Tuesday, June 11, 2013

PRETTY POISON 1968

For as long as I can remember I've been intrigued by films whose themes dramatize a perception of reality I seem to have held since my teen years: the banality of evil. A term first coined in 1963 by political theorist Hannah Arendt in her Holocaust trial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, it’s a theory that has gone on to signify many things, most persistently for me—the notion of wickedness thriving in the most innocuous of environments. 
Rosemary’s Baby found Satanic evil lurking behind the everyday meddlesome intrusions of nosy neighbors. The Stepford Wives exposed the murderous misogyny cloaked within patriarchal social systems. Andy Warhol’s Bad used basic black comedy to satirize the lethal side of suburban materialism. In Pretty Poison, a bizarre little chiller that slipped past audiences in 1968 but has since developed a loyal cult following, first-time director Noel Black (with an award-winning screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. adapted from the novel, She Let Him Continue by Stephen Geller) treads a path well-worn by directors as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt) and David Lynch (Blue Velvet): the dark underside of small town life.
Anthony Perkins as Dennis Pitt
Tuesday Weld as Sue Ann Stepanek
Beverly Garland as Mrs. Stepanek
Anthony Perkins is Dennis Pitt, a recently-released-from-a-mental-institution loner (for the arson death of his aunt when he was 15) with, to put it charitably, a tenuous grip on reality. A pathological liar, albeit not an especially accomplished one, Pitt is given to flights of espionage fantasy so elaborate one is never quite sure…least of all Dennis himself…how much is real. Into his peculiar orbit comes drill team flag-bearer, Sue Ann Stepanek, a 17-year-old high-schooler every bit as wholesome and unrefined as her name.
Convincing the gullible Sue Ann that he’s a CIA agent on a covert mission to investigate pollution and environmental crimes committed by the chemical plant where he’s employed, the delusional Pitt fancies himself the city slicker to Sue Ann’s easily-seduced farmer’s daughter. Unfortunately, it isn't long before things grimly escalate in a bizarre game of “Who’s zooming who?” that finds the hunter, a tad slow on the uptake, discovering he has been captured by the game.
Although most men are loathe to admit it, women terrify them
Pretty Poison dramatizes this unassailable fact by adopting a familiar film noir trope: the wiseguy male who thinks he knows all the answers gets himself mixed up with a woman who has rewritten the book. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
One of my strongest memories of being a pre-teen in the late 60s was the prevailing, almost oppressive sense (from movies, television shows, and newspaper articles) that America was in a tumultuous state of self-reflection. After so many years of looking outside ourselves at Germany, Russia, Japan, and the vague specter of communism as this monolith of absolute evil out to overthrow our just and unsullied American Way of Life; the ethical and moral morass that was the Vietnam War— coupled with a rash of political assassinations, civil rights violence, and campus rioting exploding throughout the country— posed the discomforting postulate that we were now living in an age when what we most had to fear was ourselves.
Movies as dissimilar and ostensibly politically benign as Last Summer, Rosemary’s Baby,  Bonnie and Clyde, Petulia, Angel Angel Down We Go, Easy Rider, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?,  The Parallax View, and Targets, all reflected the late-60s zeitgeist: ambiguity about and disillusion with the beliefs, conventions, and institutions in which we at one time placed our absolute trust.
The All-American Girl
Rather pathetically, this image of a handgun amongst the innocent, little-girl  trappings of a teen's dressing table still embodies the American ideal for a great many people: every man, woman and child in the country armed to the teeth.
For a time, it felt as if everything clean and shiny about American culture was revealing itself to have an underside of decay and rot. Pretty Poison, a film whose title even captures this sense of wary disquietude, gives us a film that appears on the surface to be a harmless anarchic black comedy about misfit youth, but is in fact a twisted and rather startling tale where nothing is as it seems and good intentions don't amount to much.
Dennis studying a vial of the chemical his plant produces whose waste pollutes the river and nearby lake...or is he thinking of Sue Ann?
American films in the sixties were obsessed with unearthing the villains that presented themselves as the clean-cut upholders of family values. In exposing the hypocrisy behind the small town bastions of normalcy and conformity. In confronting the violent institutions and belief systems that casually traded lies for lives in the belief that something real was being defended. Films like Pretty Poison - films that explored the enemy within - asked audiences to take a good look at what America had become.

