Saturday, February 04, 2012

Pretty Poison: Anthony Perkins on Parole

He is one of those crazy environmentalists, with an incarceration record to prove it. Unfortunately, the delusional parolee is about to meet someone far more dangerous than himself: his new Lolita-ish girlfriend. Once again, Anthony Perkins plays a rather highly strung young man in Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (trailer here), which is currently playing in New York at Film Forum.

Dennis Pitt is a squirrely fellow, who has a difficult time distinguishing fantasy and reality. He really did not mean to hurt anyone when he set that fire, so now that Pitt has been deemed mature and responsible, he is to be released. Okay, best of luck with that then. Yes, he has to report to his indulgent parole officer Morton Azenauer, but he takes off anyway at the first chance he gets. Drifting into Winslow, MA, he accepts a job in a chemical plant specializing in spewing day-glo chemicals into the river.

In Pitt’s elaborately constructed fantasy, he is now a CIA agent assigned to shut the plant down. However, the stakes raise precipitously when he enlists the help of high school senior Sue Ann Stepanek. Whether or not she really buys into his delusion, one thing is clear: Stepanek is serious trouble.

Featuring a somewhat groovy and very era appropriate score composed by Johnny Mandel, Poison is sort of a more innocent forerunner of Body Heat. Tuesday Weld makes a legitimately classic femme-fatale as Stepanek, coquettish and manipulative in equal measure. Refraining from the full Norman Bates, Anthony Perkins emphasizes Pitt’s pathos as well as his tickiness. Frankly, viewers will feel for him, despite his ever compounding mistakes.

Although Black would work extensively in television following Poison, he still helmed the occasional feature, including the mildly naughty Phoebe Cates favorite, Private School. It is strange more pseudo-noirs did not come his way, because he handles the somewhat risqué elements of Poison with an effectively light touch. There is a constant sense of the danger and wrongness of Pitt’s relationship with Stepanek, but it never becomes lurid or smarmy.

Though remade as a workaday Fox TV movie, for some odd reason the original Poison has not caught on beyond its cultish critical following. Indeed, it has most of the elements working in concert. Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s adaptation of Stephen Geller’s novel revels in the deviousness of the twists, rather than milking them for surprise value, while Perkins and Weld do their things. It is quite an enjoyably cunning little film, definitely worth re/discovering while it screens at Film Forum through this Thursday (2/9) with a new 35mm print.