It's 1942. Sidney Poitier is a psychiatrist at a federal prison who takes on Bobby Darin as a patient. Darrin, a racist and a member of the German-American Bund, is in the slams for advocating the overthrow of the government.
Darrin, however, has no interest in having his head shrunk. It's just that he can't sleep and wants some pills to help him out. No dice, though. Poitier elicits from Darrin the personal history of a "psychopath," raised by a sadistic father and a clinging, seductive mother.
These scenes are shown in flashbacks in which Darrin is played by another actor, a boy of about ten or eleven. (Man, is that kid ugly.) The child soon sees that the only road to satisfaction and self esteem lies in having the kind of power that derives from a charismatic leader. The leader that Darrin chooses is you-know-who. The power is exercised over minorities like Jews and Negroes.
It doesn't end happily. Darrin is released over Poitier's objections and later gets into terminal trouble.
Robert Lindner was a psychiatrist who wrote the best-selling "The Fifty-Minute Hour" about a dozen or so of his cases, and this story is based on one of them. Lindner's approach was typical of the times. A patient's problems were rooted in childhood experiences and exacerbated by adult experiences. The drive for power was only compensating for internal feelings of weakness, the subconscious dread had to be brought to light, and so forth and so on. I won't criticize this psychoanalytic approach but it's pretty much discredited today.
Bobby Darrin does a decent job as the patient. He's far from stereotypically stupid, a bright guy in fact, if uneducated. He'd been a psychiatric patient before, in "Captain Newman, M.D.", and gave a shattering performance in at least one scene. And he may be just about right for this part -- small, a little chubby, and repugnant. (He may have been plumped out because of congestive heart failure.) Poitier is the soul of reason and restraint. He looks right and he never steps wrong. He can make even the most stilted lines of dialog sing. He was probably one of the best dramatic actors of his time in Hollywood. Comedy was outside his range.
I felt -- seeing this for only the second time since its original release -- that there were four weaknesses undermining the film's strengths. One was the direction. Too many close ups, for one thing, of Poitier's sweating face and Darrin's over-sized schnozzola. And the constant switching around of identities during Darrin's tale telling was confusing. Sometimes it's not Darrin in Poitier's office. It's that ugly kid. And sometimes the kid's voice issues from Darrin's mouth, or his MOTHER's voice. Good scene, though, when Dad, James Anderson, shoves a piece of liver in the boy's horrified face.
Didn't care for the musical score either. Weird and intrusive. Art direction looked as if it had been executed on an almost infinitesimally tiny budget, almost at the level of my annual income. The city, the store fronts, the brownstone apartments, looked like cheap outdoor sets. The interiors were spare boxes, mostly empty. Nothing seemed cluttered or lived in. And when Darrin is selling apples on a street corner during the depression, it's supposed to be mid-winter and he doesn't look cold -- and he's just had a nice close shave.
The fourth, somewhat bothersome element was the script itself. I understand that what has appeared in print needs some cosmetic surgery before it can be presented on screen. Events must be squashed together, or excised, or rearranged, or simplified. But simplification shades into oversimplification. Example: Darrin has had only one "meaningful relationship" with a girl. She's pretty too. She buys all his apples and then invites him into her home. It's a nice home, everything Darrin yearns for, but the girl's father throws him out as an unworthy suitor, and the family is Jewish. Thereafter, Bobby Darrin hates Jews. Well, I mean -- really. He's been a little slow on the uptake all along, having failed to notice the mezuzzah on the door jamb or the mogen David around her neck.
I'd like to be able to say that the film's message -- and, boy, is there a message -- is out dated because you have to look under boards to find anti-Semites today, but I can't. Oh, we don't have the German-American Bund or Father Coughlin anymore, and the KKK seems dormant for the moment. The voices of the right are more political than racist, but we still have Evangelicals who believe only they will be saved when The Rapture arrives, while Jews and Muslims and everybody else will go straight to hell. And every once in a while there is an outbreak of anti-Semitic vandalism, not just here but around the world, even in places we prefer to think of as enlightened.
It's an interesting story but it's also a misleading story. I don't want to get technical but a major effort was made sixty years ago to find proto-Fascists in California (Adorno et al, if you want to look it up) and the high-scoring subjects weren't psychopaths at all but little old ladies and retired dock workers. A similar study in a Texas city found that authoritarian personalities were affable community leaders who had risen to the top by conforming to the values of the people they grew up with. In other words, Fascism doesn't come only from psychopathology. It comes from some as-yet-unidentified social wellspring.