Pretty Poison

Dir: Noel Black, 1968. Starring: Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld. Cult.
Pretty Poison

Returning from nearly a decade of making films in Europe, Anthony Perkins stars as Dennis Pitt, a mysterious young man with a history of being emotionally disturbed. Like many character actors who had such iconic roles as Perkins (see Psycho), it’s hard to imagine him as anyone else. But in retrospect it is easier to see him as the great talent that he was. Simultaneously charming, terrifying, and maniacal. A slapstick master to boot.

Dennis’s parole officer, Azenauer (the late John Randolph), sets the cautionary tone in the first 5 minutes with his predictive warning to Dennis: ”You’re going out into a very real and tough world. It’s got no place for fantasies.” Not only warning Dennis but we, the audience too. There is a lot of misconception and confusion thrown our way over the next 90 minutes. Dennis settles into a New England industrial town where he meets Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld). Its rural Massachusetts locale isolates it from the tumultuous atmosphere of city life during the 1960s. Essentially in a bubble, this film could’ve been made anywhere, in any time, and I think that’s the real strength of the story.

It’s hard to tell if it’s going to be a screwball comedy about a disillusioned young man playing a very elaborate cat and mouse game to win a girl’s heart, or if he’s telling the truth regarding his dubious past. Either way, finding out is half the fun of the flick. Tuesday Weld plays up her teenage, blonde, sexpot naiveté to the T. But the glaring reality of the situation is: early 30-something man with severe social problems hoodwinks a 17 year old high school student into sleeping with him. And that’s exactly how Sue Ann’s mother sees it. As an audience it plays out more as an allegory for the corruptibility of modern youth. You realize how quickly a so-called “good kid” can switch roles with the “bad apple” once they cross that paper thin line into the unknown. After a series of very unfortunate events, planned by Dennis and executed by Sue Ann, reality starts to close in and suffocate Dennis. And it’s still hard to tell who’s conning who...or if anyone’s telling the truth.

With its light-hearted exterior, it doesn’t ever delve too deeply into the issues at hand, giving them some sort of superfluous quality. But at the heart of this film is the theme of finding one’s self in a crazy world. It’s the age-old labyrinthian question of do we inform society, or does the society inform us. The ol’ feedback loop. The overall execution of the film is a bit clumsy, but that makes it all the more enjoyable. This type of comedy/thriller hybrid was later adopted and mutated by the wonderful Coen Brothers. It’s almost like a better-acted and better-written made-for-tv movie. (Oh! It appears that a TV-only remake appeared in 1996!) Also worth it for the Black Widow preview.

Posted by:
Adam Payne
Apr 27, 2009 12:07pm
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