Friday, June 28, 2013


David Cronenberg’s profoundly creepy Dead Ringers is a film that defies pigeonholing as deftly as it eludes any single interpretation of what it all adds up to. Ill-suited to pat, genre classification and easy summation, the stylish surrealism that is Dead Ringers combines Cronenberg’s by now trademark technology-fetish / body-horror motifs with the most compelling elements of the psychological suspense thriller, the romantic triangle drama, and the horror film.
Dead Ringers is a fictionalized treatment of a true story about prominent New York physicians, Stewart and Cyril Marcus: identical twin gynecologists who made headlines in 1975 when their bodies were discovered in their Manhattan apartment a week after their deaths, the result of trying to kick mutual barbiturate addictions. The story was dramatized in the 1977 novel Twins by Bari Wood &Jack Geasland, and it is from this source that screenwriter David Cronenberg and Norman Snider draw their inspiration for Dead Ringers.
Jeremy Irons as Elliot Mantle
Genevieve Bujold as Claire Niveau
Jeremy Irons as Beverly Mantle
In Dead Ringers, the functional dysfunction of the psychologically and emotionally co-dependent twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Irons), threatens to unravel when Beverly (the introvert to Elliot’s self-possessed extrovert) falls in love with a patient they share (both professionally and sexually, albeit unknown to her). Claire Niveau (Bujold) is a famous movie actress with a slight masochistic streak and a functioning drug problem (“It’s an occupational hazard) who arrives at the twins’ fertility clinic to discover why she can’t get pregnant.  When the doctors discover that the source of her infertility is a trifurcate cervixa rare condition branding her a “mutant” in the eyes of the doctorsElliot reacts with clinical detachment while Beverly responds empathetically. This fundamental psychological difference in the makeup of the otherwise identical, obsessively-attached brothers, coupled with the introduction of an intelligent, self-aware female into their otherwise male-centric existence, is the catalyst for a disturbing series of events culminating in a darkly tragic conclusion that is as unexpected as it is inevitable.
Dead Ringers is an irresistibly offbeat psychological drama that generates tension not only from its examination of the mystifyingly synergistic relationship between identical twin brothers (with all its attendant homosexual panic and latency), but from a unerringly pervasive sense, sustained throughout the film, that at any moment this dark-hued character study can erupt into unimaginable horror.
Claire: "I think you two have never come to terms with the way it really does work between you."

Typically, if one wants to see a film about heterosexual men both afraid of and repulsed by women, yet have no recourse but to have sex with them lest they be forced to confront the broader sexual identity ramifications of their deeper emotional and psychological affinity for men; one has to go to a Judd Apatow movie or watch one of those reprehensibly misogynist romantic comedies unvaryingly starring Gerard Butler or Katherine Heigl.

In dramatizing a narrative wherein two gynophobic men share an emotional and psychological bond between them that is infinitely deeper than either is capable of with a woman (a childhood flashback reveals the brothers to be fascinated by the prospect of sex without touching, and their interest in females never more than clinical. “They're so different from us,” laments Elliot), Dead Ringers and the story of the Mantle twins works as a macabre metaphor for the kind of casual misogyny one encounters frequently in motion pictures about male/female relationships. Only this time, the ugliness lurking behind the oh-so-subtle "bromance" jokes and anti-female subtext is writ large and in blood.
A History of Violence
The threat of female-directed violence runs through Dead Ringers like an exposed nerve. In this scene where Elliot visits Claire on the set of her film, Cronenberg provocatively stages the scene in the makeup trailer with Bujold sporting false bruises and injuries. 

