Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thunder Rock (1942), John & Roy Boulting, with Michael Redgrave, James Mason, Barbara Mullen

The Boulting Brothers' (John & Roy) debut film, Thunder Rock (UK/1942) has been on my to-see list since about 1978 or 1979, making it a 30-plus-year quest. Oddly, the triumph of finally snaring it earlier this year via the download wonders of the internet was not accompanied by an immediate viewing. My head was at that time, and has been in other places, (probably mostly up my ass), with film viewing far from being a priority.

The film got on my list early thanks to the (overly) heavy influence in my formative cineaste years of Leslie Halliwell, who ranked it a particular favorite. So watching it two nights ago inevitably was accompanied by a slight disappointment, not that I really knew what to expect. And yet the vague feeling of letdown was salved somewhat by a sense of delighted surprise at how weird the film was -- and I mean Powell & Pressburger-style weirdness, and this before P&P's Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death, and the rest.

The movie came from a 1939 play of pseudo-philosophic bent -- a flop in New York but a resonant hit in Britain during the war years -- and in the transfer from stage to screen there evidently were noticeable changes, with the historical flashbacks apparently taking up more of the film version's running time than was the case with the stage rendition. There are actually two sets of flashbacks in this; one detailing the lighthouse keeper's recent history as a globetrotting, crusading journalist and book author futilely trying to awaken the distracted British and the U.S. public to the rise of fascism in Europe and Japan. The other and longer set going back 90 years to the lives and fates of persecuted immigrants fleeing Europe for America on a packet steamer doomed to shipwreck during a Lake Michigan gale.

The story is weird in the telling and perhaps even weirder to convey in a short review. The Thunder Rock of the title is an isolated lighthouse plunked onto a barren rock in the middle of Lake Michigan due east-mortheast of Racine and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Having lived in Milwaukee for four years during my college years it's hard to think of anything fairly close to that city as being mysterious. In this film it's almost made to seem as remote as King Kong's Skull Island. Maybe you had to be in Britain at the time to see it this way...

In short, our journalist martyr anti-isolationist hero, David Charleston (Michael Redgrave), has given up the game of crying wolf, resigned to world collapse, and retreated in his own form of defeatist isolation to the boring comfy post of lighthouse keeper on Thunder Rock. The story begins as civil service bureaucrats notice an odd discrepency in the government ledgers showing a seemingly impossible credit in its favor. They trace it to the fact that Charleston (waiting for the world to end and in no use of money) has not been cashing his paychecks. Officials board a pontoon biplane, with Charleston's level-headed adventure buddy Streeter (James Mason) in tow to help talk some sense into him.

Streeter's pep talks to rouse Charleston from his lethargy and get him to reengage with the world largely fall on deaf ears, making him even more adament at staying put. Charleston, it seems, has gone a bit off the deep end, obsessing over the contents of a placard commemorating an 1849 shipwreck in which a steamer carrying immigrants from the old world sank only yards from the present lighthouse, with the loss of all 60 hands and crew. In pondering their fates, and trying to understand why (like him) they ran from persecution, he begins to conjure an elaborate fantasy in which he believes he actually sees their ghosts and their lives reincarnate. His main ally in this is the ghost of the ship's captain, who, like Streeter, seems given to straight talk and who vigorously criticizes Charleston's self pity and misplaced idealism about the immigrants. Charleston's constructs of the immigrants lives, it seems, are prim and shallow, and the captain lets him know it, guiding him, a la Dicken's A Christmas Carol, to flashbacks showing them as they really were, warts and all, and mainly showing him the courage that they had, to fight and to act, in contrast to Charleston.

This is all very interesting, but it is here that Thunder Rock founders on the rocks of mixed messages. The playwright or the screenplay writers at some point get themselves into a bit of a sticky wicket by suggesting that these courageous immigrants from persecution are somehow cowards for not staying in the old world and fighting (thus, facing almost certain misery and death) rather than starting anew and planting their ideals in the new world. It's an absurd conceit and it seems adopted as a way to rather lunkheadedly mirror Charleston's cowardice and resignation. To say the least, it does not work, nor does the Leni Reifenstahl like iconography at the end of Charleston silhouetted heroically against the clouds as he moves forth again into the world.

