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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Pretty Poison, or Direction Hiding in Plain Sight

Some of the most important things a director can do are practically invisible even to specialists. Case in point: Pretty Poison, directed by Noel Black from a script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Semple's script is quite self-sufficient in terms of both characterization and structure, and one can be forgiven for thinking that the director simply yelled "Action!" into a megaphone. (This post will contain a few spoilers.)

The script has potential problems. In its first half, it exemplifies the "wacky nonconformist" comedy that loomed large in America's movie mythology in the late 60s and early 70s. The danger in WNC comedy, for me at least, is that the filmmakers will get, and give, too much pleasure from the wit and power of the wacky protagonist as he or she evades the strictures of a dour society, and that the film will reduce to an us-vs.-them power fantasy.

As the film shifts into a noir register in its second half, a new set of dangers crops up. Innocent people are dying, and yet the film is presented as a love story. One of the protagonists has no conscience about her murders; the other cares mostly for the murderer rather than the victims. Will the movie seem as casual about killing as its characters? Can it give us genre pleasure while maintaining some sense of gravity? I mean, some viewers might not care about this sort of thing, but I do.

Noel Black isn't well remembered these days. I like him in general: in addition to Pretty Poison, I'd recommend I'm a Fool; A Man, a Woman and a Bank; and A Change of Seasons (allegedly largely directed by Black without credit). The visual scheme of Pretty Poison is pockmarked by the craft confusion that 1968 was all about - Old Hollywood or New? - but Black has a pleasing penchant for serene long shots that not only place the characters squarely in the bucolic-but-industrial small town environment, but also give full play to Anthony Perkins' unique bodily grace.

Still, I'd say that composition is a relatively small factor in how the direction helped out this project. The two story dangers that I described above aren't handled adequately in the scriptwriting. Semple did some writing work to keep the film in balance in the second half, but he didn't make the script foolproof; and I think he was way too seduced by WNC comedy in the first half. By my accounting, he left Black with one big problem that needed to be fixed, and one minefield to walk through.

A director can do a lot to level the tone of a script without being conspicuous about it. Black and Perkins take an interesting approach to the WNC comedy: Perkins spits out his wackiest lines with heavy sarcasm, or spins his CIA fantasy with straight-man dispatch that reveals a wry self-awareness. Instead of living in the character's fantasy world and being expected to like it, we find ourselves watching a smart guy coping with the real world, and revealing his personality in the process. Perkins is subtly marked as an object of study rather than as an identification figure. If the WNC problem isn't erased altogether, the film at least manages to lay the basis for a workable characterization while Black treads water, waiting for the next act.

As the noir plot engages, Black does the film an even bigger service by pegging its tone more and more to Perkins' Sternberg-like, resigned awareness that his love is fatal, and yet still redemptive for him. The riskiest scene occurs two-thirds of the way through the film, when Perkins proposes to Weld the morning after she has murdered for the first time and turned him into a fugitive. To pull the trick off, Black and Semple need to make Perkins' love so important to him, and so darkly portentous, that it can share the film's moral focus even though a body is floating in the river behind the lovers. I think Black manages this balancing act, and keeps Perkins' distracted romantic transcendence on the front burner through all the noir machinations that take the film to the finish line.

All this stuff is direction, just as much as a fancy camera angle is; and the auteurist aesthetic doesn't hold up well unless such subtlety can be documented.

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Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I knew Noel Black, and periodically corresponded with him in the 70s. A Change of Seasons is about half his film, the first half. Black told me that his dismissal from the film was quite abrupt.

It's too bad the US DVD of Pretty Poison does not have Black's commentary by the way.

June 21, 2007 2:15 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

That's interesting, Peter. I reviewed A Change of Seasons when it came out, and wrote about the acting style shifting into a more conventional mode a little more than an hour into the film, which would be more like two-thirds of the running time. At the time I didn't know that Black had directed any of it. I wonder whether I was on to something.

Do you know what Black is up to? The IMDb gives him no credits later than 1992.

June 21, 2007 9:19 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

The only information I have on Noel Black's recent activity is that he has been working on behalf of the Directors Guild of America. I've not been in contact with him since about 1981. Black did have his own website while he was based in Ireland with a filmography that did not include Cover Me Babe although it seemed to have everything else.

June 22, 2007 3:35 AM  

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