Dead Ringers is set in the world of gynecology. A world nevertheless presided over by condescendingly patriarchal men who make use of women's bodies, often with little regard for their feelings in the name of research and medical progress (per the unexplained scene of a woman leaving Elliot's office in near hysterics). Elliot and Beverly's casual disregard for women is manifest in their habit of interchangeably treating (and sleeping with) their clients without benefit of disclosing their true identities. The latter habit effectively keeping at bay the twins' nervously unaddressed issues of homosexuality; a prominent element in the novel that is merely hinted at in the film.
Think What You Can Keep Ignoring
Woman as smokescreen for homosexual anxiety

Similarly, the brother's deep-seated curiosity about (and revulsion to) female anatomy not only reflects a common cultural attitude (director Cronenberg discusses on the DVD commentary track how the film's gynecological setting was enough to scare off many studios and several prospective leading men), but when coupled with the psychological fallout of the twins' crippling interdependency and drug use, their propensity to see women as "the other" and the "disruptive element"; leads to the nightmarish invention and utilization of gynecological surgical instruments more befitting instruments of torture.

While Dead Ringers ranks as my absolute favorite David Cronenberg film of all time, I can well imagine that its considerable unpleasantness and inherent creep-out factor contributed to it being thoroughly being ignored by the Academy come Oscar time. Which is really a pity, because you’d have to look far to find a braver, more persuasively committed job of acting than what Jeremy Irons archives in his performance(s) as the tragically conflicted Mantle twins. No matter what one feels about the movie as a whole, there’s no getting around the fact that Irons carves out two distinctly separate personalities by means of the most intriguing subtleties. His refusal to resort to showy and obvious means of conveying the differences between the brothers roots this fantastic story in a reality which makes Dead Ringers a thriller both horrific and deeply moving. (Irons must have felt the same for in 1991 when he won the Best Actor Academy Award for Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune,  he thanked David Cronenberg in his acceptance speech.)
Jeremy Irons’ virtuoso dual performance is Dead Ringers’ main attraction, but for me, in spite of its technical and stylistic brilliance, the film wouldn't have worked at all were not for the incisive and grounded contribution of Geneviève Bujold. A film rooted in laying bare the adolescent male fear of women and their bodies would simply not work were the primary female role handed over to one of those indistinguishable Hollywood actress types molded to fit into the standard objectified fantasy image of womanhood. 
Geneviève Bujold, an actress whom I've always admired (although I will never understand what the hell she was doing in Monsignor) and whose praises I sing in my post about her breakout role in Coma, is always assertively, intelligently herself. She's an image of woman as a real, complex, flawed individual. A human being, not a fantasy or fetish figure As portrayed, her Claire Niveau stands as a credible threat to the union of the brothers because no matter how hard they may try to see her otherwise, she remains a mature, fully fleshed-out person, not an object.
Beverly: "My Brother and I have always shared everything."
Claire: "I'm not a thing."

Bujold is such a vibrant catalyst that Dead Ringers suffers a bit when her character disappears for a long stretch during the film's second act, but I derive so much pleasure out of what she brings to each scene that she absolutely makes the film for me. It's so integral to the plot to have the Mantle twins' stunted image of women contrasted with a decidedly dimensional, fleshed out example of woman as she is, not as she's perceived. And in the casting of the always-intense and interesting Geneviève Bujold, Dead Ringers hits home the discrepancy between male adolescent sexual fixation and a mature emotional and physical attraction to a human being of the opposite sex.
Heidi von Palleske as Dr. Carey Weiler
A casualty of  Dead Ringers having so many fascinating central characters is that Elliot's relationship with Carey is barely fleshed out. Although von Palleske is an intriguingly sensual presence of somewhat ambiguous allegiance, her role is so sketchily drawn that I had no idea until researching this post that she was a fellow physician. 

As one might well guess with a film about identical twins, themes of identity, duality, and role-playing figure prominently in Dead Ringers. In one scene, a pair of identical twin call-girls arrive at Elliot's hotel suite and he asks one of them to call him by his own name, the other to call him by his brother's. Bujold's Claire is not immune to identity issues either, for while she has a strong sense of herself as a person, in her profession she is called upon to assume the identities of many different people. In her private life, she likes to role play as well, in the form of gently masochistic sexual games.
Elliot: “She’s an actress, Bev, she’s a flake. She plays games all the time. You never know who she really is.

