August 03, 2006
Noel Black - 1968
Second Sight Region 2 DVD
Back in 1968 when Pretty Poison was originally released, no less than Pauline Kael compared Noel Black's directorial debut to that of Orson Welles for Citizen Kane. It is worth mentioning that Black's short film, Skaterdater not only won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1966, but that Black also won a Technical Grand Prize, along with Orson Welles for Chimes at Midnight. For all of his troubles, Orson Welles managed to make several memorable, and even great films, over the course of his career. For Noel Black, one of the first film school grads to become a Hollywood director, he would never again get the critical kudos of Pretty Poison. To the best of my knowledge, the only critical examination of Black's films was the one I wrote for the magazine, "The Velvet Light Trap", published in 1974. Six years after the release of Pretty Poison, Black's following films, Cover Me Babe and Jennifer on my Mind came and went while Black was eclipsed by newer film school grads including Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg.
While Noel Black managed to work fairly consistently, primarily in television, Pretty Poison has managed to be a venerated, if little seen, film. The most recent screenings that I'm aware of were in Los Angeles, sometimes with Black in attendance. Twentieth Century Fox, which bungled the release of the original film, recognized that there was some kind of cult value and produced a made for television remake in 1996. It has taken until just recently for someone at Fox to figure out that there would be interest enough in the original film to warrant a DVD release in the U.S. The British DVD may still be the choice of serious film scholars primarily because it also contains commentary by Black with German film scholar Robert Fischer.
For those unfamiliar with Pretty Poison, it is essentially the story of a young man, recently released from a mental institution, who still has an overly active imagination. A young woman he meets by chance seems entranced by his imagined career as a spy until she finds herself able to manipulate her lover to fulfill her own murderous fantasies. One can argue that Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, while effective in their roles, were too old. The film still intrigues, especially the title sequence with the combination of music by John Philip Sousa and images of the American flag and girls with guns, a high school marching band. The pretty poison of the title refers most obviously to Tuesday Weld's character, seen marching in the title sequence, but also to the red chemicals spilled into the river from the factory where Anthony Perkins works. Pretty Poison could be seen as a parable about the United States in the late Sixties and the violence we do to ourselves, each other and to nature.
The commentary is worth listening to in terms of understanding how the film was developed and filmed, as well as what aspects Black will take credit for or credit others. Fischer, in turn, has an eye for the possible influence Pretty Poison may have had on other filmmakers, especially David Lynch. The influence, and the avoidance of imitation, of Alfred Hitchcock is discussed at several points. I should note that when I first met Noel Black, he told me of his preference for Hitchcock's British films. Even though Pretty Poison is not the earth-shaking debut on par with Citizen Kane, it is still a marvel of economical story-telling. The narrative concerns are still in some ways more meaningful following constant news stories of kids with guns. If for no other reason, Pretty Poison is worth viewing or re-viewing for the image of Tuesday Weld and her killer smile.
Posted by peter at August 3, 2006 07:54 AM
I love Tuesday Weld but have seen her in so little. Will definitely try to track this down.
Posted by: Campaspe at August 5, 2006 05:11 PM
Pauline Kael liked Pretty Poison a whole lot (her perceptive review is collected in Going Steady), but she certainly did not compare Noel Black's directorial debut to Orson Welles' with Citizen Kane. Quite the contrary--she complains that a quiet, unpretentious, straightforward piece of filmmaking such as this risks being overlooked just because it doesn't have the pyrotechnics and visceral excitement we've come to expect from American movies (Francis Ford Coppola, not Welles, is given as a non-pejorative example of the more "energetic" style of directing she has in mind). And of course it was Kael's review that started the cult reverence for this small, modest, but very fine picture. It's now available on DVD in the US and certainly worth renting.
Posted by: Tudward at September 20, 2006 11:25 PM