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Pretty Poison

Pretty Poison(1968)

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Pretty Poison (1968)

You could say that Anthony Perkins' career ended with his virtuoso performance in Psycho in 1960. Regardless of how many unique and original films he made in the aftermath of that career-defining movie such as Orson Welles' version of The Trial (1962), Play It As It Lays (1972), Remember My Name (1978) and others, Hollywood casting agents and the general public could never see him as any other character besides Norman Bates or some equivalent nutcase. Perkins must have sensed this too because he left the U.S. shortly after the release of Psycho to work in European films for several years. While he did return to America in 1965 to make The Fool Killer, a small independent film shot in Tennessee and distributed by Allied Artists, hardly anyone saw the movie and it wasn't until 1968 that Perkins returned to Hollywood to make features.

Pretty Poison, the first film Perkins made upon his return, should have revitalized his movie career but the timing was terrible. The distributor, 20th-Century-Fox, was in dire financial straits after numerous and costly box office disasters such as Star! (1968), the Julie Andrews megamusical, and clueless about how to market this offbeat and compelling little gem. As a result, Pretty Poison got buried in a limited distribution rollout and it wasn't until after it disappeared that it began to amass a cult reputation over the years.

When Anthony Perkins was first offered the lead role in Pretty Poison, he was still performing on Broadway in Equus. Noel Black, the film's director, recalled in Charles Winecoff's biography of Perkins that "'Tony had not done a mainstream American movie in years and was, in the common vernacular, considered to be hurting...Any other actor would have jumped at this opportunity, and used the fact that we didn't have a good backup for him as leverage for more money. Tony did not ask for more money.' He accepted their offer of $75,000, considerably less than he had been getting."

Pretty Poison marked the feature film debut of 26-year-old UCLA film school graduate Noel Black and was clearly the sleeper of 1968, a small-scale but brilliantly realized psychological thriller that managed to end up on several critics' top ten best lists. The film continues to weave a hypnotic spell after 42 years and makes one wonder what ever happened to Noel Black, who made several subsequent movies but nothing as memorable as Pretty Poison.

Based on the novel She Let Him Continue by Stephen Geller, the film follows Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), an arsonist and recent ex-con who is trying to start a new life in a small Massachusetts town. He lands a job in a chemical plant but has a hard time reigning in his overactive imagination once he gets a glimpse of Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), a stunning blonde majorette at the local high school. Pretending to be an agent for the CIA, Dennis makes a strong impression on Sue Ann and quickly draws her into his private world. But Sue Ann's craving for excitement knows no bounds and she is soon the driving force in the relationship, manipulating Dennis in a plot to murder Sue Ann's controlling mother (Beverly Garland).

Pretty Poison perfectly captures the small town milieu that is oppressive to both Dennis and Sue Ann and provides the contrast to their unchecked fantasy life (it was filmed on location in Great Barrington, Massachusetts). Without the exceptional performances of Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, however, the film might not have worked at all. Perkins creates a genuinely sympathetic protagonist who, despite being a felon and a fatalist, is also well-mannered, vulnerable and no real threat to anyone. He's also no match for Tuesday Weld's Sue Ann whose beautiful features hide a wicked, completely amoral schemer. Both deserved Oscar® nominations for their work here but were overlooked in favor of more blatantly theatrical performances in each category - Cliff Robertson as Best Actor in Charly, and for Best Actress, a tie between Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Perkins and Weld would later be reteamed for the film version of Joan Didion's novel, Play It As It Lays (1972).

According to biographer Charles Winecoff in Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins, the filming of Pretty Poison was much more difficult than anyone expected. As a first time director, Noel Black had little experience with feature film crews. "Noel knew how to set up shots," actor John Randolph [he plays Dennis's parole officer in the film] remembers, 'but he knew nothing about acting. Tuesday Weld was neurotic as hell. She would break down and cry. She hated the director, and she permitted that hatred to color everything she did. So Tony was dealing with a director who did not know how to talk to actors and an actress who was hysterical half the time.' Even so, Perkins gently rose to Black's defense when the tough New York crew, many of whom had worked with seasoned pros like Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet, began giving the novice director a hard time." Perkins could also be surprisingly generous to his fellow cast members at times and, in one instance, helped Beverly Garland prepare for the scene where she is shot at point blank range by her daughter on the stairs; Perkins showed her how to tumble down the steps without injuring herself.

