Pressure Points: Political Psychology, Screen Adaptation, and the Management of Racism in the Case-History Genre
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Camera Obscura 15.3 (2000) 70-113

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Pressure Points:
Political Psychology, Screen Adaptation, and the Management of Racism in the Case-History Genre

Andrea Slane



In 1962, Sidney Poitier and Bobby Darin appeared as a prison psychiatrist and an American Nazi in Pressure Point (dir. Hubert Cornfield, US), a not particularly successful "social-problem film." Stanley Kramer, the film's producer, was a major player in the social-problem genre, part of the cinematic variant of the studies of social and political problems that had gained unprecedented influence in the World War II and cold-war periods. 1 He went on to produce or direct films with Poitier three times, beginning with The Defiant Ones (1958), then Pressure Point, and finally Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967). Taken together with Kramer's first film, Home of the Brave (1949), Pressure Point represents an effort to repeat and combine already well-established genre interests that by 1962 had become rather staid. As Poitier himself said at the Berlin Film Festival where the film was screened, "I found it devised strictly for box office potential. . . . In many American [End Page 71] films, even those we're doing now, there is a singular lack of truth and we seek the wrong things. Basic truths often get lost in our paying court to values that propel us into vacuums." 2

Pressure Point is actually the last version of a story that, like many cold-war narratives, finds its genesis in World War II, when psychoanalyst Robert Lindner worked at a federal penitentiary and treated an American fascist incarcerated there. Psychological theories of political behavior picked up momentum in the postwar period and expanded by two interrelated developments that came with the defeat of fascism: the ascendancy of the concept of totalitarianism, which combined communism with fascism and so extended wartime theories into the cold war, and the turn to questions of domestic politics and the social management of conflicts internal to the nation, especially racial prejudice. Pressure Point is a film project that grew mostly out of this second development, which signaled an expansion of the notion--formerly restricted primarily to immigrant and working-class families--that traditional social institutions were not adequately socializ- ing citizens for the tasks of modern democracy and capitalism. By shifting the theory of the root of social and political problems away from issues of economic equity and class-based disaffection, social theorists and the popular narratives they inspired endorsed solutions that would not require redistribution of material resources and wholesale economic reform. 3 Instead, they placed the focus on the individual psyche and its capacity to achieve a healthy balance between freedom and independent-mindedness on the one hand, and conformity to community norms on the other.

A primary means of enacting this social management was to align the "cure" for political problems with normative gender and sexual behavior. Pressure Point's narrative dramatizes this effort to cure, but it also reveals the ideological tensions embedded in such a project. In the process of converting Lindner's 1942 case history to the 1962 film script, Kramer further hoped to achieve "greater explosive qualities through the switch" of the analyst's ethnicity from Jewish to African American. 4 Because of this change, the film's script also is exceptionally revealing of tensions [End Page 72] between race-specific versions of these gender and sexual norms.

The Popularization of Political Psychology

The case history that comprises the narrative of Pressure Point went through a series of media in its journey from couch to screen. The case itself appeared in popular print form in Lindner's collection of "psychoanalytic tales," The Fifty-Minute Hour, which became a national bestseller in 1954. 5 Its next version was a one-hour "Public Affairs" presentation that was aired on a Sunday afternoon in January of 1960 by NBC News. 6 And finally it became a feature-length film directed by Hubert Cornfield, starring Poitier as the psychiatrist and Darin as the fascist patient. Both the television...