdote takes place, as if it were only a few feet away and the intervening years had never happened. This reliably creates the impression of the past bleeding into the present—useful here because Poitier’s ultimate recommendation to the facility’s board hinges on the question of whether Darin is still the same noxious person he was back then. Formally, this device very clearly suggests that he is. Plus, it’s just elegant as all hell. I’m on record as being generally opposed to (what I perceive as) needlessly flashy camera movements designed expressly to avoid cutting, but this device is an exception to the rule. I suppose it could be considered flashy, but it’s the momentary cognitive dissonance it creates that I like.
Once in the bar, Cornfield goes nuts. There’s no explanation I can think for why that many cans of white paint would conveniently be on hand—surely Darin and his buddies didn’t wait around for half an hour while someone ran to the store—but it’s not as if realism is a major component of the sequence on any level. Ernest Gold’s frenetic jazz score gradually builds anxiety as a series of quick shots chronicle the transformation of the entire building into a field of cross-hatched lines, X’s, and O’s. The tempo of the cutting gets faster and faster, with occasional sweaty close-ups of faces inserted among the brush strokes. And when the music reaches a crescendo, Cornfield finally cuts to a wide shot revealing that every surface in the bar, horizontal and vertical, has been tic-tac-toed. Despite being the expected punchline to the preceding montage, it’s a startling image, conveying a sense of true madness. Not quite as insane as the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” reveal in Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, perhaps (if only because that manuscript implies dozens of hours of pointless repetition by one man), but in the ballpark.
It’s the ending, though, that really haunts me. There’s something uniquely upsetting about Darin using the woman’s lipstick to draw a tic-tac-toe grid on her face, as she stands there looking terrified—and directly into the lens, as if appealing to the viewer for help. (Her initial interest in Darin, before he becomes abusive, is upsetting in a different way, and the one part of the scene I strongly dislike. A strong whiff of misogyny to that, and it’s not coming from Darin.) And then Darin and his pal turn her around and pull down her dress so they can play a game on her back, at which point Cornfield, rather than tracking back across his adjacent sets, just cuts to Poitier, staring blankly in Darin’s direction while Darin’s obscene giggles fill the soundtrack. Did things with that poor woman escalate even further? We’re neither shown nor told, which allows our imaginations to do their worst. It’s an unexpectedly abrupt conclusion to a kind of humiliation that nobody could possibly have predicted. Poitier’s subsequent voice-over narration, in which he notes that hearing this story made him actively afraid of Darin for the first time, is arguably superfluous. The sheer absurdity of what we’ve just witnessed—an innocuous celebrity and an innocuous children’s game employed to horrifying effect—is all that’s necessary.