The next film is The Magnificent Ambersons.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
There is a good chance that you have not heard of this 1962 film, but it contains an insightful psychological and social exploration of how bigotry, on a personal level, and totalitarianism, on a national scale, can take hold. It is not surprising that the producer of the movie is Stanley Kramer, whose many motion pictures focus on the big issues, such as Inherit the Wind and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It also showcases two terrific performances by Sidney Poitier and, of all people, singer Bobby Darin.
The credits role to a jarring jazz score which will underline the abnormal mental pathology of Darin’s character (who has no name, but is just known as the Patient, just as Poitier’s character is the Doctor). The Young Psychiatrist (Peter Falk) barges in on his boss, a gray-haired Poitier, saying he can’t get through to a young African American patient, whose mother was a prostitute who brought white men home with her, and whose father was killed by white men. Falk argues that his patient quite naturally sees him as the enemy, and that a black psychiatrist should handle the case. First off, that Poitier is the head of psychiatry here means that there has been progress in racial matters, which will undermine Darin’s later prediction that it will take the country 5,500 years before African Americans will be accepted by white people. Also, Poitier does not practice so-called reverse racism, as he says he appointed Falk to the case because he thought he was the best person for the job.
Falk says that the patient’s problem is anger and hatred. Poitier says he experienced a similar case and the majority of the film is a flashback as he retells his story to give Falk some perspective on his situation. It was Poitier’s first real psychiatric job, and it was at a Federal penitentiary in 1942. It is a significant time, since Nazism is controlling most of Europe. Darin’s inmate, serving three years for sedition, enters the psychiatrist’s office, and starts laughing. Immediately, he shows his racial prejudice, which triggers a defensive response on the part of The Doctor. If the laughing wasn’t enough, Darin says he doesn’t care what Poitier thinks of him because he is a Negro. He says that the Doctor must think he has it made because the Jews put the cripple, Franklin Roosevelt, in the White House. So, Darin’s character, although being forthright about his outlook, reduces everyone to a derogatory label, as do all racists.
When Poitier asks Darin if he believes everything recorded in his records, and why he was willing to go to jail for it, Darin makes it sound noble, twisting the argument around, saying one has to sacrifice for his or her beliefs. Of course, it is the cause that is in question here, not the dedication of the believer. He does admit that he believes most of what he has espoused, and the rest is politics, which has to do with the power to manipulate people to one’s way of thinking. He considers his imprisonment an expected setback, which occurs when trying to fight the established order. He cites Adolf Hitler as an example, and that he was able to use the time in prison to write his manifesto, Mein Kampf. Darin says he will use his incarceration to explore the vast prison library there to learn more and be ready to sway others when he gets out.
Poitier admits that he could not keep his medical objectivity when dealing with this racist patient. He was disappointed that his sentence was not longer. It is interesting that this doctor could be emotionally detached when dealing with thieves or murderers, but could not do so with this patient. He saw Darin’s character as more dangerous because he was a leader type, intelligent, and could influence many others with his message of hate; in that way, he presented a more widespread danger than the criminal whose victims are more limited.
We see Darin resting on his cot in his cell, and the shadow of the barbed mesh connecting the bars on his window highlight his imprisonment, not only externally, but also internally. The small cell is a type of expressionistic reflection of the lonely world in which this patient has lived most of his life. We witness his hallucination during a panic attack, where he sees a tiny version of himself trying to climb out of the sink drain in his cell. He presses the water valves to wash away the image. This is a conflicted visual. On the one hand, Darin’s character is trying to climb out of the dark sewer of his tortured unconscious, but he also drowns any self-understanding, and thus, reveals his desire for self-destruction.
In another session with Poitier, Darin says that he doubts the doctor can help him, because, being black, he can’t even help himself. Even though he is a psychiatrist, he could only get a job in a prison, and has a shoddy office. He says that Poitier will never be accepted by a white society. But, when Darin has a panic attack when asked about his blackout spells, Poitier knows his exact symptoms, which include feeling sick in the stomach, inability to breathe, sensing odd sounds and colors, and experiencing body stiffness. Poitier admits that he had this same problem in the past. Because he has established a commonality between them, Darin drops his hostile pose, and asks for help. The film is saying that even supposed enemies can find a connection, not feel alienated from each other, if they make the effort to view each other as individuals, and not as stereotypes.
After time in analysis, Poitier narrates that a psychological picture of Darin’s character began to emerge. His father rejected him because his conception was not planned or accepted by him. The marriage to the boy’s mother only occurred because she became pregnant. His father was difficult to please and easy to anger. He was a butcher, and he both repelled his son with his blood-letting profession, but also served as a role model for brutality, as he wielded knives to cut the meat. His mother restricted herself to her bed, playing the part of an invalid, using pity as a way to get affection from her son, her only source of attention. His mother would make him rub her leg to ease a cramp, and this type of inappropriate attention caused Darin’s character to feel ashamed. His father was notorious in the neighborhood, coming home in a loud, drunken state, bringing women he picked up, and humiliating his wife by having sex with them in their house.