In the case of Elliot and Beverly, the two exploit the inability of others to tell them apart, yet their own nebulous sense of identity make them susceptible to the same subterfuge. In spite of thinking of themselves as individuals, in all things emotional and psychological, neither of them can really ascertain where one ends and the other begins.

People who know me might be surprised to find a film as morbid and depressing as Dead Ringers listed among my favorites, for as is my wont, I tend to shun (on principle) movies I consider to irresponsibly wallow in the gross and violent for the sake of sensation. Of course, the key factor here is responsibility. For as long as I've been a fan of movies I've held to the belief (not a particularly popular one) that movies do indeed affect, influence, and condition us. I feel that as a viewer, I am in a vulnerable position with a filmmaker (one cannot “unsee” what has been shown) and I expect them to respect the power their images have. Nothing bores me more than when weighty issues like death, pain, human suffering, and violence are treated as purely escapist entertainment by geek directors wallowing in perpetual states of arrested development and using film as a venting mechanism for their sensation-deprived childhoods.
I don’t trust directors like Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, and Michael Bay, because, as far as I'm concerned, their sensibilities are stuck somewhere between middle school and Mad Magazine. They have nothing to say to me. Directors like David Cronenberg (add to that David Lynch, Michael Haneke, Nicolas Roeg, and of course, Roman Polanski) may have taken some time to find their artistic voice, but they understand that you can deal with any subject in film if it is dealt with honestly and responsibly. That honestly being that violence, cruelty, and death come at a human cost, and that there is attendant pain and suffering as a result of people's action. I find I can watch a film about any dark subject when it is dealt with it in a manner true to human experience, and by doing so forge a deeper understanding of personality, humanity, and behavior. Violence rendered as a cartoon, for something to ooh and ahh over, for conscience-free consumption...that's about as close to a definition of obscenity as I can imagine.
Dead Ringers is a film I can watch repeatedly and still marvel at the visual cohesion it has with its subject matter. It's a beautifully bleak-looking film with a haunting, mesmerizing score by Howard Shore. It's intelligent, daring, and unflinchingly honest in the depiction of its characters and in the exploration of its themes. Dead Ringers is not perfect, but I personally consider it to be David Cronenberg’s  best, most mature, and fully-realized work. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, June 22, 2013


With major motion pictures looking more like overproduced TV shows—Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast and Furious: God Only Knows How Many. And binge-watch television programming providing the most satisfying viewing around—Sherlock, Downton Abbey, In Treatment; I suspect it's only a matter of time before I jettison the cinephile conceit of this blog entirely and concentrate exclusively on network television and cable TV. As it's a widely-held belief that today's Golden Age is taking place not on movie screens but on the HD flatscreens in our living rooms, I'll seize upon the current zeitgeist as an opportunity to highlight a 1983 cable-TV adaptation of a play that takes advantage of the intimacy-enhancing attributes of the diminished-screen medium to produce a work that's infinitely more faithful to its source material than the Oscar-winning 1958 motion picture adaptation. 

Separate Tables, Terence Rattigan's two-act play (or two, One-Act plays, if you like), debuted on Broadway in 1956 after having enjoyed a successful run in London's West End since 1954. Four years later, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, David Niven, and Deborah Kerr starred in a significantly reworked film version that garnered seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), with Supporting Actor awards going to Niven and co-star Wendy Hiller. 
Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster in the 1958 film adaptation of Separate Tables

