Monday, February 17, 2014

I'm way behind #16: Pretty Poison (Noel Black)

A difficult film to see until its recent DVD release, 1968's Pretty Poison is a cult dark comedy that lacks a strong visual point of view but is fortunate to have a clever Lorenzo Semple Jr. screenplay and two immensely likable leads in Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie when I first watched it on bootleg VHS a decade ago, but a second viewing on the big screen dampened my enthusiasm somewhat.
Pretty Poison is an odd duck in director Noel Black's filmography. Primarily a director-for-hire of some of the most conventional, mainstream television series and TV movies of the last 40 years, Black is the film's weak link. His shot compositions and visual approach to the narrative structure are pedestrian, more suitable for generic, family-friendly network TV fare than the oddball humor and darkness here. The story and cast are distinctive and unusual and would have benefited from a director with a personal, visual style and point of view.
The director may be lacking, but the casting director deserves an award. Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld carry the film, providing its momentum, charm, humor, heartbeat, and indefinable cinematic essence. Perkins plays a mentally disturbed but friendly young man who has just been released from an institution, where he was being held for his propensity for arson. He's a compulsive but hilarious liar who works unhappily in an oppressive factory assembly-line job, but his life becomes much more interesting when he meets a teenage girl played by Tuesday Weld. He tells this seemingly naive girl-next-door type outrageous stories of his life as a secret agent, and she pretends to believe him, for dark purposes of her own. They begin a strange romantic relationship in which each person thinks he/she is manipulating the other. Both are seeking relief from the intense boredom and lack of freedom in their daily lives, Perkins from his soul-deadening factory job and the social worker checking up on his every move and Weld from the daily indignities and monotony of high school and a controlling mother jealous of her daughter's vivaciousness. Both are play-acting characters they will into being, characters that take over their own personalities, and things get really dark. The screenplay is strong but lets the characters down in the final third when Weld is turned into a more conventional femme fatale, but Weld and Perkins give great performances throughout. Worth seeing if you're as big a fan of the two leads as I am.

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