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Pressure Point

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Pressure Point (1962)

     I have sort of jumped from one end of the spectrum to the other with regards to my new exposure to Bobby Darin‘s acting work. The light-hearted rom-com That Funny Feeling could not be more different from the dark and dramatic Pressure Point. Darin never won an Oscar during his brief movie career but was nominated once for a drama, although I was surprised it was not this one.

     Serving a few-year stint in prison for sedition, Darin’s racist “Patient” unveils a mentally distressed man when he is forced to see the black prison psychiatrist, played by Sidney Poitier. Poitier’s “Doctor” is new to the profession but does well to keep his cool when faced with the man who thinks so little of him.

     The patient has been campaigning to overturn the government and the doctor feels he might be too influential to be around the other patients and has the man placed in solitary confinement. There the patient starts to hallucinate and has fainting spells. This provides a legitimate impetus for the prisoner to be open to working with the doctor to remedy the symptoms.

     The patient’s past is marked by an unhappy marriage between his mother and father that included plenty mental abuse. He had only an imaginary friend at a young age whom he physically abused. As a youth he was successful in leading others into mischievous pranks all the while managing to hold down good grades.

     The patient gets to the point that he is willing to talk with the aloof-acting doctor and his comments about blacks also improve. The doctor, however, reaches an internal tipping point and ultimately quits his job over the patient.

     What I found peculiar about Pressure Point is that the story, which is told in flashback, essentially seems to be going nowhere and yet is thoroughly fascinating. We cannot really figure out what either character is aiming for or will achieve, we are just hearing the pieces of a sociopath’s past. Also strange is that Poitier’s character declares at the end that he has been unable to remain objective in dealing with the patient and that the man’s racist jabs have been damaging to him. This was news to me at that point because the doctor seems so relaxed and nearly uncaring throughout the two characters’ discourse.

     Darin, on the other hand, gives a superbly emotional performance as he takes us through his sad past. A child actor (Barry Gordon) also does a unsettlingly good job acting out the patient’s childhood experiences. Although Poitier’s character finds the patient unbearable to continue treating, Darin elicited plenty of sympathy from me. We are entreated to few scenes of his misdeeds and offered more evidence as to why the man was damaged goods early on to the point that we truly feel for him. Poitier’s rather emotionless part fails to pull the audience to his side of the battle. This was a truly unique picture that inexplicably draws one in.


Murder by Death


Murder by Death (1976)

     Murder by Death has all the makings of a great comedy spoof on murder mysteries, but unfortunately it felt only so-so to me. For those who are more familiar with the 1985 film Clue, one can easily see where the later film found its inspiration, besides the board game, of course. Murder by Death puts a cast of unrelated characters in a country mansion where they have been invited for “dinner and a murder”. Unlike Clue, however, this movie fills the house with the world’s best detectives who have been engaged so the host can prove he is a better sleuth than them all.

     The greatest joke of the flick is that the detective characters are spoofs of movie and literature-based private dicks popular in American cinema. David Niven and Maggie Smith play Dick and Dora Charleston, a take off on Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man movies. Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang, or Charlie Chan. Peter Falk is Sam Diamond, hailing back to Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. James Coco portrays Milo Perrier, and Elsa Lanchester plays Jessica Marbles, a reference to Agatha Christie characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, respectively.

     Truman Capote makes a rare screen appearance as the dinner’s host, Lionel Twain. He does an adequate acting job leading the story through its various twists. Dinner guests are told a murder will occur at midnight and they must endeavor to solve the crime. Convinced if they all remain in the same room at the time of the crime, the detecties assert there will be guaranteed witnesses and the deduction will be a snap. That plan is interrupted by the “screaming” of a mute, deaf cook who leads a few cast members to find the blind butler (Alec Guinness) dead in the kitchen. When other characters return to the kitchen later they find only his suit of clothes. The next batch finds a naked corpse. Further complicating things is that a duplicate, yet empty dining room is accessed every other time the door to such room is opened. Ultimately, Mr. Twain is the midnight victim and one who is not in the dining room with all the guests who hoped to witness the crime.

     We learn hilarious and ridiculous reasons why all guests have motive to kill the man, but the end of the film sums up an even more ludicrous actual story as each detective shares his hypothesis. Ultimately, it does not matter who the murderer is or who the victim is, for that matter, because the story is an absurd farce. As you should plainly tell, the story does have all the makings of a roaring good time, but tragically the comedy falls flat. The most amusement I gained was from seeing the actors mock the characters they were impersonating. Niven and Falk gave the best show to that end. I have not seen a Charlie Chan film, but Sellers was quite amusing also, even without that reference point. My best advice to Murder by Death‘s end is to watch Clue instead. Although equally hair-brained, it’s much more fun.

The Great Race

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The Great Race (1965)

     With the death of Blake Edwards last week, it was a lucky coincidence I had recorded The Great Race recently. What Edwards had hoped to be “the funniest movie ever” is a great example of the writer/director’s work and one that I imagine will continue to entertain audiences of all ages for decades to come. Edwards was best known for his comedies — The Pink Panther movies and Operation Petticoat — but also contributed significant dramatic films — Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Days of Wine and Roses.

     By re-teaming the duo seen in the wildly successful Some Like it Hot from 1959 (not his film), Edwards might not have made THE funniest movie of all time, but he sure crammed a load of laughs into this nearly three-hour saga. The relationship between Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in The Great Race, however, is quite different from the pals who sought Marilyn Monroe‘s affection in their previous on-screen pairing. Curtis plays the Great Leslie, a stunt man of sorts who arranges an automobile race from New York to Paris (moving westward). Lemmon plays Professor Fate, the villain who seeks to foil Leslie’s stunts and to defeat him in the race. Natalie Wood is the suffragette who in this early 20th century time period seeks equality for women. She wrangles herself a test job as a reporter who will participate in and cover the race.

     The story is just a device by which Edwards was able to insert gag after hijink and slapstick galore onto the big screen. Wood is beautiful if not utterly annoying, Curtis is his usual dry, handsome, not-contributing-a-whole-lot sort; and Lemmon steals the show with sidekick Peter Falk as Max. Lemmon is almost unrecognizable with black hair and mustache, hunched back and smarmy villanous laugh. What he is recognizable as, however, is the bad guy from the Wacky Races cartoons that Hanna-Barbera premiered not long after this movie. Dick Dastardly and his canine sidekick Muttley (who really does resemble Falk) starred in the race-based cartoons that I remember watching as a kid in the ’80s and ’90s. This would be yet another example of when Edwards managed to create such absurd and memorable characters that they were equally suited to the world of animation as they were in live-action (the other being Pink Panther, of course).

Max & Prof. Fate/Dick Dastardly & Muttley

     I regret that I only became aware of Edwards over the course of the past months through the Pink Panther movies. Even as an Audrey Hepburn fan, I was not aware he was the brains behind possibly her most famous role. His sort of comedy is the type that really appeals to me — it is stupid, easy laughs over which a person of any age or intelligence level can crack up. Although it is long, The Great Race is the sort of movie you can pick up and leave off anywhere in the film because, as I mentioned, it is not about the story or the climax but rather is important for the fun one has along the way.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

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