Though I was aware of the 1958 film adaptation of Separate Tables by reputation, I only got around to seeing it this month. Alas, despite its pedigree, cast, awards, and overall fine performances, I was underwhelmed. Burt Lancaster, doing all of his acting with his teeth, and Rita Hayworth, going for vulnerable superficiality, but landing at mannered artificiality, make a jarringly ineffectual pair. It's a handsome production, to be sure, but I found it to be strangely inert.
A Pay-TV presentation, Separate Tables premiered on Home Box Office
Monday, March 14, 1983
But to be fair, the true source of my dissatisfaction with the Lancaster movie lies in my having seen, just two weeks prior, the vastly superior 1983 HBO television adaptation of Separate Tables directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust, Sunday, Bloody Sunday). Produced by Ely and Edie Landau, the pair responsible for that fabulous collection of filmed plays under the banner of the American Film Theater (1973 -1975), this videotape production starred—be still my heart—Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Heretofore unknown by me (how was THAT possible?), this movie is an extraordinary acting showcase for all concerned and comes off as something of a minor theatrical miracle: the filmed play that satisfies as a film. It's such a feast of stunning performances and heart-wrenching emotion that the rather cool 1958 film version can't help but pale in comparison.
Julie Christie as Anne Shankland
Alan Bates as John Malcolm Ramsden
Julie Christie as Sybil Railton-Bell
Alan Bates as Major David Angus Pollock

As director John Schlesinger's first project following the mega-flop of his $24 million American comedy Honky Tonk Freeway (1981), the modest Separate Tables, filmed in Bristol, England, feels like something of a return to his origins as a TV series director for the BBC in the 1950s. 
With his glory days as the Academy Award-winning, go-to expatriate director of big-budget hits behind him, the excellence of Separate Tables as a TV film suggests a career resurgence for Schlesinger. But instead, it represented the last glimmer of brilliance in a period of steady professional decline for the director. One that extended from his last profitable release—the 1976 thriller Marathon Man—to his death in 2003.
Irene Worth as Mrs. Maud Railton-Bell
It's anybody's guess why the director's post-1983 film is distinguished by its utter lack of distinction. But in bringing Rattigan's Separate Tables to television, something in the Schlesinger of old seems to have been reawakened. Maybe it was returning to his homeland, working with a nearly all-British cast, or reuniting with the two actors with whom he's done his best work (and whose careers he's primarily responsible for having ignited: Julie Christie, Darling - 1965, Alan Bates, A Kind of Loving - 1962).
Whatever the reason, Schlesinger, a former actor and always a gifted actors' director, gets compelling performances out of his cast, displaying a keen eye for shining a light on the wounded spirit behind the facade of control. Separate Tables is top-form John Schlesinger and a triumph on every level. When I settled in to watch it for the first time, I, of course, hoped I would enjoy the film. What I didn't expect was that a TV movie I hadn't even known existed before this year would turn out to be one of the finest works of John Schlesinger's career.
Claire Bloom as Miss Cooper
The entirety of Separate Tables occurs within the dining room and lounge of The Beauregard Hotel, a modest residence hotel in the resort town of Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. Concerning itself with the lives and interactions of the hotel's sundry inhabitantsmost of them elderly, nearly all of them aloneAct I: "Table by the Window" takes place in December 1954; Act II: "Table Number Seven" occurs some 18 months later. As is the custom with most theatrical productions of Separate Tables, the lead roles in Acts I & II, while different characters, are played by the same actors. Thus in this instance, not only was I blessed with the reteaming of frequent movie co-stars Julie Christie and Alan Bates (Far from the Madding Crowd, The Go-Between, Return of the Soldier), but granted the exceptionally rare treat of seeing these two exceptional talents in dual roles. (This device was abandoned in the film version, which cast different actors in each part and compresses a year and a half's worth of drama into two somewhat overwrought days.)
 "Table by the Window" 
In "Table by the Window," Julie Christie plays an aging fashion model who "accidentally" reunites with ex-husband Alan Bates, a disgraced Labor politician drowning his regrets in drink and a one-sided love affair with the hotel's compassionate proprietress Claire Bloom. Seeing these actors handling Rattigan's humor and pathos with such engaging ease is wonderful. Julie Christie, in particular, looks quite the stunner in an elaborate '50s hairdo that succeeds where several of her high-profile period dramas of the '60s hadn't: getting her to abandon her trademark bangs). "Table Number Seven" has Christie as a childlike, repressed spinster dominated by her mother (the splendid Irene Worth) and infatuated with a posturing military Major (Bates) harboring a dark secret.
"Table Number Seven" 
All of these characters share the common, pitiable trait of fighting to maintain a sense of dignity while struggling to cope with regret, loss, disillusionment, aging, fear, and, most acutely, loneliness. Within the crippling confines of staid, British social conventions—such as the doggedly adhered-to tradition of hotel guests dining at separate tables despite sometimes years-long associations—Separate Tables provides a most moving dramatization of the contradictious nature (frail, yet resilient) of the human soul.
Sylvia Barter as Lady Matheson

