on 26 September 2005
Deservedly one of the most acclaimed sleepers of the Sixties, "Pretty Poison" is a neat, deft and beautifully performed chiller wherein Tuesday Weld and Tony Perkins stunningly portray a couple of clean-cut kids out on a murder spree. This 89-minute film is so tightly, tautly constructed that the complexities of plot and, even more important, of character, will emerge plain. For while contemporary in theme and technique, this 1968 movie is old-fashioned in the best sense in that it tells us of the monsters who walk among us in the sunlight disguised as pretty people. With a notably adroit screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and a promising debut from young director Noel Black, "Pretty Poison" also boasts a vivid performance by Beverly Garland as Weld's sexually competitive mother.
"Pretty Poison" starts with a beautifully sly-solemn scene in which Perkins is about to be sprung from prison, or maybe from an insane asylum. "You're going out into a very real and very tough world," his earnest probation officer warns him. "It's got no place for fantasies." Quick cut to reality: Miss Weld in her majorette outfit, waving her baton to beat the band and giving a distinct impression that the film is up to something special.
"Pretty Poison" is a special film indeed, and Hollywood financiers and merchandisers were struck even dumber than usual by the problems of selling special pictures. With no conviction of their own about its character, 20th Century-Fox, the film's distributor, picked the name of this one by taking a poll, dropping its original provocative title, "She Let Him Continue" from the book by Stephen Geller. Having settled on a conventionally lurid title, they certified its apparent shoddiness with squalid little newspaper ads. The film was ready to be released in July of '68 but the producers were scared to death of the violence in it in the wake of two political assassinations. They waited, therefore, until The National Rifle Association had regained control of the country, and dumped it on the market without further ado.
I recently attended a screening of "Pretty Poison" at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood with its director Noel Black making a personal appearance. The film played beautifully and during the Q & A discussion afterward, the audience was overwhelmingly responsive to this modest masterpiece.
Pretty Poison is directed by Noel Black and adapted to screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Junior from the novel "She Let Him Continue" written by Stephen Geller. It stars Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, Beverly Garland, John Randolph and Dick O'Neill. Music is by Johnny Mandel and cinematography by David Quaid.
Pure definition of a culter movie? Probably Pretty Poison. A wonderfully odd neo-noir that's as cunning as a fox, Noel Black's movie flummoxed many upon release but the underground swell of the cult enthusiasts has ensured this particular poison is still around to be swallowed.
Plot finds Perkins as troubled Dennis Pitt, an arsonist as a youth and fantasist as an adult, he's just been released from a mental health facility, in spite of his parole officer's reservations. Beginning his employment at a chemical factory, Dennis comes into contact with young high school drum majorette, Sue Anne Stepanek (Weld), and lets her believe he is a secret agent. Little does he know, but Sue is only too happy to indulge his fantasies, since she herself is harbouring some unhealthy desires.
Much like the brilliant film noir movie Gun Crazy (1950), Pretty Poison upturns the standard boy and girl crime spree formula by having the girl be the one doing the damage. Dennis Pitt has absolutely no idea how not in control of the relationship he is, he's beguiled by Sue, thinking he has finally found a soul mate to share in his fantasies, but she's pulling all the strings, luring him into a web of chaos from which he is completely incapable of escaping from.
With the characterisations firmly in place, where both Weld and Perkins are on top form, Black and his tech team pump discoloured blood through the picture's veins. Pic actually breathes as a black comedy, for the first third the makers are toying with us the audience, making us unsure as to if we should be laughing? Or feeling edgy? Maybe even daring us to walk out? Yes! The film "is" that off-kilter with its tonal flows. Then the light dawns on us, but not the hapless Dennis of course, that we are in a deceptively menacing Americana, one that's even strangely sexy, and cynical into the bargain.
Subversive, intelligent and utterly compelling, Pretty Poison deserves to be better known. 8/10