The film's rather lumpen contrasts are sometimes embarassing. In a scene set in a movie theater, the earnest Charleston (in flashback) seats himself, rapt in the newreels about Hitler entering the Sudentenland and annoyed by the boredom and distraction of his fellow film patrons, all of whom perk up when the Popeye cartoon unreels to let them laugh their troubles away. Interestingly, in Preston Sturges' film of the same year, Sullivan's Travels, we are told that this is a good thing.

David Shipman, in his marvelously bitchy The Story of Cinema, calls the film meretricious for acting high and mighty in hindsight ("see I told you so"), and I definitely see his point. Also, the idea of chiding the audience for being a bunch of dumb asses (though it may be true) as a way of rousing its patriotic fervor is fraught with peril (you were all stupid and blind, but you won't make that mistake again)... I won't even go there.

Thunder Rock is filled with plenty of what must have been considered thought-provoking philosophic meat at the time, and indeed its quirkiness and vivid historical reenactments make for a good show, as do the beautiful performances of Frederick Valk as a visionary physician hounded for his early adoption of anesthetic and Barbara Mullen as a feminist suffragette. This latter story, though somewhat pedantic in presentation, is also very moving and surprisingly enlightened, though perhaps not so much when one realizes how much "man's work" women were called upon to do during the war years.

Despite the absurdities of its central, misguided argument, the film is a memorable, little-discussed gem. Some will either find its period prejudices charming or recoil in horror at same. I'm thinking specifically of a slimy Japanese delegate, made-up ridiculously and played very broadly by an obviously non-Asian actor.

James Mason-o-philes might be under the impression that he's in the film a lot. He isn't, but hits bullseye early on. The lighthouse also does not figure in the film as much as I thought it would. Other impressions I got while watching included reminiscences of the supernatural elements in the 1941 film version of The Devil and Daniel Webster, though it is unlikely that that film could have had any influence over the ghostly distortion effects in this due to the closeness of their production dates. Finley Currie was kind of a perfect type for a sea captain, hawk-nosed and weathered and gruff, a bit of a contrast to Rex Harrison's urbane curmudgeonly ghostly sea captain in 1947's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Hitchcock probably would have loved the model work, which is obvious but well enough done to add charm rather than to detract.

Grade: B

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mélo (1986), Alain Resnais, with Sabine Azéma

I'm not sure what attracted Alain Resnais to the antiquated play that provides the meat of Melo, other than perhaps he wanted to try his hand at melodrama, but in some ways he'd already done it with Last Year at Marienbad, which in its dance-like teasing way seems like a silent melodrama, whereas this 1986 talkfest is an over-verbose one. It starts unpromisingly -- with two classical musician old buddies and the wife of one of them discussing music and reminiscences over a bottle of wine in a comfy domestic courtyard under the stars. It looks like the cliche of every French art movie. The talk occurs at the home of the musician, Pierre -- a washout who has settled into comfortable domesticity and an unremarkable career -- and his wife, Romaine, and the guest is his old best friend, Marcel, an internationally successful solo classical violinist. Marcel, unlike Pierre, can't settle down and indeed seems to have soured on love after a series of trysts in which he always felt betrayed by women -- all of whom he has decided are the same. Without going into too much detail, Romaine deceptively engineers her own trysts with Marcel after being intrigued by one of his tales of romantic woe, and in the end the affair leads to tragedy. A Brahms sonata, it seems, turns her into a hyper-romantic horndog. Played with her lover, it's an aphrodisiac but when her dull husband requests the same duet (she on piano, he on violin) she can't abide the thought. Resnais pays homage to the theatrical origins of the piece in his framing segues, often joining sequences with the image of a proscenium and a closed red velvet curtain. This, and the use of intentionally artificial-looking settings remind audiences who might be less than persuaded by the histrionics to remember that this is, indeed, an old stage meller. Or it might also be Resnais dabbling in the same kind of artificiality that marked two other films of the vintage, Coppola's One From the Heart and Beineix's Moon in the Gutter. After awhile, the piece seems to become timeless -- its concerns about the complications of passion are never out of style and in fact the movie is better than its source material. Those expecting, or worrying about, Resnais' usual elliptical narrative hijinks should know that Melo is narratively straightforward. Acting, settings, direction are all fine, even though one gets the sense that Resnais is coasting a bit. That notion is dispelled when you realize that it takes hard work to do what he's done here, which is turn chicken shit into chicken salad, even if it's slightly gamey. When Romaine walks down by the river to meet her fate, one is reminded of Bresson's Une femme douce, a film I'm not fond of but which haunted me at the end. Your mileage will vary with the film. I was bored at first, admittedly, but found myself slowly being pulled into its spell and for certain effective moments, as when Romaine tries to take a clandestine phone call from Marcel during a dicey moment at home. In her guilt, with her puke green dress matching the color of a painting on the wall in the tiny foyer as she cradles and whispers into the phone, she resembles a green monster crouching in the darkness. The lack of information about the gel holding Pierre and Romaine together, as well as the dearth of detail about the development of the initial stages of the affair between Romaine and Marcel made it a bit difficult for me to care much, and yet the mood seems to compensate somewhat for the mechanics. Melo is a minor film, perhaps nothing more than a mildly accomplished diversion and yet there is something whole and pure about it; it is "of a piece," as they say. However, if you're strapped for time I'd refer you instead to either the 1936 Swedish version or the 1938 Hollywood version of Intermezzo, if classical-music-imbued three-way romantic melodramas are what you have a hankering for. Grade C

