Let me cut to the chase: today, three films were released as Blu-ray-style DVDs and I have watched all three. Below are my thoughts and thinkings about each.
Pressure Point (d. Hubert Cornfield) - There's a scene in Tim Robbins's 1995 film Dead Man Walking which rather neatly exposes the cowardice at its heart. Matthew Poncelet, the Death Row inmate played by Sean Penn is being questioned about his racist beliefs by Sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose job it is to help Poncelet reach a kind of grace, and to ask forgiveness for the murder he committed, before being put to death by the state, something Poncelet, Prejean, and the film oppose. So Poncelet says he doesn't like black people because they're lazy. Prejean says "Martin Luther King wasn't lazy" and Poncelet says no, he likes Martin Luther King because he actually did stuff. Prejean zings him by saying "It sounds like what you really don't like isn't black people, but lazy people." Poncelet's reaction is to be quietly flummoxed, the implication being that he thinks she might be on to something here. This exposes the film's cowardice because to begin with, I daresay that not a single racist white person has ever said "Funnily enough, I do like Martin Luther King, though." Second, Robbins shows that he believes an audience is more willing to forgive a man for killing someone for no good reason than they are a man who hates someone for no good reason. In fairness to Robbins, he's not wrong in this belief. What's cowardly about it, not to mention weird, is that in order to make his argument against the death penalty, he strips away anything objectionable about Poncelet (save for the murder itself, but even that he mitigates as much as he reasonably can) so that he doesn't really need to marshal very much in the way of a moral argument.
Though the American Nazi played by Bobby Darin in 1962's Pressure Point (just out from Olive Films), produced by issue-filmmaker Stanley Kramer, isn't in prison for murder (he is in prison, though), for a while there, as I watched it the other day, it seemed to me that Kramer, director Cornfield, and writers Cornfield and S. Lee Pogostin, were constructing a similar escape hatch. Darin's convict has been assigned to the care of a prison psychiatrist played by Sidney Poitier. Darin objects to this because Poitier is black, and Poitier doesn't much care for Darin, but he's there to do a job, and anyway as the film progresses, and we learn about the Nazi's difficult childhood, and the nightmares that still haunt him, you start to think, well, hey...this guy's a racist piece of shit but maybe he can be talked out of being that way. What a tale of redemption that would be.
Interestingly enough, the film, and I don't want to spoil it, but the film pulls back from that eventually. And even though Kramer's iron fist of compassion can still be felt banging down from time to time, Pressure Point nevertheless is interested in sending a more complicated message then the one it seems to be composing. The last scene between Poitier and Darin (Poitier is unsurprisingly good; Darin is surprisingly good) shows Poitier's doctor absolutely furious at Darin's prisoner. He does not forgive him for his behavior, his crimes, his attitudes, beliefs, or manipulations. The important thing is that we know the doctor considers this case, in hindsight, to have been one of his failures. But he's going to keep doing his job, or trying to. Maybe next time he'll get a sweetheart like Matthew Poncelet, which would be a total walk in the park in comparison.
Death by Hanging (d. Nagisa Oshima) - I mentioned before that even regarding the murder that we know Matthew Poncelet (yes I know, but I'm trying to establish a "theme") committed, in Dead Man Walking director/screenwriter Tim Robbins does whatever he thinks he can get away with to soften that blow for the audience by showing that, for example, Poncelet never wanted to kill either the man or woman he and his friend ended up murdering that night in the woods, but, while Poncelet did indeed pull the trigger on one of them, he was scared and bullied into it by his partner, a much nastier and more sadistic fellow. Not that this excuses, Poncelet, of course, but doesn't it almost?? The unavoidable question in my mind, however, is if you really mean what you're saying, then make an anti-death penalty film about the sadistic friend who wanted to commit those murders. Grow some balls.