PERFORMANCES:
It’s perhaps debatable whether Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld deconstruct or merely exploit their trademarked screen personas in Pretty Poison. But what is clear is that in assuming roles that both recall and add unexpected twists to past performances for which they've become indelibly linked in the public's mind (Psycho’s unhinged Norman Bates for Perkins, Lord Love a Duck’s covetous co-ed, Barbara Ann Greene, for Weld), Perkins and Weld - who share a marvelous chemistry - take audience preconceptions and make us choke on them.
It begins to dawn on Dennis that Sue Ann is something of a force to be reckoned with
Tuesday Weld, a longtime favorite of mine and an incredibly talented actress who has shunned fame the way most people avoid a trip to the dentist, is said to have been miserable during the making of the film, loathed her director, and blamed him for her giving what she considered to be one of her worst screen performances. (Obviously upset and trying to make a point, Ms. Weld should nevertheless know that that dubious honor falls to her timeless work in Sex Kittens Go to College.) On the contrary, in spite of having been labeled a "neurotic" by co-star John Randolph, and said to have been frequently in tearful hysterics during the filming, Tuesday Weld gives a masterfully canny performance in Pretty Poison. One that is, at turns, both charming and chilling. I think she's mesmerizingly good, her performance here being among one of the best of her career. And at almost 25-years of age at the time and playing 17, she somehow manages to get away with it...her preternatural physical development hinting at a shrouded psychological maturity.
Roger Corman stalwart (and personal fave), the always excellent Beverly Garland is a particular standout as Sue Ann's brassy mother. 
And then there is Anthony Perkins. When I was growing up, he always gave me the creeps. But upon discovering more of his pre-Psycho work, I have begun to find him strangely attractive and have since developed quite the posthumous crush. In Pretty Poison, Perkins is once again cast in to type in the kind of role he found it near-impossible to escape following Psycho. Yet, typecast as he was, no one could ever accuse him of sleepwalking his way through Pretty Poison. His Dennis Pitt is one of his more affecting and underplayed performances. Sympathetic, complex, and imbued with a great deal of dimension. I especially like how his character starts to revert to an almost childlike state of bewilderment and confusion as his overactive fantasy life begins to spiral out of his control into a nightmarish reality.
John Randolph plays Dennis' appropriately concerned case officer, Morton Azenauer
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Adding to Pretty Poison’s already considerable quirk factor are the odd ways in which Pretty Poison’s plot; Tuesday Weld’s 1966 teen-culture spoof, Lord Love a Duck; and Weld’s own private life, intersect. Note: If you haven’t seen the film you may want to skip over this section.
Pretty Poison Lord Love a Duck / Real life
The characters Weld plays in both films have aggressively contentious relationships with their mothers. In real-life, Weld loathed her mother and was fond of telling reporters that her mother was dead even though she was quite alive and kicking. (Prompting her mother to write in 2003, the superbly titled tell-all book, If It’s Tuesday...I Must be DEAD!)

Pretty Poison / Lord Love a Duck / Real life
The ageless, feckless men Weld manipulates in both films are portrayed by actors (Perkins, Roddy McDowall) who in real life were closeted gay men. In 1972, Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins reteamed  for the film Play it As It Lays, in which Weld portrayed an actress suffering a nervous breakdown (in real-life, Weld claims to have suffered a breakdown after she discovered her first serious boyfriend was gay. A boyfriend who, according to dear ol' mom, was both Roddy McDowall's assistant and his lover). Anthony Perkins portrays her gay best friend, a suicidal film director named BZ (in real life, Perkins directed two films, one of them being the last-straw sequel, Psycho III).
Pretty Poison Lord Love a Duck
Weld’s character in both films is a dissatisfied, disaffected high-school senior who comes under the influence of a strange man whom she’s able to manipulate into helping her out with her “problems.”

Pretty Poison / Lord Love a Duck
In both films, Weld’s character rises like a phoenix from the ashes while her male compatriot rots in prison.
  