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ten (2002), Abbas Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami is fond of shooting people Ozu-like, back and forth, conversing in vans or SUVs, presumably because there must be something inherently interesting in doing this, or in the conversation or in the characters doing the talking. Then why, I wonder, do I often find myself more interested in the snatches of terrain outside the windows of the vehicle than what is going on inside? Wow, look at how the trees are arrayed on that sandy hill, or look at how the passengers in vehicles pulling up alongside aren't buying into the illusion that this is a film and breaking the forth wall looking straight at the cameras. Ten, as it stands, is the most interesting of the films I've seen by Kiarostami so far, but before you think I'm slowly becoming a convert to the current holder of the cinema's Emperor's New Clothes Award, think again. It is, again, a movie with people talking to each other in a vehicle. There are 10 episodes, with the driver being always the same woman and the passengers alternating in the episodes. The driver is a divorced and re-married mom played by a rather beautiful Iranian woman, Mania Akbari, and it helps that she is because otherwise it would be hard to sit through. This, of course, is the unspoken trope of art-film makers through time eternal -- make whatever you want and put a lovely person in the center of it and at least there's something to look at. Truly though I do find the examination of everyday concerns within the context of a different culture interesting. The conversation and the acting are pretty good -- mostly by nonprofessionals -- especially by the little boy cast as the driver's rebellious adolescent son. The film tries to shed light on the problems of being a woman in Iran, but during the course of things I don't think there's anything stated that we already didn't know, and as usual for Kiarostami the central character seems to be the least interesting and defined, serving more as a sounding board more than anything else. The director sometimes shoots only one character during these dialogue episodes; sometimes cuts back and forth sparingly between both. The passengers, in addition to the son, include a friend who has lost her boyfriend, an old woman who has given away everything for the good of God, a prostitute who doesn't like to be lectured about her lifestyle, and so on. Interestingly, one finds some of the philosophy or statements made by the passengers earlier in the film coming out of the mouth of the driver later. In consoling the friend whose man has left her, we find the driver using some of the same arguments as the prostitute. Family dynamics are explored, away from the home, through conversations between the mother and son. The issues of juggling visitation rights between estranged parents are universal ones, very recognizable. The universality of the issues and the realistic presentation count for something. I think for once Kiarostami has hit on something authentic. On the other hand, I again agree with Roger Ebert that this film wouldn't even have made it past the first entry round of judging had anyone else made it, much less gotten a nomination for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. It is shot on videotape, which begs the question: If Kiarostami thought it worth doing, then why not put it on film? I question the artistic judgment of someone whose best or near-best work is deemed only good enough for video while his lamest movies make it to film. So, in the end, what are we left with here: a better-than-average home video or a memorable cinematic experience? The former, I believe. Like Ebert, I still fail to grasp the greatness of Kiarostami. Luckily, I listen to myself and not to the crowd of narrative-hating critics that Ebert rather delightfully, and bravely, calls dilettantes. Grade D+

