NEW YORK — Noel Black, a director whose first feature film, the 1968 black comedy “Pretty Poison,” divided critics but became a cult hit, died of pneumonia July 5 at a hospital near his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 77.
“Pretty Poison,” starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, had a script by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (best known for television’s “Batman”), based on Stephen Geller’s novel “She Let Him Continue,” from 1966.
Perkins plays a paroled arsonist who pretends to be a secret agent to win over a stunning blond honor student, played by Weld. But underneath Weld’s wholesome facade lies a psychopath, and she and Perkins embark on a murderous crime spree.
Some reviewers panned the movie, and when it did poorly at the box office, 20th Century Fox, the studio that produced it, pulled it from theaters. But after other critics rose to the film’s defense, the studio soon rereleased it and it found a cult following.
The next year, Mr. Black spoke about the movie to film students at Boston University.
“Essentially, we saw it as a story with many comedic elements in a serious framework — a kind of black comedy or existential humor of which ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is a prototype,” he said. “We hoped people would take it on more than one level.”
Over time, people did.
“Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s screenplay is beautifully worked out, and the director, Noel Black, does a superb job of modulating the film’s conflicting elements: the coming-of-age story and the thriller,” The New York Times said on the occasion of the film’s DVD release, in 2006.
Mr. Black was born in Chicago. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in film from the University of California at Los Angeles.
His short “Skaterdater,” a film without dialogue about California skateboarders, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966 and won the Palme d’Or for best short film at the Cannes Film Festival that year. “Skaterdater” drew the attention of Fox executives, who chose him to direct “Pretty Poison.”
Mr. Black’s next two feature films flopped. The first, “Cover Me Babe” (1970), was about a film student who embraces the avant-garde; it featured Sam Waterston, Sondra Locke, and Robert Forster. The second, “Jennifer on My Mind” (1971), had a screenplay by Erich Segal, who had adapted his own novel “Love Story” into a hit film the year before.
Mr. Black went on to write scripts and direct television shows like “Kojak” and “Quincy, M.E.” in the mid-1970s. He also directed Ron Howard in an adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” for the PBS series “The American Short Story” (1977), and Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, and Paul Mazursky in the caper comedy “A Man, a Woman and a Bank” (1979).