An anti-death penalty film that does kinda sorta address this is Nagisa Oshima's Death by Hanging from 1968, which was released today by Criterion. Oshima, best known for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, which featured a very interesting performance from David Bowie, and the scandalous In the Realm of the Senses, which featured, well, you know, was always a confrontationally political filmmaker, and he begins Death by Hanging aggressively challenging anyone in the audience who might support the death penalty by asking, via a narrator, "Have you ever been in a death chamber?" We're then walked through the process of preparing someone for execution, and then through the execution itself, though in this case, the convict, a Korean immigrant living in Japan and known only as "R" (Do-yun Yu) doesn't die when he's hanged. He's unconscious, but the doctor present notes that physically there's no difference between his health pre- and post-hanging. This leads the various government and law enforcement officials to blunder through a series of desperate, absurdist theological, moral, legal, and existential debates, which only intensify when R regains consciousness but who is an emotional blank who, it is argued by the Catholic priest (Toshiro Oshido) who was there to administer Last Rites, lost his soul during the hanging and so is, therefore, no longer the man who committed the rape and murder he was convicted of, and so therefore executing him again, which is sort of what most of those present are hoping to be able to do, since that would simplify their dilemma a lot, would be immoral. You wouldn't be executing the murderer.
All of which is really just the beginning of Death by Hanging, an enormously strange and complex film which is described as a satire, and it is that, but plays out more like a piece of absurdist theater. Which in a way is the problem. Even though R is guilty of just about the most appalling crime imaginable, the rape of the girl he murdered is almost laughed about as the government officials go about trying to reenact R's crimes so that he might remember them and become himself again. There's also some blathering about "desire," which seems, er, beside the point. Furthermore, the moral equivalency that Robbins fails to shock anybody by wallowing in in Dead Man Walking is also indulged in by Oshima. But even allowing that execution of a person by the state is often a moral quagmire at best, I refuse to accept that the killing of a man because he raped and murdered a woman is the same thing as a man raping and murdering a woman because he felt like doing it. Worse still, and this is where the absurd nature of Death by Hanging becomes a problem, R eventually understands the terribleness of what he did, but he only got there because of the metaphysically botched execution. Like Robbins, Oshima finds a way to strip away the worst of R and thereby render him palatable, but unlike Robbins he does so by introducing fabulism into the scam. This comes perilously close to making the case that execution is the best thing for people like R, and I somehow doubt is what Oshima had in mind.
Hitch Hike (d. Pasquale Festa Campanile) - Now, if you want to see about a film that at least seems honest about terrible people who do terrible things, you might consider checking out this mean little bit of Italian exploitation from 1977, now out from Raro Video. Walter (Franco Nero) and Eve (Corinne Clery) are arguing (and in Walter's case, drinking) their way through a road trip when they pick up a hitchhiker named Adam (David Hess). Adam turns out to be a violent criminal on the run, and soon Walter and Eve are his hostages. The murders of two policemen, a series of confrontations with Adam's former criminal colleagues, and Adam's repeated sexual aggression against Eve, form a good chunk of the film's plot.
For quite a while, I thought that, whatever sleazy entertainment Hitch Hike might provide, it was never going to actually be interesting. It seemed to be the kind of film I could try to write before I watched it, and end up with something reasonably close the actual shooting script. And for a while I'd have been correct, but eventually things start to zig rather than zag. For one thing, the fact that there's a character named Adam and a character named Eve but this winds up actually not having any significance whatsoever (apart from Adam remarking on it, but only to the extent of saying, basically "Hey how about that") came as a surprise to me. It's certainly possible that to Campanile's eyes, it meant a lot and it just doesn't play the way he intended, but whatever, the effect is the effect. Second, Eve and Walter are presented as a hopeless couple, and it's all Walter's fault -- he's a drunk, and an asshole, and apparently a rapist himself -- he certainly forces himself on his wife often enough (creepily, though not surprisingly, the film does make Eve someone who eventually gives in and enjoys it when this happens, although there's a side of this film that makes me wonder how to read that; I could just be making excuses, though, or hoping someone will make them for me). Anyway, with this kind of set up, you might reasonably expect, however the film turns out as far as who survives and who doesn't, that Walter will be working towards some kind of redemption, doomed or otherwise. And while he does work to extricate his wife and himself from this terrible situation, he's always kind of a dick. Hitch Hike isn't a redemption story. It's the story of an asshole in trouble.
Nowhere is this made more clear than in the film's ending. Another thing you'd expect while watching Hitch Hike is that once a certain thing happens, the film will be over. But while that thing does happen, you realize there's still a half hour to go. What's left? I'll tell you what's left: the kind of moral horror that would have made Jim Thompson proud. I was so impressed with where the film finally went, however clumsy, and even ridiculous it sometimes is, that I'm tempted to think of it as a kind of minor crime classic. It's a hard movie.