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Stranger's Return (1933), King Vidor, with Miriam Hopkins, Lionel Barrymore and Franchot Tone

It would be easy to call King Vidor's 1933 pastorale, The Stranger's Return, a kind of corn-pone Volpone, except that crochety patriarch Grampa Storr (Lionel Barrymore) feigns madness as part of his inheritance games and not death itself. That, he knows, is coming soon enough, and what remains is getting his house in order. That it's not cornpone -- despite the moral underpinnings and rural setting -- is due to the film's greater interest in the working out of unresolved issues among its characters than in its concerns about conventional right and wrong. Arming the likes of Barrymore with a long stiff beard (that makes him look as fearsome as old John Brown) as well as a cane and a chance to play a Civil War vet off his rocker might not be a great idea except that here he's paired with a great leveler, Miriam Hopkins, a screen diva herself and not inclined to let someone else steal the show. Her strategy is to slyly underplay it as New York City girl Louise Storr, the daughter of Barrymore's oldest son and estranged from her husband, seeking respite on old man Storr's farm. She's fourth generation, and in his vivacious granddaughter Storr sees a chance to get that house in order. Until that comes along, the best he's got is a drunken but good-natured farm manager played by doughy Stuart Erwin, who we know instantly cannot be an object of desire for the newcomer but rather the typical screen eunuch; although here he is not totally shorn of sexuality. His offer to strangle the girl he's dancing with at the Saturday night social allows him a kinky side that otherwise seems drowned in corn likker. Storr's battles with his live-in potential heirs--none of them directly related to him by blood---take on Fieldsian dimensions, particularly with his nattering nephew's widow, Beatrice (Beulah Bondi). Until Louise arrives, she is the most logical heir to Storr's respectable estate, and she knows it. Problem is, the old man cannot stand her or his other weaker-kneed in-house relations, including the bland lawyer (Grant Mitchell, perpetually typecast in these kinds of roles) who is married to his guileless and slow stepdaughter, Thelma. Louise's arrival sparks things in the sleepy community; her affect on Storr and the farmhands is almost magical. And she proves quickly she can hold her own with the boys. These un-ladylike tendencies in Louise seem to give Beatrice part of the ammo she needs to discredit Louise's moral values as she jockeys for position in the estate fight. So too does Beatrice have an ace in the hole when Louise falls immediately in love with Guy Crane (Franchot Tone), a gentleman farmer and semi-sophisticate who also is married. His wife Nettie, a good-hearted girl, knows she lacks the education to keep her husband engaged, and almost welcomes Louise's visits. The fierce independent streak Louise possesses almost makes her defiant to the point of heating up the affair, gossips be damned, but it's that contrarian nature that most closely bonds grandfather and granddaughter. In the end, everyone does the right and moral thing, though what happens to Beatrice seems rather harsh. I never hate her as much as the script wants me to. Hopkins' performance in this movie is highly acclaimed by a small coterie of cineastes who've managed to see this rather hard-to-find film. She is very good, but it's hardly a better performance than she'd given before in films such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Here, she does have a chance to cry, and it's an affecting moment. Recognizable is her tendency to wring her hands frequently, an affectation seen in several of her other films (every time I see her do it I think of her angry kiss-offs of "Eaglebauer!" to Edward Everett Horton in Design for Living). The movie is probably too molasses paced for most of today's viewers, which of course means shit to me. It's a lovely piece, rather unusual; deftly avoiding mawkishness when the very spectre hangs over nearly every minute. Grade B-