Pretty Poison / How Awful About Allan
In Pretty Poison and the 1970 TV movie, How Awful About Allan, Anthony Perkins plays a man who, in his youth, causes the accidental death of a relative by fire. Both roles cast the twitchy actor as a potential villain only later to reveal him as a victim of a calculated scheme.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
Given how superior their performances are and what a thoroughly hard-hitting thriller it is , it's a pity that neither Anthony Perkins nor Tuesday Weld care(d) much for Pretty Poison. Weld, for the aforementioned animosity she felt toward her director, Perkins, less for his performance than for finding the film "slow moving." I remember when Pretty Poison was released in the San Francisco area in 1968 and being being intrigued by the newspaper ads and TV commercial. Still, given all that, I never actually got around to seeing it until the late 70s when it was screened at a revival theater compatibly double-billed with Peter Bogdanovich's, Targets (another socko, small film from the same year that I highly recommend).
I was simply floored by Pretty Poison and still consider it to be a film far superior and more frightening than some of the more high-profile films with similar themes (Badlands, Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers). There's really much to recommend it, not the least being its 60s vibe that doesn't feel dated, and, most gratifyingly, top-notch lead performances by two of Hollywood's more charismatic (if idiosyncratic) stars.
She Let Him Continue
"I was such a fool, Mr. Azenauer. I let him go on even after I knew he was crazy..."
In 1996, Pretty Poison was made into a pedestrian TV movie of profound mediocrity. All plot, no subtext.

Happily, Noel Black's Pretty Poison is available on DVD. Unfortunately the U.S. version is without the director's commentary on the UK DVD release. To read more about this forgotten gem, check out this great article at Joes' View.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

20 comments:

  1. Ken, I have only really gotten into "Pretty Poison" in recent years. When I finally sat down and watched it from beginning to end I found it to be exactly what you describe, a delightfully "bizarre little chiller."

    I'm so surprised Tuesday Weld doesn't like her performance in this film. It's one of her most memorable. I do wish, though, that she'd worked more often. I remember wondering, early in her career, if Jessica Lange was intentionally emulating Tuesday (she almost seemed to be channeling her). Then Jessica ascended and Tuesday all but disappeared.

    Your review is irresistibly smart and readable and does great justice to a fairly overlooked gem. I especially enjoyed your commentary on the tone of the times in which "Pretty Poison" was made.

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    1. The most consistent through-line in any discussion on Tuesday Weld and the talent hidden behind the jokey name, is the wish that she had worked more. I know that to be true of me. In doing research for this post, I hadn't really known that she was a reluctant child actress with a relentless stage mother, a victim of underage sexual abuse, and possibly someone with a lot of emotional problems (addictions seem to have plagued her). In light of the Lindsay Lohans and Amanda Bynes who parade their dysfunction for paparazzi enjoyment, I guess I have to hand to Weld for having some innate "self-preservation" gene that kept her working, yet gave her the brains and fortitude to turn down all those movie roles which most certainly would have resulted in increased visibility and fame.

      Fans of hers have certainly been deprived of what she could have brought to "Bonnie and Clyde", "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" (although she appeared in the awful "Serial" which was a terrible 80s social satire of the same ilk), but if selectivity helped her sanity and gave her a much-needed private life, our loss has obviously been her gain.
      Oh, and I love what you said about Jessica Lange! In her "Tootisie", "How to Beat the High Cost of Living" days, she REALLY recalled Weld to me, but I never thought anyone else saw the similarity but me. And then of course, there was Debbie Harry of the punk band "Blondie" who at one time I thought would have made a marvelous Tuesday Weld...as if we need another one.
      Thanks, Lady Eve. Lovely to hear from you!

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    2. Ken, There is another person who must've (consciously or not) picked up on the similarities between Tuesday Weld and Jessica Lange. A few years ago I read something by Lange's onetime (and longtime) partner, Sam Shepard, in which he mentioned he'd had a big crush on Tuesday Weld when he was young.

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    3. Ha! That's actually kind of cute, I'd never heard that!

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  2. Thanks for the shout out Ken! I am old enough to have seen this gem when it first came out in 1968. It was sold as a B-movie but Pauline Kael's review caused it to be played at the art house in State College, Pa. where I was just starting college. A cult began to form right away.
    I've always wished Beverly Garland found more opportunities in A-movies - such a smart and funny actress and so good in "Pretty Poison."
    And, of course, Tuesday Weld is the cult actress to end all cult actresses. Terrific in almost everything but never connected with the smash hit that would make her a star (I'm even a sucker for her performance in the little-seen 1980s TV movie "Something in Common" with Ellen Burstyn).
    Do you think if she had a different first name she might have been taken more seriously in her prime? Some people - who didn't know her work - put her down as a Hollywood joke.

