Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Anthony Perkins Binge: Pretty Poison (1968)

In 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde immediately proved a counter-culture sensation by portraying its stylishly-dressed youth heroes as violent, hip, sexy and absolutely righteous. The protagonists’ mantra of “we rob banks” was deemed heroic in the Great Depression of the film’s setting, and a statement of Robin Hood-styled virtues to boot.  

In 1968, Noel Black’s film noir Pretty Poison, however, turned Bonnie and Clyde’s romanticism about crime and violence on its head.

Indeed, such flights of romantic fantasy about crime and violence are explicitly critiqued in the Black film, the story of a young man and immovable object, Dennis (Anthony Perkins) who lives in a day-dream world until that day-dream runs smack into an irresistible force: “all American” high school student, Sue Ann Stepenek (Tuesday Weld). 

Sue Ann is, as we eventually discover, a stone-cold sociopath, and Dennis learns the hard way what his caring parole officer Azenauer (John Randolph) has been attempting to tell him all along about life:

You’re going outside into a very real, very tough world. It has no place for fantasies.”

Pretty Poison concerns Dennis’s persistent inability to step out of his fantasy land, and then dramatically permits him a final, memorable moment of grace regarding it. In an instant of clarity, Dennis offers a staggeringly insightful coda about people like his femme-fatale lover, and the world that nurtures them.

Additionally, Pretty Poison muses on what kind of society could give rise to a person like Sue Ann, and through association with all-American symbols -- like the aforementioned high school marching band  (waving an American flag, no less) -- suggests a spiritual sickness sprouting like a weed inside our borders.

Unremittingly dark and at times extremely suspenseful, Pretty Poison wonders, essentially, what happens when Bonnie and Clyde get together but aren’t exactly on the same page regarding their violent exploits. 

One of them, Pretty Poison informs us, is going to take the fall. Hard.

“Would you like me if I weren’t a CIA agent?”

Young Dennis Pitt (Perkins) is released from incarceration, and is told by his kindly parole officer, Azenauer (Randolph) that a job at Lowell Lumber and Supply has been arranged for him. Pitt moves into a trailer at Bronson’s Garage, and begins working at the job.

Bored of the mundane and highly-repetitive work, the fantasy-prone boy begins to confabulate stories about being a secret agent on top secret assignment.  When Dennis is drawn to a beautiful high school girl, Sue Ann Stepenek (Weld), he pulls her into his fantastic stories too. Together, they plot to sabotage the Lumber and Supply building, which Dennis insists will be used to contaminate the town’s drinking water.

But on the night of the raid, Sue Ann wantonly commits murder and steals a loaded gun. More and more uncomfortable with her behavior, Dennis feels “the pressures closing in.”  Eventually, Sue Ann arranges for Dennis to be a patsy in the murder of her mother (Garland), promising him that they will flee to Mexico together once the deed is done.

Dennis is arrested for the crime of murder, after turning himself in at a phone booth, and sent to jail.  Meanwhile, Sue Ann -- reveling in her freedom and power -- meets another man whom she can use for her own sinister purposes.

“You know, when grown-ups do it, it’s kind of dirty.”

Dennis Pitt did a very bad thing in his youth. He started a fire that killed someone he loved, his aunt. And yet Dennis weeps when he speaks of his crime, and seems truthful when he claims that he never knew his aunt was at home during the arson attempt. He never meant to hurt anybody. Perhaps because he is unable to reckon fully with how his actions caused the death of another human being, Dennis dwells in a perpetual fantasy world. It is a safer place, he seems to understand.

I’ve been taking a secret course in interplanetary navigation,” Dennis tells Azenauer at one point. “I had hoped to be appointed to the first Venus rocket.”  The comment is a joke, of course, but it reveals the truth about Dennis. He can’t remain tethered in a dull, mundane world where his talents, he believes, are wasted.  

Other worlds, other fantasies, seem to beckon him.

When Azenauer gets him a job in a lumber yard, Dennis blows it. He causes an accident on the assembly line because he is day-dreaming while doing his work. In particular, he is day-dreaming of Sue Anne, remembering her performance in the marching band.

These scenes are especially important in terms of visual presentation. Dennis’s job in the mill requires him to gaze through an over-sized square scope that enlarges the bottles passing before his eyes, thus making inspection easy. 

Yet the scope looks completely distorted, and therefore functions as a symbol of Dennis’s distorted perspective or vision.  Like the scope which enlarges some items at the expense of others, Dennis’s vision doesn’t reveal the world as it is, but in a tricky, untrue way.