Monday, January 18, 2010

Report (1967), Bruce Conner

This is not a report. And that's OK, and most appropriate, because neither is Report, by Bruce Conner. More specifically, this is not a review because, after one viewing, I'm still absorbing and processing what I've seen and heard. But I wanted to get something down in writing, something that captures my first impressions; the raw and awkward effusions of the neophyte contemplating Guernica for the first time. Moved, but not entirely sure why. Baffled, unsettled -- partly wondering what the fuss is about while understanding very well. Conner's 13-minute avant-garde, film poem /essay /documentary /montage /hodgepodge /stream-of-consciousness assemblage of found footage on the Kennedy assassination along with more banal moving imagery that puts that event into a topical and larger context is a movie more written about than seen, more sought out than found. This movie composed of found footage is, ironically and frustratingly, one of the most difficult cinematic works to find. Indeed, it seems to be one of the most closely guarded art objects on Earth. There's plenty of back story on the net about why this is; how closely it was held to the vest under Conner and subsequently -- after his death -- by his widow and estate. Conner did not want the film to be viewed via any format other than projected film itself, so finding it in a video form has been impossible. One has to resort to Richard Nixon-like tactics to see it, and, like Tricky Dick, I invoke culpable deniability. I have seen it, but how and where I know not, and neither will you. Just keep digging buckos; it is out there. That it should get to this point with films like Report is a shame, because there's no reason that well-intentioned cineastes who would love to see and appreciate it should see it and similar obscurities listed in sadomasochistically torturing tomes such as 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and realize they will go to their death having no chance of seeing it. In fact, the effect of Report is a powerful one regardless of whether it is seen with light projected through celluloid -- even while conceding that, yes, ideally that is the preferred way. But we're dealing with roughed-up newsreel footage; stuff taped off a TV with a Super 8 and such; it's not a luminously glowing original nitrate print of, say, Sunrise by F.W. Murnau. The visual textures aren't sophisticated enough to justify the stubborn clinging to an anti-video pesentational stance -- especially with DVD and Blu-Ray and HDTV out there. And I'm not sure why Report remains standoffishly hidden, when such Conner films as Marilyn Times Five and A Movie appear to be available on legitimate videos at the public library.
Finally having the chance to watch it immediately dispels myths about what is actually in it. First of all, it does not riff on footage from the Zapruder film as so many commentators have written. It's understandable that they might say this, having likely not been able to see it themselves. Secrecy always begets misinformation. The central image of Report is the passing of the president's motorcade filmed from a TV news report by Conner. It, like the entire film, is in black and white. It is not the Zapruder film. This passing becomes a stretched-out moment in time as Jackie and John perched in their limo pass closely by a TV camera, smiling at it, and us; JFK offering up a salute of greeting. This passing of the motorcade is brilliantly cut by Conner. It represents just a few seconds of real time; a moment that is itself just a few moments before the fatal shots. Conner stretches this passing of the motorcade out for about a minute; with the car advancing only so far, repeating the cut, then allowing the film to advance slightly more, repeating that snippet several times, and so on, until the backs of John and Jackie face us and slip away. It's mesmerizing and haunting, and in some ways more disturbing than the violent shock of the color Zapruder footage. This is a contemplation, of time, of fleetingness, of life, of death. A tiny moment extended for our greater consideration. Conner privileges us by finding a way to let us drink in the moment, but also to dread what is coming. It's as if he is giving JFK a few more seconds of life. I couldn't believe it when I found myself muttering, "No, John, stop the car, go back."
Before this, the film is largely a sonic experiment, a black screen punctuated by fast strobe-like flickering, reminiscent of the hypnotic (and possibly epilepsy inducing) experimental short, The Flicker, by Tony Conrad (from 1965 and thus of the same vintage). The informational aspects of the film at this point are aural, police radio and news resports manically essaying the chaos ensuing from the assassination.
The motorcade portion is followed by a seemingly interminable section that lasts about two minutes in which film leader counts backward from 10 to 3 and repeats without ever completing the countdown to two or one. It's a contemplation of time and its suspension, only possible with film, and very much reminding us of the previous scene in which the motorcade procession seems to pass eternally. Oddly, the crosshairs in the middle of the circled numbers begin to remind us of the crosshairs of the high-powered rifle that Oswald used during what must have been his own countdown to the fatal moment.
Following this, Conner lets loose with a plethora of found images: TV commercials for Tappan refrigerators, the violence of a bullfight, scenes of war, both real and cinematic, moments of Dr. Frankenstein and his life apparatus cobbled from Bride of Frankenstein, a repeated image of a bullet piercing a light bulb in super slow motion, etc. Some of this is crude symbolism; some of it a commentary in the violence of the 20th century that seems to make JFK's fate inevitable. It all comes fast and furious in the last few minutes, and because of that it's hard to consider it fully with one viewing. The final image is of a secretary sitting operating a piece of office equipment, with a cutaway to a hand which through the montage of movies is suggested to be hers but likely is not, pushing a button marked "sell." Clearly, selling out is not what motivated Conner, and that helps to partly explain the scarcity of this movie in the marketplace of ideas. The selling of the image of the Kennedy assassination, which is something Zapruder did well by, is the stuff for a deeper analysis than I'm inclined to tackle now.
While watching Report I often said to myself that it wasn't impressing me as much as Conner's humorous 1958 found-footage short, A Movie. It's in retrospect that the much darker Report surpasses. Interestingly, even when it is outrageous and transgressive, Report seems ultimately to be a most tasteful and honorable remembrance, mourning not just JFK but the passing of a more innocent age -- even while criticizing it. Grade: B??
Tom Sutpen over at the Illusion Travels By Streetcar blog has much more interesting things to say about this movie than I do.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Joy of Living (1938), Tay Garnett, with Irene Dunne and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

