Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Perkins in the Thrall of Weld's Pretty Poison

One of the cinema's most entertaining and unconventional sleepers, director Noel Black's 1968's Pretty Poison offers a clever riff on the many secret agent sagas that were pervading American culture through the James Bond movies and T.V. shows such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. Finally available on DVD in a terrific print (alas, no extras are found save for the original theatrical trailer), this cult classic allows viewers the chance to see two talented screen originals, Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, give adept, incisive performances in a bleak but fascinating story involving love, murder, and betrayal.

The ingeniously scripted tale (by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., based on the Stephen Geller novel, She Let Him Continue) recounts the plight of Dennis Pitt (Perkins), a young man attempting to start a new life in a small Massachusetts town after spending some years in a mental institution to resolve issues formed during his difficult childhood. While employed at the local chemical plant, Dennis becomes infatuated with the beautiful Sue Ann Stepanek, a flirtatious high school honor roll student. Creating a fantasy world wherein he presents himself as a secret agent on a dangerous mission, Pitt soon gains the blonde's attentions by involving her in his fantastic schemes. However, Pitt finds himself in over his head as his beautiful accomplice gets carried away with the pseudo espionage plot and takes matters into her own hands. As Pitt finds his life run amuck, Sue Ann becomes liberated and empowered in unexpected ways, much to the chargrin of Pitt and to the girl's observant, foxy mother (played by Beverly Garland, in a brief but commanding performance), leading to Poison's surprising climax.

Anthony Perkins gives possibly his finest post-Psycho portrayal in Poison. Prior to filming Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, Perkins had established himself as a young screen actor of considerable ability with his wonderfully effective Oscar-nominated work in 1956's Friendly Persuasion and in the following year's Fear Strikes Out, wherein Perkins memorably portrays the emotionally-unstable baseball star Jimmy Peirsall. However, after Psycho Perkins seldom was allowed to escape the imposing shadow cast by his brilliant, unforgettable portrayal of Norman Bates, as aspects of this legendary performance pervade many of Perkins later roles. In Poison, Perkins casts aside many of the famous neurotic "ticks" which sometimes hampered his performances subsequent to Psycho, and grounds the movie's often-fantastic premise in reality with a portrayal that is smart, funny, complex, and true. Perkins shades the misguided Dennis with senstivity and depth, and the caring nature he demonstrates towards Weld vividly conveys the notion Pitt truly hopes this girl will provide him with the means to get his life back on track, offering him the love and stability unknown to Dennis during his troubled past.

By virtue of her remarkable talent, Tuesday Weld managed to carve herself a solid reputation as one of the major talents in film during the late 1950's through the 1970's, while she also avoided, either deliberately or through bad judgement, any of the many chances for major stardom that came her way. Although her career started in mainstream films such as Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! and The Five Pennies, Weld proved herself to be a truly free spirit by passing on starring roles in, among others, the sure-fire career establishers Lolita, Bonnie and Clyde, and True Grit, in favor of showcasing her remarakble acting skills in offbeat fare such as Soldier in the Rain (wherein, in one of the cinema's more implausible couplings, she memorably and touchingly is teamed with Jackie Gleason), Lord Love a Duck, and Poison, giving performances of such hypnotic depth she leaves an audience awestruck by her impressive thespian skills. Although Weld occasionally returned to the mainstream with fine work in 1965's The Cincinnati Kid and via her Oscar-nominated role as Diane Keaton's disenchanted sister in Looking For Mr. Goodbar, many feel Poison provides Weld with her signature role, and the nubile, shrewd Sue Ann certainly ranks as one of the actresses most indelible characterizations. Weld perfectly conveys the guilibility which would lead the teenager to accept the far-fetched premise Dennis presents to her, while she also effortlessly projects a wise-beyond her-years sensibility, making Sue Ann's rapid switch to full-blown maturity (and depravity) completely believable. An incredibly intuitive actress, Weld's most awesome contribution to Poison lies in the manner in which she resists any temptation to overdo her juicy role during the many unforgettable scenes featuring Sue Ann at her most calculating and fearless; Weld plays these moments with a seemingly matter-of-fact, wide-eyed innocence, leaving the impression Sue Ann isn't entirely aware of the immorality of her actions (which makes these scenes all the more powerful), as Weld wisely never fully illustrates Sue Ann's true motives until the character's stunning final moments in the film.

Although Poison's darkly comic subject matter guaranteed the film would never become a popular hit with audiences, the film had a substantial impact on critics, led by Pauline Kael's rave review, which resulted in a New York Film Critics award for Semple's screenplay (Weld was the runner-up for Best Actress). Over the years Poison's reputation has grown significantly, as few who have seen Perkin's and Weld's vivid enactment of one of the 1960's cinema's most trenchant stories are likely to forget it- the small-scale Poison could indeed be considered a forerunner to and an important influence on the modern-day independent film movement. Fans of Perkins, Weld, and unusual movies won't be disappointed by the many charms of this Poison.


At 1:00 PM, Blogger Gregory said...

Marvelous, incisive piece on Pretty Poison! Good job. I'm showing the film Wednesday night at the Birmingham venue Bottletree - no band is scheduled - and I've got to write a blurb. I'll try not to pinch anything from your piece! (And by that I mean cadge!) I've always thought blogs were a load of applesauce, but I look forward to reading more of yours.

At 12:49 AM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Thank you, Gregory. Poison quietly slipped out on DVD last year with no fanfare, but at least it's finally available. Glad to see the film's playing somewhere- it's always great to watch these classics with an audience and gauge the reaction.


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