Wednesday, April 20, 2016

COOL FLICKS: Pretty Poison (1968)

Pretty Poison is a mostly faithful adaptation of Stephen Geller's novel She Let Him Continue. The characters remain fairly true to their original incarnations and remarkably all the names remain intact.Usually movie writers like to "waspify" all the ethnic surnames in movie adaptations, but thankfully we still get to know Sue Anne Stepanek and Mr. Azenauer and Bud Munch with their original names.

I was afraid I was going to see Anthony Perkins do just another version of Norman Bates in this, but due to one of the interesting changes to the movie script Dennis Pitt is not only fully aware of his fantasy life of being a CIA agent he shares those weird stories and fantasies with everyone. So in the opening scene where we see him meeting with his parole officer for the first time (a scene not in the book) he is playing with Azenauer and teasing him. Dennis makes fun of his apparent diagnosis of mental illness with a story of aliens being responsible for polluting the town's water supply. Azenauer then cautions him about indulging in those wild stories. He's supposed to be rehabilitated and ready for the real world now. Dennis smirks, tosses off the advice, and heads out to start his new life.

Immediately afterward he sees Sue Anne for the first time and is entranced. She happens to be dressed as a drum majorette and is inexplicably marching down the street with her high school marching band. This image allows for a recurring musical motif throughout the movie that signals Dennis is daydreaming and drifting off into his private world. The marching band also adds a surreal element that will pervade the movie tying into Dennis' refusal to commit to entering the real world despite all the advice given to him by his landlady, parole officer and other adults.

The strength of the movie is in the scenes between Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins. They have an fascinating chemistry together. Weld seems like an easily impressed, easily manipulated teenage girl sick of adults and her homelife and craving adventure. She oozes enthusiasm and cheerfulness but is never cloying or stupid. There are sly hints about what she's really up to if you already know the ending. It was fascinating to see her play the subtext in the early part of the movie. What I didn't think was a wise choice was to turn her into another two-timing noir temptress.

The film devolves into a series of histrionic scenes beginning with arrest of Dennis at the hands of some hysterical policemen and ending with Sue Anne in the police station revealing that she turned him in. In the book Dennis makes this decision to call the police and confess to the crime himself because he finally realizes that he will never fit into the real world and wants to do the right thing by sparing the girl he has fallen in love with. Yet no matter how hard he tries to be believable he's still treated as if he's a lunatic. It's more effective and tragic than having him become a victim of Sue Anne's devilish betrayal.

In fact Dennis is made to out to be a cowering baby when it comes to actually doing something deadly. Perkins quivers and gives us his wide-eyed innocent looks while Weld laughs and giggles and is turned on by all the violence done mostly at her hands. Too many scenes in the original story where Dennis is complicit in the violence are removed. Weld's Sue Anne is turned into a cackling psycho in the climactic murder scene collapsing into laughter on her bed surrounded by the framed ballet dancers and flowery wallpaper of her girly bedroom. An unsettling scene for sure, but to my mind not really right for Geller's intended themes.

John Randolph (right) as Azenauer, more of a father
figure than a parole officer
The book gives us a series of ineffectual adults who don't really care about Dennis or Sue Anne, who are more interested in enforcing rules and ordering them to do the same. In the movie nearly every adult is sympathetic, especially the all too caring parole officer Azenauer (veteran character actor John Randolph), diminishing the impetus for their rebellious natures. This undermines Geller's intent of having two young people at the mercy of an adult world of hypocrites. In the novel they are reacting to a blasé world of indifference and unimaginative zombies who live their dull lives following the rules blindly. One improvement in the movie comes from the intensity of Perkins' involvement in his fantasy world of CIA rules, alien threats and paranoid delusions of being scrutinized by everyone he and Sue Anne encounter. An interesting choice is how Dennis is flippant and sarcastic when dealing with the adults and so serious and officious when he's with Sue Anne who is both starry-eyed and curious, eager to figure out just who Dennis is, why he's so strange and itching to take part in his adventures.

The only adult character who remains true to the original story is Sue Anne's mother even more of a harpy than she was in the book. As played by Beverly Garland Mrs. Stepanek is the best supporting part in the movie. She is epitome of the bitch mother. Philandering with wannabe hunks and yet keeping a tight control on her "slut" daughter who is only following in her mother's footsteps. Garland appears in three scenes but she makes the most of them delivering her lines with vehement gusto, puffing away on a cigarette, slapping her daughter like Ida Lupino in Women's Prison. It's no wonder Dennis retreats to the kitchen or inches his way to the front door when in her presence. No one would want to be in the same room with such a Fury.

