Barbed wire love

Pub date March 27, 2012
SectionFilm Features

TRASH In 1968, Pretty Poison, which plays the Castro Theatre this Thursday in a new 35mm print, arrived a bit early. The next year Easy Rider would suddenly make young American directors seem like “the future” of an industry then hobbling on the same now-arthritic legs that had supported its Golden Age decades earlier. By 1970 and for several years afterward small, idiosyncratic, independent (both within and outside studio funding) films would flourish, in number and frequent quality if not commercially.

But 1968 was the year of Belle de Jour, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, Petulia, two Ingmar Bergmans, and three Jean-Luc Godards — all “foreign films” in fact or stance. Stage or TV-trained not-quite-newbies like Arthur Penn or Mike Nichols aside, the perception was that U.S. cinema needed new voices yet unfound.

Certainly 20th Century Fox had no great expectations from Poison, which seemed eminently disposable: A small-town thriller with medium-watt stars, a first-time director (Noel Black had only done Skaterdater, a prize-winning ’65 short about suburban boarders), and a TV scenarist (Lorenzo Semple Jr., just off the Batman series). Expecting to dump it into drive-ins and second run houses, they opened in one New York City theater without a press screening, then were taken aback when Pauline Kael and Newsweek sought it out and praised it to the skies.

We first meet Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) being released from a lockup institution of some sort, his probation officer advising him to stay in touch and keep his “fantasies” in check. Relocating to a sleepy mill town for drone work at a chemical plant, Dennis quickly abandons both those principles. He’s convinced he’s under surveillance, because he’s onto a conspiracy to poison the water supply. Or is that absurd intrigue just a ruse to beguile the high school honor student he’s ogled on the football field in her miniskirt?

Sue Ann Stepenek (Tuesday Weld) is the golden all-American ingénue in Blondie’s “Sunday Girl:” “cold as ice cream but still as sweet.” She responds to Dennis’ crazy overtures with Girl Scout enthusiasm; looking for adventure, she’s willing to play along with his secret-agent delusions. It takes us a while to realize what’s really happening — that Dennis is not the bigger freak here. When we meet Sue Ann’s hectoring single mother (Beverly Garland), we begin to glean she might be using the older man to get out of her own domestic lockup. Later it occurs that she is Mother Version 2.0, with twice the chrome and venom. Weld doesn’t channel deception as most actors might — her Sue Ann doesn’t let us see the act’s seams any more than Dennis does. The depth of her performance is only revealed in a full-circle tag scene at that unlikely hub for criminal genius, the hot dog stand.

Weld was supposed to be our great actress of the 1970s, but that didn’t happen. Was the teen-pinup image impossible for audiences to overcome? Was she too “difficult”? Was she just not that interested? A few roles like this one make her career seem tragically under-realized. Director Black’s, not so much — the two movies he made (1970’s Cover Me Babe, 1971’s Jennifer On My Mind) on Poison‘s promise were nadirs of New Hollywood flailing that sentenced him to TV work and B genre flicks. But for a moment, Pretty Poison made it seem like anything was possible for them both.


Thurs/29, 7 p.m., $7.50-$10

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF