Anthony Perkins: Unbalancing Act
by Don Stradley
Anthony Perkins portrayed a variety of characters, but he’s best remembered for playing twitchy neurotics. In How Awful About Allan a 1970 feature made for ABC-TV, he played a recovering mental patient who fears someone is out to kill him. For Perkins, who had earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Friendly Persuasion (1957) and a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for Goodbye Again (1961), a TV movie meant Perkins' status was dropping like a man down an elevator shaft. Of course, Perkins' most memorable turn had been in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) as the homicidal Norman Bates, which ABC was exploiting by putting him in another sort of psychological thriller. The network poured a ton of publicity into the project, making it the centerpiece of their fall 1970 schedule. The message trumpeted by every media horn was that ABC viewers could see Norman Bates himself in between the season premieres of The Mod Squad and Marcus Welby MD.
How Awful About Allan wasn't the ratings blockbuster for which ABC had hoped, but its craftsmanship is apparent, and Perkins is fascinating. At the time of this movie, Perkins was appearing in European films, off-Broadway plays, and American features of varying quality. He was often asked to play jittery characters somewhat like Norman Bates. Not psychopaths, mind you, but weirdos. Perkins kept his humor about the way he was typecast and forged ahead, depicting himself as a professional just happy to be working anywhere. Yet it is easy to believe the role of a tortured mental patient reflected some of Perkins' own fears and frustrations. Perkins, after all, lived a secretive personal life, had been in analysis, and had undergone shock therapy to curb his homosexuality.
Perkins was excited, or at least pretended to be, when the media asked about his dabbling in television. What he liked was the lightning schedule. “It’s good for actors,” Perkins said. “A 12-day shooting schedule permits the spontaneous nature of film acting to really cook.” He added that the quick shooting of a TV movie was comparable to working on stage. “All movies should be made at this speed,” he declared.
Perkins was also pleased to be in what he called, a "creepy thriller."
“I waited almost a decade for this role,” Perkins said during a press junket. “A friend bought me the galley proofs of the novel version of Allan when I was filming Psycho. I loved the character and wanted to buy it for myself but was tied up with other commitments.”
The notion that Perkins was thinking about playing Allan before the public had ever seen him in Psycho is interesting. He hadn't even stabbed Janet Leigh in the shower, but his future was already in place.
How Awful About Allan was written by Henry Farrell, who found his own acclaim when his novel, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, was turned into one of the big hits of 1962. Farrell was so hot after Baby Jane that a project with a post-Psycho Perkins could’ve been a big budget production from a major studio. Instead, Allan remained in development limbo for years.
The story concerned a man (Perkins) being released from an asylum into the care of his sister. Suffering from a case of hysterical blindness after a recent trauma, he hears voices and suspects a mysterious man is tormenting him. Is someone trying to send him back to the asylum? Or are more deadly plans being hatched?
Perkins led a strong cast that included Julie Harris as his estranged sister, plus Joan Hackett and Kent Smith in supporting roles. The executive producer was Aaron Spelling, soon to be the king of prime time TV, but already a veteran of the business, while the music was by Laurence Rosenthal, a two-time Oscar nominee and one of the most highly regarded composers of the time. The producing-directing duties were taken on by the duo of George Edwards and Curtis Harrington. They'd been responsible for a variety of thrillers over the years, both together and separately, including such gems as Night Tide (1961) Queen of Blood (1966) and Games (1967). The teleplay was by Farrell, who had followed Baby Jane with Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), more novels, and a German TV production of Allan called Horror (1969). This was as much talent as had ever been assembled for a 12-day production.
In the movie, Perkins wore specially-made contact lenses to approximate Allan’s blindness. What is most startling, though, is that the boyish Perkins seems like an adult. Just two years earlier in Pretty Poison, he still looked a bit callow at 36. As Allan, there’s a weariness to Perkins. No longer the nervous mama’s boy of Psycho, he plays Allan as a mature man with gravitas.
As Allan suspects a growing conspiracy against him, Perkins shows a steeliness. Though he is genuinely spooked and vulnerable in the early part of the movie, he eventually realizes he's a target of gaslighting. Perkins may have felt this was a different version of his usual neurotic characters, but Harrington seemed determined to dress this movie up as a distant relative of Psycho, to the point where a viewer can make a game of 'Spot the Psycho motif.'
This doesn’t make How Awful About Allan less entertaining. Visually, it blends the TV-movie style with the old Hitchcock classic rather well, and the claustrophobic atmosphere is typical of Harrington’s other movies. Yet we can feel Harrington aping Psycho at every turn. There are moments of Allan on a stairway, or surrounded by his butterfly collection, or gazing into the camera with his most sinister stare, that certainly echo Psycho. How could Harrington resist? No matter if Perkins wanted to break away from the character, he would always look like Norman. In Allan, we can almost see Perkins capitulating. He would not only play Norman in many Psycho sequels, but just before his death at age 60 he was still playing unbalanced types. In one of his last roles, Perkins played a man in love with a manikin. How Awful About Allan is a key moment in Perkins' career. It drove home the fact that he'd never outrun the shadow of Norman Bates.
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How Awful About Allan streams on the Film Detective July 8, at 1:42 AM ET.
Don Stradley is an award-winning journalist. His next book, Boston Tabloid: The Killing of Robin Benedict, will be released Nov. 1. Available on Amazon.