I'm showing my age when I say I feel the same about good acting as young audiences today feel about noise, explosions, stunts, and special effects: I don't require much else from a movie. Separate Tables is pretty much a filmed play. It all takes place in what is essentially one big set, with no superfluous "opening up" scenes or cutaways. And if there's any kind of cinematic dexterity on display at all, it's Schlesinger's ability to come up with so many interesting angles in such cramped quarters (although a pesky boom mic shadow makes an appearance in one scene). But with a cast as talented as the one assembled for this TV movie, all you can wish for is that the director keeps the filmmaking gimmicks to a minimum and just lets the actors do their stuff. And, happily, that is precisely what Schlesinger does. The performances in Separate Tables are the main attraction and let me tell you, there's not an IMAX CGI experience that can match the thrill of watching gifted actors at the top of their game.
Brian Deacon and Susannah Fellows
Young unmarried couple Charles Stratton and Jean Tanner ruffle the feathers
of tradition with their casual dress and (gasp!) smoking in the dining room

A welcome problem that comes with having a favorite actor about whose work I've written enthusiastically repeatedly is the worry that I'll one day run out of superlatives. Well, in the case of Julie Christie, I think I've hit it. Having already written essays on no less than six Julie Christie films to date, I think I've used up my entire thesaurus of Christie-related accolades. More's the pity because, in a long career of noteworthy performances that have never failed to leave me thoroughly impressed with her beauty, talent, and screen presence, her dual performances in Separate Tables had me floored. Christie's not just good in Separate Tables; she's phenomenal. For me, she gives what I think is the absolute best performance of her career. And given how over the moon I am about her already, that's really saying a mouthful.
Having carved an early career out of playing shallow, self-involved characters, Christie is in fine form and in well-trod territory as the vainglorious Anne in "Table by the Window." But what I love is how, after playing variations of this type for years now, she's still able to mine bits of genius in her characterization that makes this woman infinitely more dimensional and complicated than I think she appears on the printed page. A favorite: in a moment of defensive desperation when her character confesses to her accusing husband, "You see, I've still got a little pride left." Christie conveys in a split second, with just vocal emphasis and the look in her eyes, the kind of wounded dignity a person clings to moments before relinquishing everything to the fear of being alone. It's an isolated moment of brilliance in a ceaselessly pleasing performance. 
Liz Smith as Miss Meacham
But without a doubt, my highest praise is reserved for Julie Christie in "Table Number Seven." I've never seen her in the role of the mousy underdog before, and witnessing a severely deglamorized Christie - who always registers such strength and intelligence - losing herself within a character of tissue-thin self-esteem and naked vulnerability, is rather glorious. Watching Christie in this was like discovering her anew. The double-barreled impact of her performance in both roles is sensational.    
Bernard Archer as Mr. Fowler