In 1990 Pretty Poison was screened at UCLA with Perkins, Black and John Randolph in attendance, followed by a question and answer forum. According to Stephen Paley, who attended the screening with Perkins and his family, "He [Tony] only pretended to like the movie at the screening, but in the privacy of the car, driving home, he said, 'That really was a piece of sh*t, so slow moving!'" Obviously, actors are not always the best judges of their work and even critics can miss the boat on unusual films like Pretty Poison. For example, upon its release, the Variety reviewer stated, "Awkwardly begun and tediously developed, the film...goes too much off the track." On the other hand, Pauline Kael, in her review of Pretty Poison wrote "Anthony Perkins gives what may be his most sensitively conceived performance" and critics such as Newsweek's Joseph Morgenstern agreed. There's a good chance you will too.

Producers: Joel Black, Marshal Backlar
Director: Noel Black
Screenplay: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.; Stephen Geller (novel "She Let Him Continue")
Cinematography: David Quaid
Art Direction: Harold Michelson, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Johnny Mandel
Film Editing: William Ziegler
Cast: Anthony Perkins (Dennis Pitt), Tuesday Weld (Sue Ann Stepanek), Beverly Garland (Mrs. Stepanek), John Randolph (Morton Azenauer), Dick O'Neill (Bud Munsch), Clarice Blackburn (Mrs. Bronson), Joseph Bova (Pete), Ken Kercheval (Harry Jackson), Don Fellows (Detective), George Ryan's Winslow High-Steppers (Drillmaster & Team).

by Jeff Stafford

Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins by Charles Winecoff

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teaser Pretty Poison (1968)

Stories of young lovers with a killing streak are not uncommon in the movies, and the best of them - Arthur Penn's rollicking Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Terrence Malick's artful Badlands (1973), Oliver Stone's bloodthirsty Natural Born Killers (1994) - have become classics of modern film. Pretty Poison, a pitch-dark 1968 comedy directed by Noel Black, arrived in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde, and its rough similarity to Penn's game-changing hit is one reason it slipped into theaters and then TV without attracting much notice. Then too, Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld are great fun to watch, but they don't have the far-reaching charisma of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Penn's movie, or even of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Malick's contribution to the genre. And while Penn, Malick, and Stone put their killer couples on the road, speeding through the countryside with the law at their heels, Black keeps his duo stuck in a rural Massachusetts town where a teenager itching to travel may have to settle for carrying a flag with the high-school marching team. Still and all, Pretty Poison has acquired a loyal following over the years, and its reputation continues to rise.

Perkins plays Dennis Pitt, a likable guy with an easygoing smile, a troubled past, and perhaps a troubled present as well. The first time we meet him he's being released from a mental institution; when he jokes with probation officer Morton Azenauer (John Randolph) about signing up for the first space flight to Venus, the unsmiling officer gives him a serious reminder that fantasy and reality can be a dangerous combination when you're back in the world for the first time in years. A bit later we learn that Dennis was convicted of arson at age fifteen, after starting a house fire that killed his aunt. Now he's an adult who has to behave himself if he wants to remain free, so he takes a job in a chemical factory and settles into a work routine that's dull enough to send almost anyone toward fantasyland.

