I am several weeks' worth of exhausted and in consequence going through a protracted period of feeling too stupid to think critically or even decoratively, but I just got back from seeing Noel Black's Pretty Poison
(1968) at the Brattle and I want to say something about it. handful_ofdust
, if you have not yet seen this movie I commend it to your attention immediately. It stars Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, some spectacularly bad decisions, and some gloriously sideways dialogue. "Boy, what a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?"
Seriously, where to begin? Monday. Perkins. He's the first reason I wanted to see the film and I might have picked up different resonances in his performance if I had actually managed to see Psycho
(1960) by now, but since the art houses of Boston persist in running it only, ironically for Mother's Day and Halloween, I can tell mostly that he's cast to play with type as Dennis Pitt, a recent release from the New England mental institution that has been his home since he was fifteen. Assigned to work in a lumber yard in Lowell and check in with his case officer once a week, he skips town only to resurface a year later in Winslow, Massachusetts (actually Great Barrington—spatch
recognized Berkshire County from the autumnal trees and diagnosed a rough location from spotting "Stockbridge" on a green-and-silver highway sign), renting the trailer permanently parked in the side yard of Bronson's Garage and punching the clock at the Sausenfeld Chemical Company where the runoff spills in beautiful vermillion ribbons into the old mill stream. He listens to Russian shortwave on the radio, takes careful, surreptitious pictures of the factory's leaking superstructure and passes his landlady the film to develop under her name, not his. He never walks anywhere when he can run, usually in his shirtsleeves, with a lanky, loping stride that looks more appropriate to a fidgety teenager than a man in his mid-thirties. He vaults over the backs of movie seats rather than sitting down into them; he gets in and out of a convertible without bothering with the doors. Here as in Phaedra
(1962), Perkins is slidingly beautiful, with some of the same volatile quality of a person whose emotional, intellectual, and physical ages are all over the map from one another. Being a ward of the state for twenty years teaches you a lot of things, but not necessarily how to grow up. The catch is that he's not crazy. He's a fantasist with a juvie record, but he's not delusional; he says outrageous things with a straight face just to see if people are listening ("I must tell you, Mr. Azenauer, a lumber yard does seem a slight waste of my talents . . . I've been taking a secret course in interplanetary navigation. I had hoped to be appointed to the first Venus rocket") and plays an elaborate spy game with himself to brighten up the humdrum routine of watching little glass bottles full of mysterious red chemical clink down the assembly line while his boss glares over his shoulder and he tries not to dream on the clock. For every real moment of uncertainty or distraction, there's another flick of smart-alecky amusement or an ostensibly apologetic smile offered as pure dodge. "You're going out into a very real, very tough world," his sympathetic case officer warns him in the pre-credits prologue. "It's got no place at all for fantasies." Cut to Dennis perched on a split-rail fence, watching a high school color guard drill to the wholesome piccolo twirls of John Philip Sousa. What's more all-American than a blonde drum majorette in white ankle boots proudly marching with the state flag? What's more fantastic?
Enter Tuesday Weld. I had never seen her before, although Rob identified her for me as a former child actor who broke out playing the primary love among The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
(1959–63); she's dynamite. From the moment her fresh-faced appearance causes Dennis to bang his head on the diner truck's awning in his eagerness to change her a quarter for the pay phone, Sue Ann Stepanek fulfills every cliché of the desirable cheerleader, the prom queen-in-waiting, all slim hips in schoolgirl skirts and sundresses, her golden hair flying, the freckled sculpting of her cheekbones wrinkling back to disclose a milk-toothed giggle and a hungry curiosity for whatever adult excitement this tall dark stranger can let her in on next. Perkins was my age at the time of filming and the audience is given no reason not to assume his character is the same. Weld was twenty-five playing "almost eighteen." The script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. not only acknowledges the age difference, it leans on it till the horn blares. There's a quirky charm in the combination of parody and sincerity with which Dennis involves Sue Ann in his CIA playacting, slipping her a stolen-from-work bottle of "tetra-acetic disaccharinous peregrinate" in a clipped monotone that sounds steely and professional so long as your experience of secret agents is confined to TV spy-fi,1
revealing by snippets his eco-terrorist mission to sabotage the Sausenfeld before it dumps another seventy million gallons of poisonous waste into the waterways ("By next spring there may not be an unmonstrous fish as far south as New York") and bolstering his claims with stonefaced double-talk and a lot of acronyms, of which my favorite is "PAC-NS"—"Plausible Agentry Contract, Non-Salaried." The game becomes queasier when he offers her lozenges of something that might be the power of suggestion or might be a Class B substance and rolls her out the driver's seat of her own car into the moonlit, birch-shadowed meadow of Fall Road, known to the locals as "Makeout Alley." One of the ways we're signaled that Sue Ann's chain-smoking, highball-drinking mother (Beverly Garland) is no good is the bland malice with which she interviews her daughter's new beau, letting him squirm over the obvious white lie that he's the nephew of a family friend while simultaneously evaluating him as dalliance material herself—uncomfortable with every aspect of this situation, Dennis hemming and hawing in an ill-fitting sports jacket looks every inch the hangdog creeper, but Mrs. Stepanek merely sees him out the door after her defiant daughter, cattily content to wait until the cops who shine flashlights down Fall Road bring the rumpled and illicit lovers in.