Similarly, Denis first gets close to Sue Ann after watching a parade involving her marching band by pretending to be a secret agent. He asks her to hold onto something important -- a bottle of that red liquid from the mill (mercury?) -- because he is allegedly under surveillance. Sue Ann is tantalized by this game and does as Dennis asks. Their first date afterwards, importantly is in a movie theater: a place of fantasies come true.

Little-by-little, Sue Ann appears to be drawn into Dennis’s web of fantastic lies involving his life as a secret agent, and his plan to raid the paper mill factory before the drinking water can be contaminated.

Yet a close watching of the film reveals another truth.

From the very beginning, Sue Ann wants to be rid of her bossy, controlling mother (Beverly Garland), and no matter the flight of fancy that Dennis engages in, he is used by Sue Ann to make that plan become a reality.

Sue Ann pulls the trigger, but Dennis is her patsy, the man with a criminal record who goes to jail for the crime she commits. Thus Pretty Poison pulls a nifty little dramatic trick on the viewer.  We believe, for the longest time, that Dennis is deceiving Sue Ann about who he is, and what he is really doing with her. In fact, it is Sue Ann who is the great deceiver, leading Dennis down a road which will see him charged for murder and jailed. Sue Ann puts the thought in Dennis’s head of fleeing to Mexico, and before long, Dennis is mindlessly dreaming of a Mexican beach, as we see in several brief cuts.

It is clear that Sue Ann wishes to be free, and that she uses Dennis for that purpose, to procure her freedom.  It is also clear that though she knows she wants her mother dead, Sue Ann isn’t certain, even, that her mother’s death will make her truly happy.  “I feel empty,” she notes at one important juncture, and it seems like an important admission. Sue Ann may not be able to feel empathy, or any emotions for others. She may only feel that emptiness, and so resorts to violence to alleviate it. She looks like a normal person, but is something else, a truth revealed by compositions in which Sue Ann appears upside down in the frame.

Twice in the film, Sue Ann shows real enthusiasm and excitement during the act of murder. First she bludgeons and then drowns a guard at the lumber mill. In this scene, she mounts the dying man (who is face down in the water) and rides him in a perverse mockery of the sexual act. In the second case, she shoots her mother at point blank range, and even that isn’t enough to sate her desire.  She fires again and again, over and over, as if trying to recapture the thrill of murder repeatedly. To put it indelicately, the only thing that seems to get Sue off is killing.

So where Dennis – perpetually playing at being a secret agent -- notes in mock-heroic dialogue that “emotions can be fatal in times like this,” Sue Ann seems, in reality, unable to express emotions except in the prosecution of murder or other violent acts.

Importantly, Pretty Poison also suggests, albeit obliquely, that Sue Ann has done something like this before.

On the dresser in her bedroom is a photograph of a mysterious soldier. Dennis looks at the photo and asks who it is. Sue Ann lies and claims she doesn’t remember. It seems entirely likely that this mystery man was the last victim who fell for her charms (and is now conspicuously absent). This seems especially likely given that after Dennis goes to jail she picks up with another mark, planning to lead him into trouble as well.

Contrarily, the photo could be of Sue Ann’s absent father (as a young man), who she reports died in Korea.  Perhaps she lied to Dennis, and she had him killed, just as she plans to have her mother killer.
Either way, the photograph exposes Sue Ann, which is why she refuses to explain it in any detail.

Dennis realizes too late what Sue Ann is, but refuses to testify against her because, in his experience, people “pay attention” only those things they notice themselves. This means that society at large will have to determine what Sue Ann really is. Dennis, oddly enough, seems to feel safe in jail, away from the “pretty poison” he encountered in the outside world. He is reflecting on his own lesson in a way when he makes this important remark. He didn’t believe Azenauer that the world is cruel and tough place, with no room for fantasy.  Now, after his experience with Sue Ann, he believes it.

What remains so shocking about Pretty Poison is the way that Sue Ann’s pathology slowly comes to the surface. She is a beautiful, blonde, All-American high school girl, ensconced in the marching band, and curious about life, and what the future holds. Scratch the surface a little, however, and one detects that seething appetite for violence, and her slick, seductive way of operating. She uses her youth, her appearance and her very sex to cow those around her.

Eventually someone will notice, right?

Pretty Poison is a smart, stunningly-performed film noir because it suggests that some people -- not unlike Dennis -- are drawn to romantic visions of rebellion and forbidden love; very much like the imagery featured in the (great) Bonnie and Clyde.

But by the same token, Pretty Poison suggests that such fairy tales have little practical use in reality, and those who believe them will be “poisoned”, in a sense, by their expectations that such stories represent how the real world really works. They can offer only a distorted lens.

So if Bonnie and Clyde, an icon of the counter-culture youth of the day, raises important questions about violence, crime and love, Pretty Poison voices a somber, frightening answer.

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