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    1. My pleasure! Your article was the one that clued me in to "Pretty Poison" being available on DVD.
      Tuesday Weld is indeed a major cult actress (almost to an unsettling degree if one researches the amount of obsessive fan devotion to her online), yet in the few interviews I have been able to find, she reiterates the same thing: that she was never interested in fame, and turned down roles she thought would bring her the kind of fishbowl celebrity she abhorred. This may be self-mythologizing on her part (can anyone really tell what will be a hit?) but at least it goes towards explaining the incongruities of her filmography- slews of unwatchable dreck peppered with performance gems (I have to seek out that Ellen Burstyn film!).
      I think you may have a point about her punchline name. Wasn't it "The Flintstones" that had a movie starlet on it named Wednesday Tuesday? She transcended her baby-doll name in role after role, but maybe audiences found her as difficult to take seriously as a very good actress who maintained the name "Twiggy" well past middle age.

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  3. I need to see this one! I am a big Perkins fan, and he is dreamy-attractive in the screen caps you found.

    And I concur with all that Tuesday Weld is an underrated talent. My favorite performance of hers is in Looking for Mr. Goodbar - for which she received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress.

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    1. I am quite positive that you will enjoy it. Weld is always amazing, and if you harbor even a passing fondness for Perkins, he is really good here, in my opinion.
      After looking over your terrific blog, I agree with your earlier assessment that we share a very similar taste in films. I'm looking forward to exploring it further! Thanks, Angelman!

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  4. Ken, that's such an honor coming from you! I am delighted meet someone who shares my recherche taste in film - not to mention your amazingly knowledgeable and passionate readership!

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  5. What an excellent analysis. Although I am more a fan of "Play It As It Lays," you really need to see both films together to get all the real-life inferences you mention.

    About 15 years ago, when Vanity Fair started doing their Hollywood Issue, there was a black and white photo of Tuesday looking into a mirror. It's the last public image of her I've seen. I wish I had kept that photo. There's not a day that goes by that I wonder when we'll see her obit, and people will finally realize what an incredible, underrated actress she was.

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    1. Thank you very much! I too think that "Play It As It Lays" is a film that captures (at least from a West Coast point of view) the feel of the time. Your comment about the Vanity Fair photo got me to thinking that I’m not entirely sure what Weld looks like these days. I have no idea when the last time I saw a contemporary photo of her.

      And, sad to say, your observation is very true to American pop-culture form. We neglect/forget an actress for years; we read of her passing, then up jump all the revisionist reassessments of her career and heretofore ignored talent. A very easy case can be made with the underappreciated Weld because she has consistently given good performances in film after film and yet remains more a cult figure than respected actress.
      Thanks for commenting on this post, Tanyadiva!

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  6. Hi Ken, just watched "Pretty Poison" and was thrilled that you reviewed it!
    Did you know that Roman Polanski wanted Weld for "Rosemary's Baby?" I think that would have been terrific, as I always thought Mia seemed sickly from the get-go!
    I'm betting David Lynch was totally influenced by "Pretty Poison." It surely seems like a precursor to "Blue Velvet" and Perkin's character reminds me of a even more whacked Agent Cooper from "Twin Peaks."
    What I found especially stunning was the photography, there was some stunning imagery in "Pretty Poison," dreamlike! Loved it!
    And you can watch Tuesday and Tony in "Play it Like it Lays" on YouTube, which is great because it doesn't seem to be on DVD or at least on NetFlix.
    Rico

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    1. Hi Rico
      There must be some sort of global Tuesday Weld consciousness going on right now. Just a few days ago someone contacted me about my piece on the Weld TV movie "Reflection of Fear" in which she appears with a short haircut (or wig) and I contrast a screencap of Weld with one of Mia Farrow, saying that this is likely how she would have looked had Polanski got his wish.
      You're totally in tune with what I've read was Polanski's aim, which was to cast two robust, very American types (Weld and Robert Redford) and have her waste away while exploring the dark side of Redford's TV commercial-bland handsomeness. I think Farrow is perfection, but I love the other idea, too.
      Also, someone recently commented on my post on Frank Perry's "Last Summer" and informed me that Perry's "Play it as it Lays" is on Youtube and that I should check it out before they take it down.
      So curious those coincidences!

