Rep Diary: Noel Black on Pretty Poison
Whenever the name is mentioned in film circles, the question that always arises is “What ever happened to Noel Black?” In other words, how could a director who showed such huge promise with his belatedly acclaimed first feature, Pretty Poison, be unable to make another film that is a fraction of its quality during the following 25 years?
The death of Black last month awakened memories of my telephone conversations with him in 1994 while I was researching my biography of Anthony Perkins. The 57-year-old director, who had already semi-retired from show business, was happy to talk about his career in general and Perkins in particular.
“The gold-plated nail in my career coffin was pounded when, after the box-office failure of Pretty Poison, I accepted a dreadful project, Cover Me Babe, that never should have been made,” Black remarked during our conversation. “I reckoned that it was better to stay active than to wait for a project I believed in. That was a mistake. It was followed by another mistake, Jennifer on My Mind, one of the dozens of unsuccessful drug pictures at the time.”
Jennifer on My Mind
These two “mistakes”—Cover Me Babe (70), which could have been called Zabriskie Pointless, is an erotic, psychedelic drama in which the avant-garde filmmaker hero (Robert Forster) rails against the studio system (no wonder 20th Century-Fox kept it a secret from the public at large) and Jennifer on My Mind (71), a dreary drug story written by Erich Segal—came at the time when the studios were desperately trying to follow the acid bandwagon of Easy Rider.
“For five years after the two flops, I devoted myself to writing scripts,” Black continued. “Finally in 1976, I decided to get back into directing through episodic television. The idea of it scared me because I had started in the film business at the top with my own feature.”
While contentedly shooting episodes of Kojak, Quincey M.E., and McCloud, Black attempted a return to the big screen in 1978 with a cheap voodoo horror picture initially called Marianne. Having suffered editorial meddling and script changes, it remained unreleased for six years, until it reappeared on video six years later under the title Mirrors.
Inevitably, whenever a new film by Noel Black would appear, the knee-jerk critical reaction was to compare it unfavorably to Pretty Poison. Here is Roger Ebert on A Man, a Woman and a Bank (79), a mildly entertaining heist movie starring Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams: “Since he made the legendary Pretty Poison in 1968, Black’s career has drifted from TV assignments to obscure features and back again. He’s never really been able to duplicate the freshness of that first success.” Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, on the “dismal, horny teenager movie” Private School (83), mentioned that Pretty Poison earned Black a footnote in American film history. “Private School won’t warrant another one.”
How did Black feel about being treated as a one-hit wonder?
“I don’t mind, especially as Pretty Poison is what people like to call ‘a cult classic.’ Most of my few other features were done for money. I had two wives and two children to support.”
But Black began, like many filmmakers of the time, under the influence of the French New Wave.
“I longed to be the American Godard and Truffaut. I had the best intentions, but the reality of the American film business kicked in. After I left UCLA, I was determined to storm the Bastille by making my way into the industry with a short film.”
Black raised $17,000 to make Skaterdater (65), which United Artists bought for $50,000. The 18-minute short, shot with car and tricycle-mounted cameras, is about a group of pre-teenagers zooming around on skateboards in California, and a romance between one of them and a girl on a bike. It won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, was also nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Short Subject category, and was shown before feature films on release.
“I didn’t begrudge UA the thousands they made from the short,” Black commented. “It led to 20th Century-Fox giving me the chance to make Pretty Poison, on which I was given fairly free rein.”
It was Black who decided to cast Tony Perkins, providing the actor with his best screen role since The Trial five years previously.
“I saw Tony in Neil Simon’s The Star-Spangled Girl on Broadway and thought he’d be ideal. I sent him the script, and he wanted to do it. I then met him for the first time at Joe Allen’s after a performance of the play. He had enormous charm and intelligence, the very qualities I wanted to come through in the role he would be playing. I was looking for the young Tony of Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, not Psycho, although commentators naturally made the comparison between Norman Bates and the character in Pretty Poison.”
