Monday, June 11, 2012

Pretty Poison

PRETTY POISON            A-                   
USA  (89 mi)  1968  d:  Noel Black

You do have quite a capacity for loving.        —Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins)

Another film that tanked at the box office, though this is a laceratingly dark comedy, shot by a first time director, adding many familiar 60’s themes and effects, such as a psychologically shifting narrative, an effective use of flashbacks or spontaneous brain fissures where one has fractured images going off in one’s head, accentuated by the use of dissonant music, and an examination of seemingly innocent reflections that results in a deeply dark interior disturbance.  Also, the generation gap was a prominent theme of the era, not to mention the aftereffects of Cold War espionage tales, used to excellent effect here in a fascinating study of near Altmanesque, small town Americana gone to seed, given a Hitchcockian twist that even the master himself would take delight in seeing, as this is a clever variation on his macabre and genre defining themes.  Adapted from Stephen Geller’s novel She Let Him Continue by screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr, who was a script consultant on the Batman television series (1966 – 68) before going on to write Alan J. Pakula’s weirdly modernistic PARALLAX VIEW (1974), one of the best paranoid conspiracy theory thrillers of the 70’s, right alongside KLUTE (1971), SOYLENT GREEN (1973), THE CONVERSATION (1974), CHINATOWN (1974), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), and again co-writer of THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1976), creating a uniquely subversive vision of 1960’s America, filled with paranoid delusions about conspiracy theories, largely fueled by the shocking speculations about the Kennedy assassination and the CIA’s connection to the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion, where according to the Church Committee Assassination plots and schemes: Castro in the crosshairs - CNN, there were “at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate Castro from 1960 to 1965.”  Casting Anthony Perkins as a mentally unstable young man with a troubled past is a highly provocative choice, as it  intentionally plays upon his PSYCHO (1960) persona, right along with his nervous tics and rambling monologues, where it’s easy to suspect him of nefarious acts.  Perkins as Dennis Pitt inflames the perception upon his release from a long stay at a mental hospital, making a joke about interplanetary space travel, where he’s harshly reminded that out in the real world, “It's got no place at all for fantasies.” 

Made a year after THE GRADUATE (1967), a scathing satire on the American Dream, Pitt’s future expectations, in contrast, could hardly be less open-ended, as so little is expected of him because he has a criminal record, convicted of arson at 15, which resulted in the death of his aunt.  So from the outset, Pitt already has two strikes against him.  Cast opposite Perkins is the All American girl, Tuesday Weld as Sue Ann, one of the more original roles in American cinema, where Weld emphatically embraces the challenge, though she was quoted in an interview with movie critic Rex Reed afterwards thinking this was her “worst performance,” as she hated working with the director, but she enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Perkins, working together again in PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (1972), where her scathing performance was nominated for a Golden Globe.  Weld’s previous credits include the infamous ROCK, ROCK, ROCK! (1956), SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE (1960), and LORD LOVE A DUCK (1966).  She joins what film critic Molly Haskell calls the “Lolita cult” of the 60’s, likely based upon Sue Lyon’s child nymphet performance in Kubrick’s LOLITA (1962), Yvette Mimieux’s titillating exploration of teen love in the coming-of-age comedy WHERE THE BOYS ARE (1960), Mia Farrow’s short-haired Allison MacKenzie role on the trashy TV soap opera Peyton Place (1964 – 69), not to mention Weld’s own tabloid history of dating older men as a teenager, including actor John Ireland and even Elvis.  Drop dead gorgeous and a member of her high school marching band, Sue Ann is the personification of all that’s good about youth, with all her dreams and idealizations intact, driving a powder blue 1965 Sunbeam Alpine convertible [seen here:, a red one was driven by Elizabeth Taylor in BUTTERFIELD 8 (1960)], uncorrupted by a cynical world, though like many overly constrained teenage girls, she wants not only to look and act older, but to be the center of attention, to be a part of a world she has yet to explore.  Yet in her drive to get what she wants, she may surprise a few people, as she does Dennis Pitt.  Initially amused by his invented secret agent persona in order to attract her attention, he’s blindsided by her fierce need to let no one stand in her way, to eliminate all obstacles which prevent her from getting what she wants, shifting halfway through the film from the manipulated to the manipulator, luring Dennis into her own deceiptful web of intrigue and disaster.        

Certainly some of this may remind viewers of Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973), but Sue Ann is a far different creature than the more benign Sissy Spacek, instead taking on the male characteristics of the Martin Sheen role, someone who acts impulsively, seemingly for no reason, leaving behind a litter of dead bodies in their wake, never stopping for a second to consider what they’ve done.  Dennis Pitt provides the lead role and instigates the action with his wild-eyed, made up games of espionage and undercover operations, all designed to bring them closer together, but for Sue Ann, that’s not enough and she wants more, continually doing the inexplicable, making sure the game they’re playing shifts just enough to carry out her own master plan, where she literally becomes the explosive force of the film.  All set in the small town world of Great Barrington, Massachusetts where everything looks in its proper place, this has the disturbing under-the-surface fury of deep-seeded malice, a predecessor to David Lynch’s nightmarish BLUE VELVET (1986), with the world slowly closing in on the unsuspecting Dennis like a noose around his neck, where the creeping paranoia is visible and real, a man who originally thinks he’s painstaking thought of all the meticulous details necessary until Sue Ann adds a few tricks of her own, seemingly improvising on the fly, always compounding the outcome, placing ever greater pressure on Dennis to sustain his balance, where at every passing moment he feels like he’s about to crumble and fall.  Interestingly, the sailor photograph seen in Sue Ann’s bedroom near the end is a picture of the director, which initiates a series of doubts and questions in his mind, seeing his future inevitably altered by the actions of a child, causing him to marvel incredulously, “I notice, you do have quite a capacity for loving.”  Providing a performance of great depth, Tuesday Weld is sensational in a role of seeming superficiality, stealing every scene she’s in, masquerading as the high school sweetheart while she’s really the Lady Macbeth, femme fatale in a film noir world with blood on her hands.  Initially entitled BITCHES BE CRAZY, this joins the motherlode of horror-tinged, comic and darkly disturbing psychological thrillers, where Sue Ann offshoots would have to include overweight jealous wonder Shirley Stoler in The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Nicole Kidman’s ruthless ambition in Gus van Sant’s To Die For (1995), and perhaps even Reese Witherspoon’s perky, not to be denied, Type A over-achiever in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999).   

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