What has happened between these two points is the hinge of the film, which is worth not spoiling in detail except to say that I understand how Pretty Poison
got its reputation as an early neo-noir and I don't understand why it didn't catapult Tuesday Weld into the first rank of weird and fearless actors appreciated in their time.2
Anyone with half an eye for irony can guess almost to the second when the shine will start peeling off Black's small-town American fantasy like gilt off sour brass, but it just cranks the dissonance up that even at her most conventionally perverse—straddling the slow thrashing of a drowning body like a trick rider, her pink tongue curling out with concentration as she sights down the barrel of a stolen Colt—Sue Ann never looks like anything less than a healthy American teenager of the teenybopper generation, cheerful, eager, a little spacey. "What a nut," she scoffs affectionately at Dennis, who has tentatively offered an embroidery of his own to her daydream of running off to the Bay of Mexico. "Hasta luego, nut!" The truest thing Dennis ever says about her is "I've noticed you do have quite a capacity for loving." The truest thing she ever says about herself is "I feel empty."
Both of these things being true is part of what gives the film its genre-slipping tone, which at this hour of the morning I am still struggling to define. It looks like it's in direct descent from the transgressive lovers-on-the-run tradition of They Live by Night
(1949), Gun Crazy
(1950), and even the previous year's Bonnie and Clyde
(1967), but the further the plot slides into noirish questions of breaking and keeping faith, the less it feels like any of its predecessors or even its contemporaries. Pretty Poison
does not feel like 1968. It does not feel like an earlier decade, either, noir influence or not—if anything, it reminded me most of Twin Peaks
(1990–91) and David Lynch generally, with its colorful soapy surface and something really creepy-crawly in the seams. Its sense of humor is touched with the grotesque and surreal: one scene cuts from Dennis' fed-up boss fuming, "Oh, no, Pitt, I don't doubt you, I just wish I could prove what I don't doubt about you! I'd—I'd—" to the violent sizzle of a raw hamburger smashed down on a short-order grill. Dennis and Sue Ann's day-for-night open-air lovemaking is shot as seriously as a grand passion and accompanied by a delicately romantic theme that turns swoonily inappropriate just from thinking about it. Cool as robotic ice when spieling the tallest of spy tales, Dennis faced with the lethal reality ("Crazy, you're all sweaty when you were the one with the experience in killing people") buckles at the knees and loses his lunch, all six foot two of skinny Perkins collapsed in a staring stick heap. The internet tells me Pretty Poison
was the actor's first Hollywood film after seven years in Europe and I guess it didn't reintroduce him to the American mainstream any more than it did Weld, but it should have: he's never less than sympathetic and almost never uncomplicatedly so. When he says, "I do no kidding love you," it sounds like the most eloquent vow in the world.
In short, except for its ending which goes on three to five minutes longer and ties off more neatly than I expected, Pretty Poison
is exactly the sort of weird cult artifact I would love to own except the damn thing appears to be available only on Blu-Ray
, which given the ancientry of my laptop's disc-playing ability does me no good. [edit: lemon_badgeress
found me a not recent, but quite extant DVD
.] I hope it benefits someone reading this post and I hope I get the chance to see it on 35 mm rather than DCP one of these days. It was beautifully put together. I can't tell if the central metaphor goes too far in having a literal stream of beautiful poison running through a deceptively idyllic town, but I also can't tell if I care if it does. This very tough fantasy brought to you by my very real backers at Patreon
1. I can't even figure out how to punctuate his opening speech to her because I think what it really wants is a lot of silent telegram-style STOPs: "Don't say a word act perfectly natural we're under surveillance. Rendezvous tonight bring this object. Spring Street movie house eight p.m. seventh row balcony left side aisle got that? Make your phone call. Don't look after me." He sprints away across the street and up one of the catwalks of the Sausenfeld Chemical Company. She watches him go and then asks the air, quite reasonably, "What?"
2. I get that she has a cult following and I have probably just joined it, but critically this movie seems to have fallen over sideways and disappeared for decades and for Weld's performance alone that should not have happened.