Friday, January 30, 2009

No Place At All For Fantasies

There are times when you just wind up connecting with some films more than others. I attended the double bill of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS and PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD at the Cinematheque last Sunday, which I suppose could be described as the ‘women who go crazy’ double bill. The women in question were Tuesday Weld playing a denizen of the film industry in Malibu and Faye Dunaway as a fashion model in New York. My main impression was that I respected what each film was going for more than I actually liked them and while I would be willing to sit through either one again in the future, I’m not sure my opinion will change. That said, I am completely open to anyone who wishes to launch a strong defense of either film. I’m not even sure which one I thought worked better, though some of PLAY IT AS IT LAYS sticks with me a little more, from Tuesday Weld’s resigned narration to the overhead shots of L.A. to the randomness of Chuck McCann’s appearance as the guy who drives Weld to her abortionist. The zoned-out feel of all the Malibu sections made me wonder what a version of this film directed by Blake Edwards would have been like, but that’s probably my own personal taste. The pairing of Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins in that movie definitely provides it with some of its unusual energy and that can be seen to even better effect in PRETTY POISON, the very dark comedy they starred in together four years earlier in 1968.

Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) released from a mental institution and told by his sympathetic but stern parole officer (John Randolph) that the outside world is “no place for fantasies”. Soon he is working a factory job in a small town and has his eye on an extreme fantasy, beautiful high school drum majorette Sue Ann Stepenek (Tuesday Weld). Seeming particularly fascinated by the possibility that the factory is poisoning the town water supply by chemicals that are being dumped into it he manages to work his way into Sue Ann’s life, convincing her that he is in fact a CIA agent working undercover, a story she falls for immediately. But when he convinces her to help him out with what he claims is part of his assignment to sabotage the factory things don’t go quite as planned and Dennis soon starts to realize that his lie may have gone way too far.

Directed by Noel Black and written by the great Lorenzo Semple, Jr.(the BATMAN TV show, THE PARALLAX VIEW, the '76 KING KONG and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR among others), it’s an odd movie in that it has a definite sixties feel, yet doesn’t particularly feel very dated at all. There aren’t even other films from that period that I could compare it to. It feels so much like its own thing that even though I can think of better films from the period it still doesn’t seem right to categorize it with certain other titles that were being made around then at the dawn of the New Hollywood. Filmed on location in a small town in Massachusetts, PRETTY POISON almost feels like it exists out of time and it’s easy to imagine that it could have been made in the mid-90s without changing the script much at all and it would have absolutely played (in fact, it was remade for TV in ’96 but lets just assume it’s lousy and move on). Lorenzo Semple Jr’s dialogue feels constantly screwy with even lines that would seem flat on the page playing great in context—it’s an amazing piece of writing in that sense. The Perkins-Weld relationship kind of sliced into me, even reminding me of a few things I’ve written. Or maybe a few relationships I’ve found myself in as well. Not to the extent that things occur here, of course, but it was still enough make me sit up and pay a little more attention. As one of their plans takes effect and she embraces him, Dennis begins to realize that this girl isn’t quite what he expected her to be. “You’re sweating,” she says as she embraces him. “You’re cold,” he replies. That pretty much says it all. I think I’ve had that happen to me too.

The movie remains off kilter by never allowing us to become very comfortable by making clear just what everyone’s intentions are. Is Dennis really crazy? Is he just having fun by telling Sue Ann that he’s a government agent? Is he leading Sue Ann on? Is Sue Ann leading him on? The tone contributes to this uncertainty. When the tone becomes darker, it’s almost like the film doesn’t want to tell us that it’s no longer a comedy. Even the score by Johnny Mandel which doesn’t sound all that different from the music he composed for POINT BLANK adds to this? Why is this film set in a small town scored this way? Is it the music that Dennis, pretending to work for the CIA, hears in his own head? Is the score aware that this is a comedy? Is the film aware that this isn’t a comedy? It goes without saying that the film was very probably a key influence on HEATHERS and one element of the ending is surprisingly similar to how a few particular Steven Soderbergh films end as well, making me wonder how much of a fan that director is of PRETTY POISON.

How many movies begin with Anthony Perkins being released from an institution? Maybe it’s just this and PSYCHO II, but either way he manages to brilliantly pull off the balance of making us believe that he’s slightly off but we’re never sure just how much. Maybe it’s because we can easily believe that even he’s never sure just how much. It’s hard not to think a little of Norman Bates while watching him in this role and while he probably would have hated hearing that, a double bill of both films would probably wind up complimenting both performances. Tuesday Weld is beautiful, fascinating, frightening. It’s a huge surprise to learn that she apparently hates this movie, hated making it and hated the director. Certainly what she pulls off onscreen bares no trace of those feelings. The great John Randolph manages to bring some shading to what could have been a stiffly played role as the parole officer and Beverly Garland is simply amazing as the unforgettably horrible mother to Sue Ann.

PRETTY POISON doesn’t have much of a reputation beyond simply being a cult item but it deserves to be known for more than that. It’s a fascinating example of a film that is sharply funny yet tonally refuses to let the viewer to ever get completely comfortable. And in its amazing pairing of the two leads is a relationship that’s a great example of the sort of ultra-dark romantic comedy that I love. I’d say more about how much I relate to those parts of the film, but I’d rather not. Just see the movie instead.


Robert H. said...

It's nice that this is on DVD for people to rediscover, but the R1 release really blows it in a major way by not porting over the extras present on the R2 - like a commentary with director Noel Black, and the script of a deleted scene. Would've been good to hear from Semple, Jr. too.

Mr. Peel said...

Semple seems like an interesting guy and it would be nice to hear what he'd have to say about the film. Extras on the disc would be nice but I can't help but be glad that we get to see it at all. I suppose we can always hope for a new release of it with those extras someday.

Ned Merrill said...

Watching PRETTY POISON leaves me with one burning question every time I see it, "What the hell happened to Noel Black?!" The promise shown here was never fulfilled although PRIVATE SCHOOL is a lot of fun as far as brainless teen sex shows go.

As for influences, what about David Lynch? BLUE VELVET and TWIN PEAKS have always seemed like stepchildren of this film to me and, IIRC, the Lynch connection is mentioned on the Region 2 DVD commentary. I will have to run it again, but I believe it's said, on the DVD, that Lynch acknowledged his admiration of the film to director Black.