Say what you will about "English Reserve," but a culture rooted in formality and rituals designed to conceal emotion and ensure personal distance makes for some seriously fascinating drama. What makes Separate Tables so profoundly affecting for me (and where this particular cast most notably excels) is that the characters so often speak to each other in ways so obviously antithetical to how they genuinely feel.  
In less capable hands, such emotional restraint can result in characters we can't feel anything for and a film that keeps us at a remove. But when you have a cast of actors capable of showing the concealed layers of emotion and sensitivity behind the stiff-upper-lip posturing and dialogue, they create the necessary underlying tension that brings a chamber piece like this to life. 
The resident busybodies of The Beauregard Hotel unearth
some unpleasant news about one of the hotel guests.
It's unexpectedly touching to see such frosty characters fighting to maintain appearances while, deep inside, they struggle to cope with the need to be loved, accepted, and understood. Alan Bates is quite astounding and is particularly heartbreaking as Major Pollock in "Table Number Seven." If I'm less enthusiastic about Bates' heartsore Mr. Martin in "Table by the Window," it's only marginally so. It's a marvelously versatile turn on his part; no shade of either of his performances rings false. I just tend to harbor an antipathy toward male alcoholics in drama. Which is to say, how they're written. They're often so self-pitying that they leave the viewer with none of their own to contribute. Bates' performance in each play, however, is unquestionably solid.
The always-enchanting Claire Bloom is extremely well-cast as the hotel proprietress, a classified "alone type," but not necessarily by choice. I've always found Bloom to be an actor possessed of a kind of grounded warmth and dignity, two qualities she draws upon in each playlet to poignant effect. Never sentimental, she radiates a womanly resilience that makes her sympathetic character a realist and survivor. As she comes to assist so many in ways where she must sometimes sacrifice her own wants, her openness inspires empathy but never pity. 
The "modern," anti-marriage" couple of Act I return to the hotel 18 months later in Act II.
Married, with an infant, and the seeds of narrow-minded conservatism already taking root.

Gay playwright Terence Rattigan often wrote works that subtly critiqued the cold rigidity of the upper classes. In dramatizing the crippling effects of sensitive people forced to live lives of suppression and isolation, in Separate Tables, Rattigan (author of The Sleeping Prince, which was made into the Marilyn Monroe film, The Prince and the Showgirl) makes a deliberate plea for the acceptance and tolerance of those who are "different"; those don't easily fit into the narrow confines of what is socially perceived as normal or conventional.
Sibyl: "What's the matter with me? There must be something
 the matter with me... I'd so like to be ordinary."

Miss. Cooper: "I've never met an ordinary person. The one thing I've learned in five years
is that the word 'normal' applied to any human creature is utterly meaningless."

There are other equally insightful and moving entreaties in the play for the abidance of compassionate humanity towards those we don't understand, each capable of inducing a major case of waterworks when delivered by actors who inhabit their characters so completely.  
Note: Those interested can research Separate Tables online to read more about the gay subplot of ACT II that was considered for the Broadway production, but ultimately jettisoned by Rattison before opening. But truthfully, one need only listen to the dialogue as is to grasp specifically that the Major is '50s coded gay, and that his being charged with "indecent behavior in a Bournemouth cinema towards women" refers to a different gender. 

I love Separate Tables as it is. It's really quite a lovely play. The language is so beautiful, the characters are so rich, and the overall theme is so loving and humane. But this play written by a gay man, and, in this instance, interpreted by a gay director and brought to life by a bisexual actor--could only be improved upon if one day the second ACT/ second PLAY were allowed to convey Rattigan's true message with the forthright authenticity originally intended. 

