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+

No comments:

Post a Comment