“Boy. What a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?” – Anthony Perkins as Dennis Pitt
Director Noel Black himself described the story as “a Walter Mitty type who comes up against a teenybopper Lady Macbeth.” It seems like the perfect shorthand to get a line on the characters and the actors more than rise to the challenge.
By all accounts, Black, a recent UCLA film grad, wasn’t much of a director, at least when it came to working with actors. But he could sure edit a film together. The cutting helps to accentuate this trippy world with the spliced together images of Anthony Perkins’ unstable psyche.
After securing his release from a mental institution, Dennis (Perkins) is continually fixated on all sorts of fantasies — playing games full of cops and robbers and CIA agents. He keeps surveillance on a pretty blonde majorette (Tuesday Weld) drilling nearby and unwittingly meets her at a local hot dog stand. They make contact and his nonchalant cool captures her imagination.
We are always wondering if they actually take each other seriously. But the beauty of the script is how they never seem to question one another. They just go with it. What seems utterly ludicrous to us as an audience is so very believable to them.
It relies on Anthony Perkins being able to pull it off and he gets it spot-on with every line coming out of his mouth with total conviction. He makes us believe he’s serious with every bit of fanciful conspiracy he matter-of-factly dreams up. At his core is this benign human being. We get a sense he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Of course, watching Psycho (1960) might give us a different inclination. And that’s part of the issue.
Perkins’ performance can never be seen outside of the shadow of his greatest triumph and simultaneously his most constricting role. Because everything he does is informed by the part of Norman Bates. If we were able to remove this distraction, his part in Pretty Poison would feel much the same as Tuesday Weld’s does. Because in films like Friendly Persuasion he was the shy, All-American boy. But conventions are getting subverted left and right.
They both make us start believing in their reality. They rendezvous in “makeout valley” only to get ousted by some cops and Dennis tries to hold down his job at the plant, despite constantly being distracted. He professes that aliens are trying to infiltrate the water supply and then very reluctantly stakes out Sue Ann’s home to spy on the mother’s boyfriend.
They are swimming in the invigorating paranoia of their own little world and the drugged-out love romp they create for themselves. Each reverie-like frame bathed in sunbeams and an ever refracting prism of colors. For these very reasons, Pretty Poison could play as a companion film to The Shooting (1967) – another acid singed genre picture.
But at some point, it begins to turn on its head. Because Dennis is the one we suspect will become dangerous due to his erratic behavior. It seems all too inevitable as his parole officer (John Randolph) continues to warn him. Yet the killer joke of the whole movie is how it plays out for real.
This pretty blonde in the high school honor roll turns out to be a femme fatale sipping Pepsi. What are the chances? A little friendly neighborhood murder is what’s on the docket one evening. She gets an emotional high from her adventures with Dennis only to take them to an even deadlier end. The film is not meant to make conventional sense. It never does.
Instead, it operates in alternate realities, delusions of grandeur mixed with sociopathic behavior. It is an instance of a story having two edges, both the terrifying and darkly funny. If there was ever an obvious precursor to Gone Girl (2014), Pretty Poison seems like an obvious jumping off point.
Unfortunately, it was the casualty of absolutely horrific timing. Not only did it not get the distribution it needed but the year of 1968 was punctuated by the assassinations of both MLK and RFK. A film with such content was probably not on the top of the public’s watch list.
For the actors as well there were unfortunate circumstances. Since it was Perkins’ first highly visible American film since Pyscho (1960), his typecasting was again solidified because the shades of an unhinged Norman Bates type is all people seemed to focus on. Tuesday Weld hated the entire process and considered it one of if not the worst of her performances. Though her rapport with Black might have been nonexistent, somehow an evocative performance of contradictions still comes through to compliment her costar.
It’s easy to see where the roots of a cult following might grab hold of such an idiosyncratic picture as this. It fits into the love-on-the-run canon with the likes of Bonnie Clyde (Weld was offered the lead initially) and then Badlands (1973) but Pretty Poison is an even smaller scale story never breaking out of a small town scope.
Its neuroticism and quirks are incubated in such a way to deliver a tone indicative of late 60s disillusionment within the youth culture. Weld might be the finest example as she along with a select few represented the prim and proper girl-next-door sensibilities of the 1950s. Pretty Poison blows the lid off the past and in its own unassuming way it offers a warped portrait of where the world might be heading. If the right person dusts off this offbeat genre flick, it casts a certain off-the-wall spell to capture the imagination.