Co-directors Hubert Cornfield and Stanley Kramer created a powerful and terrifying portrait of the psychology of indoctrination in the overlooked film Pressure Point. Set shortly after WWII, Bobby Darrin plays an American Nazi in prison for his role in a small riot. Bobby Darrin’s performance is as horrifying as Anthony Perkins’ in Psycho, and he proves everyone wrong who thinks that singers shouldn’t try to act.
Bobby Darrin’s character is known only as “the patient.” All the action of the film comes in the form of the relationship forced on him with the prison psychiatrist who is known only as “the doctor.” The doctor is played by Sidney Poitier in one of the strongest performances of his career. A Black psychologist was not a normal occurrence of the time as the patient makes very clear through his antagonism and attempts to manipulate his psychiatrist, wrongly assuming that the doctor is an easy target because of his skin color.
The patient refuses to cooperate with the doctor, but the doctor is so skilled at putting the pieces together of whatever his patient tells him, no matter how false, exaggerated or manipulative the patient’s words may be. Through the patient’s body language and choice of words (even when the doctor knows his patient is lying), the doctor is able to put together his patient’s story. Throughout the movie, we don’t just see what the patient tells the doctor, but we get to see what the doctor perceives. We see parts of the patient’s childhood and early adulthood. We see the whole process of his Nazi indoctrination.
When we do see the doctor and the patient together (what is actually happening instead of what the doctor is piecing together), what we see is how successfully the patient has been brainwashed by Nazi beliefs and how successful he can be at brainwashing others. Despite all his obvious racist actions and words toward his doctor, he finds an inroad to begin attempting to indoctrinate his doctor. The doctor narrates the whole story through a conversation he has with another doctor years later. At the point in the story when we realize that the patient is trying to indoctrinate his doctor, the doctor tells the other doctor in narration, “I was always scared of him, but that was the first time I knew why.”
Although both doctor and patient are fully aware of the patient’s racist attitudes against the doctor, the patient appears to candidly address the harsh realities of being a Black man in America in his attempt to plant anarchist seeds in the doctor whose life is undoubtedly touched by the harsh realities the patient is referring to. Of course, the doctor is perceptive enough to avoid those attempts at indoctrination, but when he explains the moment when he realized why he was afraid of his patient, he expresses his respect for the power of manipulating words and attitudes. He understands the dangers of listening too closely to the ideas of people who pursue control over others.
As a movie about the psychology of indoctrination, Pressure Point has a very important message for America right now. We are living under a presidential administration with close ties to white nationalist organizations, a love for “alternative facts” and a willingness to call anything “fake news” that attempts to find real facts in the midst of its lies or to call it out and hold it accountable for policies and words that are harmful to all people. It’s an indoctrination that didn’t begin with Donald Trump (I have no idea where it began), but it is certainly finding its voice and its power through him. As a nation, we need to understand how we’ve been led (through Internet, reality TV and countless other sources) to accept at face-value whatever is convenient and to reject anything true that we don’t like. The greatness of Pressure Point is its captivating way of showing the psychological process of indoctrination in a way that thrills us and also educates us so that we can see where we may be vulnerable.