The movie presents these recollections in a stylized manner. The past events are sometimes dramatized in Poitier’s office, with a black background, to show how thoughts are not recreated as concrete reality, but are more dream-like. Sometimes we hear the boy’s voice coming out of the adult Darin’s mouth, as he lays on the couch in the doctor’s office, and we also get an image of the boy on the couch. It shows how he, and we, are being taken back in time, but it also implies that the grown-up Darin is still a frightened child in many ways. There are shots at odd angles, emphasizing how his character’s view on life became distorted.
Because the neighbors were repulsed by his father's’ actions, Darin’s youthful boy was not allowed to play with the neighborhood children. He rationalized his separateness as something special that made him stand out from others. He then created an imaginary friend, who he used to bully, getting revenge for how he was mistreated. We again get an example of self-hatred, because the imaginary friend is part of himself. We see the youthful Darin’s character holding a pipe, which turns into a knife, and that reminds us of his father cutting meat. The boy would also have violent revenge fantasies where he was a Far Eastern ruler who tortured or killed others, including the figure of his mother, who he could not feel sorry for because of her lack of courage, despite her weaker physicality, to defy his father. He appears to overcompensate for the feelings of inferiority instilled by his father by being aggressive, but also his revulsion of blood showed his guilt for emulating his father’s savage nature. The doctor gets him to admit, grudgingly, that by the patient’s logic, African Americans, who are without much power in American society (remember this takes place in 1942), should be admired for trying to fight for civil rights. Darin’s character says he does not see blacks as inferior in Africa, among their own race, but refuses to grant them an equal standing in the United States.
He says those who are Jewish are more “dangerous” because they “pass” for whites, and are intelligent. He believes that the “purity of the white Christian stock” is threatened by these “others.” It is common practice in totalitarian ideology to designate those who do not fit into the established culture as the scapegoats, the ones that are the causes of the majority population’s problems. This is a way of diverting the populace from placing any blame either on those in power, or the totalitarian belief system trying to gain control. It is ironic, here, that Darin’s character says he is fighting for mainstream Americans when he, himself, was an outcast, shunned by his own neighborhood where he grew up. He may be trying to buy back into the society that rejected him by being a warrior who is against those he feels are usurping it.
His imaginary friend faded away with age, but Darin’s character’s angry antisocial ways manifested themselves as he became a juvenile delinquent. And, his ability to lead others because of his intelligence developed, as other youthful misfits, also wanting to unleash their anger for not fitting in, followed his lead, braking windows and committing other local infractions.
He left home at age fifteen after a humiliating event where his father, who taunted him about his disgust for blood, pressed a piece of raw liver onto his face. When Poitier shows some compassion by saying how difficult it musts have been for him at that age to be on his own, Darin’s response is that he had to do things that were not fit for a white man. He then apologizes for this statement after seeing Poitier’s stiff response. The psychiatrist's inability to be objective here is shown, because, as Darin’s patient points out, for him to apologize is an “achievement.” Poitier goes to his superior and says he wants off the case, and says that he shouldn’t be treating him because he is an African American. This statement is basically what Falk’s character says at the beginning, in reverse, and illustrates why Poitier is telling this story. His boss says he needs to be objective, and says that he went out on a limb to hire a black psychiatrist, so “Don’t let me down.” Poitier’s narrator says what he felt the man left out was “just because you’re a Negro.” It’s as if his superior is saying that the psychiatrist’s blackness is a handicap which he must overcome.
In another session, Darin tells what he considers to be an amusing story, but which turns out to be a sadistic one, and which points to Darin’s character’s malfunctioning moral compass. While working in construction, he acquired a following of fellow employees, who obeyed him. One time, while in a bar, he initiates a destructive game of tic-tac-toe by carving the lines into the bar surface, followed by painting the surfaces and playing the game on all the establishment’s floor, walls, and ceiling. He now wields an actual knife, as opposed to the pretend one in his childhood daydreams, and intimidates those present. He humiliates the bartender’s wife by playing the game with her lipstick all over her body, molesting her in a form of sexual abuse. While he does this to her, he tells the bartender to lie down on the floor and go to sleep. It is ironic that now Darin’s inmate can’t sleep, possibly showing that the evil he has done is subconsciously exacting its own revenge on him.
