' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Pretty Poison (1968)

Friday, June 21, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: Pretty Poison (1968)

When Anthony Perkins starred in “Pretty Poison” in 1968, he had not been an American movie since “Psycho” in 1960. A lot had happened in his native country in the intervening time, culminating in the pivotal year of “Pretty Poison’s” release, 12 months as rife with turmoil as with change. None of that turmoil and change is expressly addressed in Noel Black’s cinematic adaptation of Stephen Geller’s novel, either in dialogue or the plot, but it is felt, nevertheless, in the stifling setting of a generic Small Town U.S.A. from the moments we first hear the strains of Sousa over the opening credits. It is almost as if something might be in the water. That’s what Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) thinks anyway, fresh from a mental institution where he was put as a teenager after burning down a house and now working at a chemical plant where in a distorted Mittyesque daydream he comes to believe that poison is being pumped into the town’s river and that the CIA has enlisted him to the crack the case, triggering a blackly comic thriller with a mid-movie switcheroo that isn’t the same sort of about-face as “Psycho,” necessarily, but no less jaw-dropping.

How much Dennis believes in his own faux government quest remains in question. When he is released from the mental institution, he references his forthcoming job at the factory but then notes he puts to use a course he has been taking in interplanetary navigation. The tone in Perkins’s voice at this moment is curious, suggesting he could be out to lunch, or that he could just be having some fun, or that it could well be both. Indeed, he plays the part with a childish malevolence reminiscent of his famous turn as Norman Crane mixed with Charles Grodin’s mischievous glee at impersonating a secret agent in “Midnight Run.” Something is off, you know it is, but you can’t quite bring yourself to take him entirely seriously. Evoking the character’s puerility, Dennis begins dating teenage drum major Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld), living with a critical mother (Beverly Garland, dripping acid) and in a home festooned with wallpaper masking the depths of anger and exasperation lurking within inside. Dennis recruits her for his ostensible CIA missions, and though Weld’s turn initially suggests Sue Ann as a bored teenager eager to play along, when the plant’s night watchman winds up dead, the true meaning of pretty poison becomes clear.

If up until this point Dennis has been authoring their story, so to speak, now Sue Ann takes control, plotting an escape to Mexico as the authorities close in and as Dennis does his best to cover up the crime. “It’s “a very real and very tough world,” he is cautioned upon leaving the mental institution, and in the movie’s back half, Perkins lets that reality in. Not in a terrified or frenzied way, but like a kid who’s made a mess of the house with his parents out of town and is now waiting for them to come home and see what happened. If Perkins changes his air, Weld does not, and neither does the movie around her, maintaining the same tone yet unmasking Sue Ann’s own mental illness merely by recontextualizing the circumstances around her. In the aftermath of the movie’s darkest moment, Sue Ann collapses on her bed, laughing to herself, the eventual flipped perspective of the camera epitomizing a teenage reverie turned upside down.

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