A big shout out of thanks to my good friends Jeff Marquis and Chris Tassin, two faithful readers of this blog who, upon learning of my obsession with all things Julie Christie, graciously and very generously sent me a copy of Separate Tables. This particular film has only ever had a VHS release, never seems to pop up on television, and is as rare as hen's teeth on eBay. So you might well imagine that I flipped my graying wig when I received it, and as I had such a delicious time crying my eyes out watching it, I will forever be in their debt.
Jeff and Chris are the comic geniuses behind Punchy Players, a series of hilariously loopy viral videos that have made a smash on YouTube. If you're a classic film fan (and what would you be doing here if you weren't?), you owe it to yourself to check out these great videos HERE.  
Lastly, I have to give a big hug and kiss of thanks to my sweetheart (whom I'll spare by not mentioning his name). Without him, I would never have seen the long-out-of-print 1958 version of Separate Tables. After watching the Schlesinger version, he knew the film geek in me was chomping at the bit to see how it compared to the award-winning original. I was nevertheless content to wait and see if it would turn up on TCM sometime, when, out of the blue, my hon dug up a rare DVD copy online and surprised me with it! That just about knocked me out.
As Separate Tables is a film about the importance of friendship and the indispensability of love, I dedicate this post to my good friends and my life partner. Thanks, guys!

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2013

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


For as long as I can remember, I've been intrigued by films whose themes dramatize a perception of reality I have held since my teens: 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; and 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 a particularly accomplished one, Pitt is given to flights of espionage fantasy so elaborate, one is never quite sure…least of all Dennis himself…if he knows he's lying or not. 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 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 this bizarre game of "Who's zooming who?" - a game that finds the hunter, a tad slow on the uptake, discovering he has been captured by the game.
Although Most Men Are Loath to Admit It, Women Terrify Them
Pretty Poison dramatizes this unassailable fact (the very genesis of the femme fatale) 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. 

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 the rash of political assassinations, civil-rights related 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 once 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 ethos for a great many people: every man, woman, and child in the country armed to the teeth.

For a time, it felt as though 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 unexpected tale where nothing is as it seems and good intentions don't amount to very 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 who presented themselves as the clean-cut upholders of family values; in exposing the hypocrisy behind the small-town bastions of normalcy and conformity; and 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 sought to explore the enemy within—asked audiences to take a good look at what America had become.

Whether Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld deconstruct or merely exploit their trademarked screen personas in Pretty Poison is debatable. 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 an electric 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, 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. (Although upset and trying to make a point, Ms. Weld should know that dubious honor falls to her timeless work in Sex Kittens Go to College.)
On the contrary, despite being labeled a "neurotic" by Pretty Poison co-star John Randolph and said to have been frequently in tearful hysterics during the filming, Tuesday Weld gives a masterfully canny performance in the film. One that is, at turns, both charming and chilling. She's mesmerizingly good, her performance here ranks among 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 consistently 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 again cast to type in the kind of role he found 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 reverts to an almost childlike state of bewilderment and confusion as his overactive fantasy life spirals out of his control into a nightmarish reality.
John Randolph plays Dennis' appropriately concerned case officer, Morton Azenauer

Adding to Pretty Poison's already considerable quirk factor are the odd ways in which Pretty Poison's plot intersects with Tuesday Weld's 1966 teen-culture spoof Lord Love a Duck and Weld's real life. Spoler note: If you haven't yet seen Pretty Poison, 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. This prompted Weld's mother, one Yosene Ker Weld, to write the tell-all book If It's Tuesday...I Must Be DEAD! published in 2003 - ironically, after her death.

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 and Perkins her gay best friend, a suicidal film director. In real life, the depressive Anthony Perkins was indeed Weld's good friend and directed two of them being the last-straw sequel Psycho III.
The Lord Love a Duck connection finds Weld marrying the assistant of her good friend Roddy McDowall in 1965, only to discover that her new husband also happened to have been McDowall's lover.
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 can 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 complex, calculated scheme.

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 being intrigued by the newspaper ads and TV commercials when Pretty Poison was released in the San Francisco area in 1968. Still, given all that, it seemed to disappear from theaters so quickly that I never got around to seeing it until the late 1970s, when it was screened at a revival theater compatibly double-billed with Pert 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 a '60s vibe that somehow 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. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2013