Poitier asks him if he ever had meaningful feelings toward another person. He says that there was a young woman he met during The Great Depression, after he lost his job, and resorted to selling apples on a cold city sidewalk. The woman smiled at him and bought all of his apples. She seemed truly interested in him, and he was pleased that he could make her laugh. He helped carry the apples to her house, which appeared luxurious by the poverty-stricken standards of the time. The next day, she again approached him and bought him warm chestnuts to eat. The woman’s father appeared across the street, angry at his daughter’s attention to Darin’s apple-selling street person. She defied him, and asked Darin’s character if he would call on her that evening. When he showed up, the father answered the door and made it plain that he was not good enough for his daughter. After he slammed the door in his face, he noticed a mezuzah on the door frame with the Star of David. He later generalizes this action of rejection to all Jews, forgetting that the girl was Jewish, and was a kind person who accepted him. Pain has a way of leaving a more lasting impact that an act of kindness on some people.
The shot of the Star of David is immediately followed by the image of a swastika, showing how prejudice can lead one to join organizations that foster falsely negative beliefs. Darin is at an American Bund meeting, where the speaker blames the Jews for exploiting Christian Americans as they hold onto their money and buy fur coats for their wives. He even wears a pair of glasses that have a large nose attached, viciously spreading the stereotype of how Jews appear. He then urges those gathered to salute Adolf Hitler. Darin’s character has insight into the falsehoods that must be propagated to achieve the takeover of the American government. He admits that when there is no clear enemy, one must be created because the “people need one to blame things on.” He says that average white people want to change the system that they feel has shortchanged them. Black people are easy targets because they can be identified readily. They won’t need wristbands adorned with the Jewish star to designate them. Darin’s patient says that some lies have to be told to achieve the greater good of making America pure again.
He describes how the Nazi movement was growing in the United States. People go to meetings, tell others, and more show up. They contribute donations. They create fear of the Jews, who consider themselves as the “chosen people.” Those the Nazis attack fight back, which just brings more attention, and more followers. He says the American Bund has recruited a famous journalist, industrialists, and even some Hollywood people. They have established youth camps to indoctrinate young people, even sending them on trips to Germany. Darin’s narration is accompanied by actual footage of Nazi meetings that took place, not in out-ot-the-way rural places, but at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Poitier’s narrator says that even though there are not many psychopaths in a given society, “when militant and organized hate exists, a psychopath is the leader.” And, if one psychopath has a hundred “disgruntled and angry” followers, you then have to deal with, in essence, a hundred psychopaths. Poitier tells Darin in a session that he can’t succeed because everything that he is preaching is based on a lie. But, Darin’s patient points out that “The Big Lie” existed before Hitler. The United States is supposedly based on the principle that “All men are created equal.” But, Darin points out, Poitier, being an African American, knows that that precept does not exist in reality. Black people were not allowed to go to the same schools, acquire the same jobs, and live in the same places as white people. It is at this point that Poitier’s narrator says that now he was truly frightened of how his patient’s beliefs could spread.
The film then reverts back to Darin’s specific psychological problems. Darin had not admitted that the figure he saw in the sink was himself previously, but after intense interrogation, he says that it is really the figure of his father, too. He confesses that he did want his father dead. Poitier explains that Darin’s image and his father’s are interchangeable, because of his desire to kill his parent, and also self-punishment for his lethal fantasies. He was both killer and victim. Once he understood and accepted his hatred of his father, the blackouts ceased, he was able to sleep, and he stopped coming for treatment. He shows up later at Poitier’s office and says he will be able to get out within the month. Poitier, however, still sees him as a threat, and does not approve of granting an early parole. Darin’s patient then spouts out more hate, saying how the Germans have eradicated the enemy in Europe, and soon that will happen in America. Poitier asks for an apology, which Darin refuses. After Poitier takes off his coat and glasses and approached his patient, he is able to apologize. Poitier says once he no longer appeared as a symbol of authority by taking off his jacket and glasses, and was not standing behind his desk, it was easy to apologize to just another human being, who isn’t labeled as part of some generalized enemy.
The staff points out that Darin’s character has become a model prisoner, and think that Poitier is not able to be objective because of his patient’s beliefs. The staff interviews Darin’s patient, and he tells partial truths, but also says that he now sees the light, and owes blacks and Jews an apology. Poitier happens upon the interview and says that Darin’s character is lying, that he still maintains his Nazi beliefs. Darin then says that Poitier is against him because he is still angry at the way he used to be, and will not grant that he has changed. The looks on the staff members show that they do not value Poitier’s assessment. Because of this professional humiliation, Poitier decides to quit. Before he leaves, Darin’s character pays one more visit to the office. He says his point about the existing views toward African Americans was proved - the white staff believed the white prisoner over the black psychiatrist.
Back in the present, Poitier says that Darin’s character was eventually hanged for beating a man to death. He says to Falk’s psychiatrist that he knows how he feels through his own experience, but he didn’t quit, and Falk is inspired to go back and deal with his version of a hateful patient. Before Darin’s character left his office, Poitier said that his movement would fail, “because there is something in this country … something big enough to take it from people like you and come back and nail you into the ground. You’re walking out of here? You are going nowhere!” For our future, let’s hope this psychiatrist’s optimism is a valid one.
The next film is The Magnificent Ambersons.