There's a moment about halfway through Tay Garnett's 1938 screwball comedy, Joy of Living, when Irene Dunne, as the harried workaholic stage star Maggie Garret is handed a message that causes her to speed up her singing during a radio performance, driving the conductor (the eternally prissy screen pansy, Franklin Pangborn) into a flying armed tizzy. It's as if Dunne is commanding the movie to finally get going. This acceleration, perhaps unintentionally, marks the approximate moment where Joy of Living morphs from a mechanical and lumpy minor screwball comedy into a first-rate one for the next half hour. Preceding this is the first really good laugh in the movie, when Garret and her free-spirited stalker, Dan Brewster (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), become caught in a revolving door, with the result that only short bursts of their argumentative chatter are heard as the door spins. Up till then, the movie is reminiscent of, but inferior to others of its vintage ilk; the presence of Alice Brady, again the annoying matriarch, continually brings to mind My Man Godfrey. The patriarch is Guy Kibbee, whose main sin seems to be sneaking whiskey into his tea with the help of his conspiratorial butler, played as in countless 30's comedies by another queenly stalwart, Eric Blore. The family is a bit of a drudge, mooching off the fame and fortune of Maggie, not unlike the brood in 1933's Bombshell, that marvelous vehicle for Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy. As is de rigueur for populist screwball an uptight character obsessed by work, money and status will eventually be freed of those concerns by a carefree one, and gain romance in the bargain. Joy of Living was a flop in 1938, but it can now be seen as a worthy if imperfect example of its type. The most delightful moments take place in a lower class eatery run by a blusterer of indeterminate Slavic accent played by the omnipresent Billy Gilbert. Dan marks the number of tall beers consumed by Maggie by throwing pretzels onto an overhead candlelight. By the time the stack is as tall as the candle, the snockered Maggie is no longer too worried about the beer stein lid continually clamping down on her hat veil and she starts drinking straight through the veil. Dunne is luminous in this film; her performance is every bit as fine as in the previous year's comedy masterpiece, The Awful Truth. Fairbanks is game as well; one wonders why he wasn't cast in more screwball films. After some slapstick hijinks in a roller rink, where Maggie's "yuk yuks" seem to channel Curly from the Three Stooges, the film winds down to more conventional genre concerns before a wonderful finale of barefoot sloshing in the rain. If you can get through the uneven first half, Joy of Living lives up to its title. Grade B-

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pretty Poison (1968), Noel Black, with Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld

