Sunday, 29 September 2013

Pretty Poison (1968)

Pretty Poison passed without attracting too much attention when it was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1968 but since then it has deservedly built up a strong cult following. It’s one of the all-time great psycho movies.

Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) has just been released from the mental hospital in which he has been confined for many years, since the tragic death of his aunt in a house fire. A house fire that Dennis started. Dennis is now cured but of course his probation officer, the kindly Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), will still be keeping an eye on him. But Azenauer is confident that Dennis will make it.

Once he is released Dennis drops out of sight and it is a year before Azenauer finally tracks him down to a small town in Massachusetts. Dennis however has a steady job and he has a girlfriend and he seems to be doing pretty well. Azenauer knows he should take Dennis back to the hospital but he knows that would have a devastating effect on Dennis. And he really seems to be managing quite well. Azenauer decides the best thing is to let him stay on in the town although he will of course now be keeping a much closer watch on him.

The girl Dennis has met is Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday), a perky and very attractive high school senior. Sue Ann is bright and cheerful and she really takes a shine to the shy and diffident young man. Dennis of course is hopelessly in love. He just can’t believe his luck that a pretty and charming girl like Sue Ann would fall for him.

Part of the attraction on Sue Ann’s part is that Dennis is a lot older and he also has the glamour of being a spy. Dennis works for the CIA. His job at the town’s chemical plant is just a cover. The chemical plant is part of a nefarious plot against the United States. Dennis has been assigned to the case because he’s an experienced agent who has killed a lot of men in the course of duty.

All this is of course a delusion on Dennis’s part. Morton Azenauer is aware of Dennis’s tendency to live in a fantasy world but he thinks that it’s really fairly harmless and that Dennis will gradually adapt himself to the real world.

Does Sue Ann believe Dennis’s story? At first she obviously does believe it. After all she’s an 18-year-old high school girl in a small town. As time goes on she may have started to have her doubts. As she remarks on one occasion, she is surprised the CIA lets him out on his own without a keeper. That’s the essence of the plot. Dennis is the psycho and the sweet normal girl that he meets turns out to be a full-blown psycho herself. Dennis is certainly crazy but Sue Ann has her own brand of craziness going on in her head. It takes Dennis a long time to realise exactly what that something is that is happening in her head.

Dennis and Sue Ann are very happy together, living out Dennis’s fantasy life. Sue Ann craves excitement and the whole secret agent thing is great fun. And what girl wouldn’t enjoy blowing things up? You see Dennis’s mission is to sabotage the chemical plant. He needs an assistant and he promises to ask his CIA controller if Sue Ann can be recruited. It will be a dangerous mission but Sue Ann is willing to accept the risks.

Dennis has always lived happily in his fantasy world all on his own. On his own he can control things. He makes the rules of the games he plays in his mind. He largely ignores the real world. Now he will discover that when you take on a partner you’re not completely in control any more, and eventually a collision may occur between your fantasies and reality. When that happens you’re not in control at all. Dennis doesn’t know it yet but that collision is already on the horizon.

For all his craziness Dennis is actually a kind-hearted gentle young man. He lives in a fantasy world because the real world is too frightened. He’s a scared little boy. And he doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He didn’t even want to hurt his aunt - he was sure she was out of the house when he lit the fire. In his own way he even knows he’s crazy, or at least he has moments when he knows that his fantasies are a game he is playing with himself.

For the first half of the film it is Dennis who is leading Sue Ann into his world of madness and paranoia. He feels in control and at times slips into a slightly condescending attitude, playing at being the man of the world, the man who has done it all and seen it all, the slightly world-weary experienced secret agent. As soon as this madness starts to intersect with the real world, with tragic results, we see a switch-around. Now it is Sue Ann who is doing the leading. And Dennis is now like a frightened puppy who has no choice but to follow his owner.

Much of the success of this movie is dependent on Tuesday Weld. No-one ever doubted Anthony Perkins’ ability to play psychos. To make the story work Weld has to be just as convincing but she has to be convincing as a scary crazy psycho and convincing as a sweet innocent high school senior. It’s a challenging role and Weld rises to the occasion with spectacular success.

By 1968 Anthony Perkins was well and truly pigeon-holed as the go-to guy for psycho roles. He was just so good in those roles. This particular role offers him a few additional challenges. As well as the madness Perkins has to convey Dennis’s vulnerability and his complex view of himself - his ability at times to see that the fantasy is a fantasy while still going on living in it. He has to be both frightening and frightened. And he has to be likeable. Perkins succeeds brilliantly on all counts.

This is a story that lends itself to a black comedy approach and I doubt whether a director today would be able to resist the temptation to play it that way. It is played partially that way but director Noel Black does not allow that tendency to take over completely. The story is essentially a twisted tragedy and the characters need to be taken seriously. Even crazy people feel emotional pain and Black makes sure that we never forget that we are dealing with real people, however unreal their mental worlds may be. Black spent most of his career in television. Pretty Poison is the movie that should have established his reputation but sadly it didn’t happen.

The Region 1 DVD from 20th Century-Fox is barebones but it’s an excellent anamorphic transfer.

Pretty Poison is delightfully twisted with enough kinks in the plot to keep things interesting, complex characters who go beyond the usual movie psycho stereotypes and powerhouse performances by the two leads. A truly superb movie and very highly recommended.

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