      i love that you recently discovered "Pretty Poison"! Wonderful little movie, isn't it? I'd never thought of the small town, Blue Velvet/Twin Peaks parallels before, but i can see it. We're definitely in Lynch territory here. Apparently Weld hated making it so much (she and the director didn't get along) it clouds her ability to appreciate what a good film it is. I think it's wonderful, and I'm glad you noticed how exceptional the cinematography is.

      I saw "Play it as it lays" many years ago, but it didn't look as crisp as the YouTube copy, so I'll be giving it another look-see. Great to hear from you Rico, and thank you for looking the blog up to check out older posts!

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  7. I just watched "Play it as it Lays" on YouTube last night.

    Frank Perry of "Mommie Dearest" infamy directed...and apparently his abrupt scene change style never changed!

    I am officially in love with Tuesday Weld. She terrific as troubled actress Maria. Especially as she slips into her despair, Weld reminded me a great deal of Marilyn Monroe. Ironically, I heard the scenes where Maria is constantly driving was partly inspired by Didion's reading that Monroe's shrink suggested she get out and drive to work out her depression and despair!

    I am sorry to hear that Weld shunned major stardom because she had a hard time working on her issues as it was. How lucky for young actresses like Jane Fonda, Mia Farrow, Katherine Ross, and Faye Dunaway. Because Weld could have wowed audiences in movies like They Shoot Horses, Rosemary's Baby, The Graduate, and Bonnie and Clyde!

    PS...Anthony Perkins was great as Maria's gay BFF. The final scene between them is heartbreaking. I think Tony's real hetro marriage was somewhat happier...I hope!

    PSS...Is this movie the situation that created a long-running feud between Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne and his brother Dominick Dunne?

    Like more than a few movies, what was going on the set was more interesting than what appeared on the screen!

    Cheers, I love this blog!
    Rico

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    1. Cheers, Rico!
      I really have to watch "Play it As it lays" again. Weld is one of my favorite actresses, too. I saw her in an episode of "The Naked City" recently in which she played a Bonnie Parker type character (perhaps more like the Sissy Spacek character in "Badlands" and you get a good idea of how electrifying she would have been in Beatty's film.
      And I don't know anything about a fraud betweenDidion and the Dunnes...Google, here I come!
      Anyhow, as Perry is one of my favorite early directors, I am gladdened by your appreciation of that film. Thanks for being such an enthusiastic contributor, Rick!

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    2. You can also get a glimpse of what Tuesday could have physically looked like had she done Bonnie and Clyde if you watch the "dream sequence" in Bachelor Flat. An underrated comedy....but, still not great. However, Tuesday just runs away with this movie and really shows how she can take command of the screen. She's terrific in it!

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    3. Thanks for that, Randy! As it happens, that clip is on YouTube and it's real kick seeing Weld in Bonnie Parker drag! Much appreciated, she looks great!

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    4. Bachelor Flat becomes a victim of its own zaniness. I'm not crazy about the last part of the film. But, it has its moments and is a must for Tuesday Weld fans. She really shows off her comedic side in Bachelor Flat. She dated Richard Beymer in real life. She worked well with him and they did High Time together back in 1960, starring Bing Crosby (another mediocre film that has some fun moments).

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  8. Tuesday was so good in everything she did which resulted in almost automatic screen chemistry with every actor and actress she worked with. But, her vibe with Tony Perkins is my favorite. Pretty Poison and Play It As It Lays are terrific. The last photo I saw of Tuesday was some kind of event for Once Upon a Time in America. I saw a bunch of photos with her and Robert DeNiro and Jennifer Connelly. Tuesday looked gorgeous .

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    1. Hi Randy
      Weld does share a very palpable chemistry with Perkins. And indeed, as you note, she tends to be so good in everything, she has a nice chemistry with whomever she works with. I haven't seen a photo of her in ages, no doubt she probably still stunning.
      Thanks, Randy!

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