The movie works largely thanks to the presence of Perkins and Weld and their very magnetic chemistry. Their scenes are the strongest, most powerful and most imaginatively composed and lit. If there are a few unintentionally campy moments like the shot of Sue Anne straddling her first murder victim like she's won a wrestling contest or some dreadful dialogue like Perkins oft quoted "What a week...!" speech they only enhance the weirdness of the movie. This is supposed to be a story of young people -- a 22 year old man and a 17 year old girl -- committing sabotage, murder and having drug enhanced sex in the 1960s. Watching two people much older than their parts (Perkins was 36, Weld 25) carry off their roles with 100% commitment and never once parodying themselves or their past roles is both impressive and wildly entertaining.


  1. I remember being completely mystified with this the first time I saw it. I was 20. Later, it seemed pretty cool. Right word. But still I haven't seen it in at least thirty years. Maybe time to get another reaction.

    1. I was amazed I had never seen it until last night! My posts about movies on this blog tend to be in comparing the film to the source material and I tend to be more critical of a movie that fails to live up to the novel writer's intent. Despite my minor quibbles I liked it a lot. On its own merits - completely separating it from the novel - PRETTY POISON is very well done on all levels. There is so much I didn't mention like the eerie music score by Johnny Mandel that reminded me of his music in THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK made the very next year.

      Don't know why Perkins and Weld think it among their more negligible movies. I've read elsewhere that Weld had a horrible time because she loathed the director, Noel Black who went on to have a long career as a TV director. That must've tainted her perception of her performance. But really she's amazingly good in this so perfectly capturing a teenaged petulance and feigned innocence that will fool the viewer until the two startlingly violent sequences.

  2. Sounds great, I really must see it now. Small little thing (you know me and bits of trivia) but thought it worth mentioning that the screenplay was by Lorenzo Semple Jr, who wrote some terrific scripts in the 60s and 70s, from the harrowing PARALLAX VIEW and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR to the campy delights of FLASH GORDON

    1. Thanks for that, Sergio. This post is too much of a book-to-movie analysis and not a fair review of the film on its own merits. That's why I had to sort of re-explain myself in the comment above.

      Semple does honor the novelists in his screenplay adaptations. He used a lot of the original dialog from She Let Him Continue and riffed on an interesting phrase Dennis Pitt picked up in a newspaper article: "lascivious carriage". The phrase is mentioned once in the book, but about five times in the movie. That kind of thing I really like in movie adaptations of novels.

    2. Great writeup. Anne Billson was writing about this movie a few weeks ago, and inspired me to dig out my copy of the remake, which I'd owned for years but never actually watched. It's an interesting movie too: in many ways a faithful remake, but with a different feel to it primarily because the central actor, Grant Show, doesn't bring to the part all the baggage that Perkins inevitably did because of Psycho.

    3. I watched about a ten minute clip of that 1996 remake and much of it seemed shot-for-shot duplications of the original. I didn't like Show as Dennis because he's too good looking and it ruins the sexual tension that should be present between Dennis and Sue Anne. But I didn't see the whole thing so maybe he is completely right as Dennis. The distance and aloofness is there.

      I don't know Ann Billson's writing. Is it a blog? Ken Anderson's blog post at "Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For..." was so enthusiastic it got me to hunt down the book, read it and then view the movie. I thought for sure I'd seen this decades ago but I had not even a glimpse of a film clip until a few days ago.

  3. Anne writes cinema criticism for the Guardian and has a blog called Multiglom that I find well worth following.

    Show works pretty well as Dennis, I thought. He makes no attempt to be a Perkins clone, so you get a different feel from the character and from his relationship with Sue Anne. The actress (I forget the name offhand) playing Sue Anne is much more in the Tuesday Weld mold, but delivers her lines a bit differently: like Weld, she was a 25-year-old playing a 15-year-old trying to pretend she was a 25-year-old, and I think if anything she pulls it off a bit better than Weld did, reproducing beautifully how irritating teens can be when they're at this stage. I'm in a minority, though; others have found the performance just plain irritating.

  4. I've never heard of this one, but it definitely sounds worth seeking out.