Things liven up when he meets the girl of his dreams: high-school siren Sue Ann Stepanek, played by Weld with her usual high spirits. Dennis spots her practicing steps with the marching team on a road near the factory, and he strikes up an acquaintance with her the first chance he gets. He does this on his own unusual terms, giving her extremely strong hints that he's a secret agent for the government looking for an assistant just like her. Sue Ann is thrilled, and while Dennis has nothing to do with the government, he actually does have a secret mission in mind. The factory that employs him dumps enormous quantities of brightly colored chemicals into the river running alongside it. By unbolting a section of the drainage chute, Dennis tells Sue Ann, they can sabotage the plant's operations, thereby saving the environment from poisons that are pretty to look at but awful in their effects. He doubles down in his resolve when Azenauer pays a visit to the factory, inadvertently losing Dennis his job by spilling the beans about his past.

When the sabotage scheme goes wrong in a deadly way, Dennis is horrified. He's also astonished to see Sue Ann enjoying the situation as if it were an exciting adventure instead of an unfolding tragedy. Things get even stranger when Sue Ann's mother interrupts their plan of getting away to Mexico, bringing about more mayhem and revealing still more poison in Sue Ann's ostensibly sweet personality. Dennis has caused much chaos and confusion in his time, but compared with Sue Ann he's almost a responsible citizen. The ending is subtly ironic, suggesting that if Sue Ann is eventually brought to justice, the previously clueless Azenauer may be the person to thank.

Perkins has two great talents as an actor. One is the ability to appear amiable and even charming on the outside while suggesting dark, dangerous currents deep down; his Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's superb Psycho (1960) is the all-time best example. His other great talent is for getting nervous - just slightly at first, then a little more and a little more, expressed through muscle tics, eye movements, and other tiny symptoms caused by anxieties building to the breaking point. Pretty Poison puts both talents to good use, and Perkins's performance would take over the entire movie if Weld weren't such an ideal partner, giving Sue Ann a fresh-faced beauty and eager-beaver attitude that contrast marvelously with the malevolence festering inside her. Feminist film critic Molly Haskell has shown that Hollywood fostered a "Lolita cult" in the 1960s, centered on child-woman figures like Sue Lyon's eponymous nymphet in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) and Mia Farrow's more innocent Allison MacKenzie in the TV version of Peyton Place that ran from 1964 to 1969. Weld's Sue Ann Stepanek is a first-rate specimen of the big-screen Lolita, and she draws Dennis into a web of temptation and disaster without half trying, since he helpfully weaves half the web himself. Dennis is the movie's protagonist, but Sue Ann is its propulsive force.

After making his mark with the exhilarating short Skaterdater in 1966, Black directed only a handful of features before turning to the television work that dominated his thirty-year career. He injects some potent visual ideas into Pretty Poison, especially in his use of color and in understated touches like the rays that seem to emanate from Dennis's head as he gazes at his chemical-checking screen in the factory. In all, though, the picture's style is very much of its late-1960s era, employing halfhearted zoom shots and nodding toward sexual openness with irreverent dialogue about "making out" and "making it" and glimpses of Sue Ann in a bra. Pretty Poison seems mighty tame alongside 1968 pictures like Roman Polanski's audacious Rosemary's Baby, George A. Romero's explosive Night of the Living Dead, and Kubrick's mind-bending 2001: A Space Odyssey, all of which were bigger hits at the time and are better remembered and more highly respected today. But that's all the more reason to take another look at Black's mischievous blend of comedy, thriller, and psychodrama. It's an odd hybrid that shouldn't be allowed to slip through the cinematic cracks.

Director: Noel Black
Producer: Marshal Backlar and Joel Black
Screenplay: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.; based on a novel by Stephen Geller
Cinematographer: David Quaid
Film Editing: William Ziegler
Art Direction: Jack Martin Smith and Harold Michelson
Music: Johnny Mandel
Cast: Anthony Perkins (Dennis), Tuesday Weld (Sue Ann), Beverly Garland (Mrs. Stepanek), John Randolph (Azenauer), Dick O'Neill (Bud Munsch), Clarice Blackburn (Mrs. Bronson), Joseph Bova (Pete), Ken Kercheval (Harry Jackson), Don Fellows (Detective), George Ryan's Winslow High-Steppers (Drillmaster & Team).
C-90m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

by David Sterritt

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