The character was that of Dennis Pitts, who had inadvertently killed his aunt when he burned down a house at 15, and was confined as a disturbed juvenile for some years. The only thing that keeps Dennis going while working at a dead-end factory job at the Sausenfield Chemical Co. is imagining the bottles passing on the factory line to be the high-school drill team with whom the honey-haired Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld) marches after school.
Dennis gradually becomes convinced that the chemical waste his employers discharge into the nearby river at a rate of 17 billion gallons a year is “a diabolical substance.” Deciding to destroy the polluting factory, he enlists the aid of the teenage Sue Ann, drawing her into his imaginary life as a CIA agent spying on the factory. But he soon discovers that she is kinkier than he. While he is merely a young man with a vivid imagination, she is a natural cold-blooded killer, who eventually shoots her mother (Beverly Garland). She is the dominant partner, and takes the initiative in the love scenes, though her view of sex, she says, is that “when grown-ups do it, it’s kinda disgusting, because there is no one to punish them.”
Weld, who reportedly hated her director and the film, proved to be as “neurotic as hell” during production, according to John Randolph, who played Dennis’s parole officer. She often refused to do what Black demanded of her and would break down and cry.
“Tuesday and Tony got on professionally, though she probably resented how much more in tune he was with me than she was,” Black recalled discreetly. “He was the quintessential professional. Even though he had made 20 or so movies and this was my first, he listened to everything I had to tell him. What he brought was a personal sense of humanity and dignity, which gave the character a sympathetic quality.”
The film does contain one of Perkins’s most absorbing performances. As a man who carries deep emotional wounds—one of his more subtle variations on Norman Bates—he conveys shifts of mood within a controlled hysteria. He was, however, at 35, suspended in an adolescence almost as protracted as Jerry Lewis’s.
Obviously influenced by the freewheeling style of Godard’s first period—the relationship of the central couple is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in Pierrot le Fou—Black took 30 days to shoot at lush locations around Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the autumn of 1967, with exactly one day in a studio for the scenes in the prison and an office. Pretty Poison is not only a bizarre black comedy-melodrama, but stands as an early example of a movie with ecological concerns. “While I was looking for the location in four states, I came across a lot of factories expelling worse things into rivers than shown in the film,” Black recalled.
Alas, Pretty Poison did not inspire Twentieth Century-Fox with any confidence, and they dumped it in a double bill on 42nd Street, after an opening in Los Angeles. According to Black “their unwarrantable action was partly explained by it being the year  of the double assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and a corrosive tale of insidious madness in which a teenage girl shoots her own mother, seemed, to timid studio chiefs, excessive.”
Neither the stars nor director were invited onto The Tonight Show (a must for plugging show-business wares) and, initially, Pretty Poison was not given a press screening. Nevertheless, Pauline Kael caught up with it and thought it “a remarkable first feature . . . which presupposes an attentive and intelligent audience.” Rex Reed felt that the studio had done their “damnedest to ruin an offbeat, original, totally irreverent examination of violence, refreshing in its subtlety and intelligent in its delivery” by opening it in Los Angeles before New York, at grind houses before transplanting it to art houses. It remained pretty poisonous at the box office. But in 1969, a 23-year-old Paul Schrader, in an article for Cinema, praised both Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Poison for their brilliant portrayals of “beautiful psychopaths.”
Immediately after Pretty Poison, Black co-wrote (with Fred Segal) a screen adaptation of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (published in 1969), one of many projects that failed to come to fruition. Black continued to see Perkins for many years, during which attempts were made to get together on other movies. In 1974, there was a vain possibility of making a film called Killer, written by Richard Maltby, for New Line Cinema. Towards the end of his life, Perkins fought long and hard to get Black to direct Psycho IV, but that too was in vain. Sadly, there was no Pretty Poison II.
Ronald Bergan is the author, most recently, of The Film Book (Dorling Kindersley), as well as Anthony Perkins: A Haunted Life (Little, Brown).