[89 minutes. R. Director: Noel Black]
The distorting effect of glass – and reflective surfaces in general – is a big visual motif in Noel Black’s Pretty Poison, and it makes sense: when lanky outcast Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins, tweaking his Norman Bates persona) is released from an institution, he sets his sights on small-town girl Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), who is immediately smitten by his claims of being a secret agent. At first, their rapport is easygoing and sort of charming; a spring romance taken from practically any teen-rebellion flick from the 1950s (indeed, the film shares more in common with the Andy Griffith era than the love-generation ‘60s). But a duality emerges in both characters that shows that what may look “normal” on the surface can be harboring a deep, irreparable distortion.
Pretty Poison sets the tone during the first scene, in which a set-to-be-released Dennis speaks with his parole officer, Azenauer (John Randolph). We are made privy to the fact that this young man – with his boy-next-door looks and slightly awkward demeanor – is a pathological liar.
He also looks older than Sue Ann, which adds a queasy subtext to the proceedings (she’s a high-school senior of legal age, first glimpsed in her short-skirted marching-band uniform), one that Black and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. exploit in intriguing and unexpected ways. Despite its seedy neo-Noir underpinnings, Pretty Poison manages to be both tasteful and efficient; complex and fascinating; and full of suspense and mood as the noose inevitably tightens.
Dirty glass windows spattered with chemical runoff that looks ominously like blood. Odd glass tumblers at a roadside burger joint that render faces with the effect of a funhouse mirror. The ridiculously exaggerated viewfinder Dennis uses to monitor the progress of an assembly line (containing sealed glass bottles of an unidentified red liquid). There are even multi-colored glass knickknacks in the front window of Sue Ann’s house. As characters, there is a depth to Dennis and Sue Ann that portends something greater: the thrill of burgeoning young love, the danger of the unknown, and the fragility of human emotion under duress – not unlike a glass placed too close to the edge of a tall table.
In keeping the narrative largely character-driven (with both Perkins and Weld giving great performances), the script and direction thrives due to the teasingly subjective approach. We view the world through the eyes of these mysterious, potentially unreliable, and seemingly disparate individuals. As a result, we are locked out of their inner workings until the antisocial seams loosen, springing something shocking to the surface. Nothing is a foregone conclusion in Pretty Poison, and the less said about the plot, the better. Black treats the seemingly innocent beats of the beginning – including some dorky humor (Dennis’s made-up façade is right out of a bad B movie) – with an appropriate sappiness, which only makes the misdirection that much more effective when the film takes an unexpected midpoint turn.
Now, since there’s no way to dance around it…SPOILERS below!
Given that Night of the Living Dead pushed limits of screen carnage and Rosemary’s Baby transitioned frank sexuality to mainstream audiences that same year, Poison is ultimately rather coy in its depiction of these details; it doesn’t ogle its violent moments, nor is its approach to sex particularly explicit (there is a polite fade to Perkins and Weld’s post-coital faces after their first encounter). However, Black finds clever visual ways to make certain scenes cringe-worthy: take, for instance, the death of the night-watchman at the chemical plant; fazed by a knock to the head and rolled into the river, Sue Ann straddles him while holding his head underwater, a scene filmed with a perverse sexuality that suggests her character may be more than Dennis’s match. Or the montage of gears, springs, and levers on the assembly line – intercut with Perkins’s grinning, distorted-by-the-viewfinder face – to convey a daydream of sexual arousal.
The manner in which the characterizations overlap is wonderfully twisted, as Sue Ann – despite her popularity, beauty, and seeming social normality – is the product of a single-parent household, and subjected to the abuse of her mother (Beverly Garland). Her “bad girl” tendencies have been waiting for someone to properly bring them out (but who is to say they haven’t been brought to the surface before?). Dennis, meanwhile, is haunted by the “innocent” incident that led to the burning house Black periodically cuts away to. The strategy of having both characters cling to their own distorted, subjective versions of “normality” keeps the viewer guessing. And the violence, presented in a cold and matter-of-fact way, foreshadows Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, which brought senseless killing to suburbia in a similarly detached manner.
Unlike modern-day thrillers that build up the plot solely for the sake of a cheap twist, Pretty Poison opts for an elliptical conclusion that nonetheless exhibits a satisfying arc for all characters involved. And certain unassuming setups, like Dennis’s retrieval of a paycheck – serve as deliciously unexpected lead-ins to further danger and risk. Norman Bates may be a legendary character, but Dennis deserves as much recognition as a sociopath with flaws and frailties that we can never completely trust; the same can be said for Weld’s mature performance as the alluring Lolita.
8 out of 10 stars
Find some of Jonny’s reviews and film articles here: https://loudgreenbird.com
Follow Jonny on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JonnyNumb