Whenever I read a critic of the professional or armchair variety condemn a film for being “dated,” my response is typically to condemn him or her for having a pea-brained critical acumen. I say this as preface because Pretty Poison does not date at all; it seems trapped in a timeless universe, and yet there are elements that trap it within the time of its making. The most prominent of these, and really the only one that sticks out sorely, is the generic made-for-TV style musical score. Shorn of that, we might not be pulled out of our trance. Pretty Poison is entrancing, even if the directorial style is sometimes flat. This film and I have a long history. I saw it on television as an adolescent in the early 70’s — at which time it blew me away — and not at all in three decades since. Seeing it again at such remove was a rare and intriguing chance to see how far (or how little) my critical sensibilities have grown and changed. Impossible to see for so many years, the film only premiered officially in a video format, on DVD, in 2006 and until then had developed the kind of legend that affixes itself to long-unseen curios. The film thus haunted me for years, and I don’t think that would have been the case had it not been for the casting of Tuesday Weld, the kittenish high-schooler from 1965’s Lord Love a Duck again cast as a high-schooler in this, though perhaps less convincingly. Oddly, thinking about both films, Weld’s channeling of both innocent and cynical manipulator is a hallmark of each. Whereas, the former film was a slapsticky, gaudy black comedy, Pretty Poison is much more subtle, both dark comedy and tragedy. Of the many pretty poisons in the film, she is doubtlessly the prettiest, and perhaps the deadliest. We first see Weld in the film marching across a verdant field with her classmates in her high school majorette uniform. This, obviously was powerful stuff when I was 12. Perhaps not surprisingly, in that I have not changed. That’s how Anthony Perkins, as Dennis Pitt, first sees her in this; far from the prison mental hospital from which he was just released and casting about for a new life — something we know is doomed right off, partly because, well shit, it’s Tony Perkins for chrissakes and second because his counselor/probation officer (John Randolph) has just told him the real world does not tolerate fantasy and he’s already begun to spin fanciful lies. Part of it is meant to hide his past; a tragic mistake borne of adolescent anger and resulting in arson and manslaughter that put him in the crazy house. Now “cured” he puts his skills at fantastic creation and re-creation of his identity to work on the ostensibly innocent 17-year-old blonde, Sue Ann Stepanek. Perkins seems to be a tad old to be the youngish man the script seems to want us to believe — since part of its aim is to make him a 60s symbol of discontented youth — but once paired with Weld the two form a convincing core unit of youthful rebellion. Thus, the anti-establishment, anti-parent, anti-corporate shenanigans begin in earnest. Walking up the gangplank to the chemical factory in the podunk town (work is freedom but looks awfully like a return to prison), he already shows signs of deep trouble, snapping clandestine photos with a tiny spy camera of the factory operations as its pipes spew blue and red toxins into the river. It’s as if he’s the only one in the world who sees or cares. Snatches of red punctuate Pitt’s world throughout, in the bottle of red acid, a lizard, and flashbacks of the arson fire. Already we’re on his side, even though we’re not quite sure where he’s taking us. His seemingly imperturbable face hides very little; he’s an oddball, everyone knows it and hates him instantly. Pitt’s fanciful inner life externalizes: He’s a CIA man on a mission, and immediately young Sue Ann is drawn into the game. Eventually the game, and Sue Ann, make things all too real for Pitt and he damned near becomes infantile in his powerlessness. An act of industrial sabotage, as Perkins seems to regress to his arsonist past, not only succeeds too well but spurs on the bloodlust in Sue Ann. Bad news, because it turns out that Sue Ann has a past too, one of abuse, the depth of which is never spelled out, but the violence that finally comes of it gives us more than enough of a hint. The question is: does Sue Ann transform from one thing to another during the course of the picture or is her innocence a front all along? It’s hard to talk about plot points in Pretty Poison without giving too much away, so I’m choosing to leave a lot of detail vague. If the film were better known I’d have less of a problem with that, but as it stands the film remains a relatively (and unjustly) unknown cult item. The ending is a real beauty, operating at several levels: Pitt’s self-sacrifice and Stepanek’s pettiness form a mutually necessary harmony. One of the funniest jokes in the film comes at the end, when Weld, obviously by this point far from a great representative of the “Pepsi Generation,” is very pointedly handed a Pepsi by a policeman. If Pepsico had paid for that product placement company reps might very well have been pissed at how director Noel Black and his writer twisted it into a sort of kiss off. Happily, my enthusiasm for the film remains strong, so much so that I’m not moving it off my top list for 1968. Its place is secure. Grade B+