Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pretty Poison: Flirting with a Sociopath

The odd and quirky 1968 film Pretty Poison is another example of a one of a kind cinematic relic from the 1960s. It stars Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins as a strange couple who are brought together through lies, anti-social behavior and a dangerous attraction.

Perkins, proving here why he was such an underrated actor, plays Dennis, a well meaning but troubled young man who has just released from a mental hospital where he spent his entire youth after he burned his house down and killed his aunt as a boy. Did he mean to cause her death or was it unintentional? Supposedly rehabilitated, he is now under the guidance of a kindly parole officer (John Randolph) Dennis is a bright wise ass who jokes about entering the real world and getting a blue collar job but goes to work at a bottling plant run under the watchful eye of a supervisor who right away doesn't like him.

One day while eating at a lunch truck, Dennis sees a gorgeous young blonde leading a high school marching band. This is Sue Ann (Weld) who has the looks and demeanor of the prototypical sweet girl next door but has a surprise in store for those who dare get aquainted with her. Dennis introduces himself to her by posing as a desperate secret agent who needs her help in his various devious tasks. Sue Ann is enticed by this sense of danger and risk and quickly falls for Dennis, despite being browbeaten by her angry mother, excellently played by Beverly Garland. Things take a turn for the worse when murder comes into the equation and Dennis much choose whether to run away with Sue Ann or face the consequences and come clean with his guilt.

Directed by Noel Black (a director who did a lot of notable TV work like Kojak, McCloud and Hawaii Five-O) and scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (who wrote the 1966 big screen Batman) this film is an unpredictable mix of suspense and dark comedy with two strong performances by the leads. Weld is wholly convincing as the two faced manipulator who loves to rebel and get herself into trouble. Perkins plays his part with great edginess buried underneath his clean cut and charming exterior and it's infused with great comic timing. He's a disturbing and dubious character, we're never quite certain of his intentions but you can strangely sympathize with him. Even in his famous portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho, it was possible to feel sorry for him because he was a prisoner of his own madness. He really wanted to do good but couldn't. It's same to a degree here in Pretty Poison. Although less mad than Bates, his character here seems capable of anything despite a well mannered nice-guy personality. Crafty editing hints at his internal conflict; images of a burning house are intercut with close ups of him and this is before we learn of his past.

This film is a bizarre transplant of a romantic comedy mixed with film noir and elements of an original and even tragic thriller. It's involving and inspired.

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