Thursday Editor’s Pick: Pretty Poison (1968)

by on February 3, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Fri Feb 3 thru Thurs Feb 9 at 1:00, 2:50, 4:40, 6:30, 8:20, 10:10 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*No 8:20 show on Mon, Feb 6

 

We here at Alt Screen are Tuesday Weld super-fans. Last year’s Weld retrospective at FSLC gave us a chance to revel in that love, and to publish Dan Callahan‘s paean to the eternal gloriousness of Tuesday.
 

Dan thinks Pretty Poison is Weld’s best film. Says David Thomson, “Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld were more subversive in Pretty Poison, and more disconcertingly confident, than Bonnie and Clyde.” And Jonathan Rosenbaum obliquely notes, “Noel Black’s odd, creepy thriller came out of nowhere in 1968…”
 

David Cairns advises that if anyone gets in the way of seeing this cult favorite, to “BRUSH THEM ASIDE LIKE INSECTS.”

 
Charles Taylor labels it an “American classic,” for the New York Times:

Dumped into theaters as an exploitation cheapie in 1968, this lyrical thriller is a minor American classic. As Dennis, a young man trying to get his feet on the ground after being released from a reformatory, Anthony Perkins, right, gives perhaps his richest performance, certainly his most touching. Just as Perkins was trying to leave behind the juvenile roles that had typecast him, Dennis, a basically decent fellow, is trying to become an adult. But even when he succeeds in hiding his past, he can’t resist playing the smart aleck or slipping into a world of make-believe. Dennis persuades the town golden girl Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld) to slip into that world with him. The twist is that she’s every bit the psychopath people assume Dennis is.

 

Sensitive and unsettling, ”Pretty Poison” at times suggests a smaller-scale version of ”Splendor in the Grass,” without the Freudian gush. And when violence breaks out in the suburban setting, Mr. Black plays it straight, not for cheap irony. A large part of what makes ”Pretty Poison” chilling is Ms. Weld’s amazing performance. It is no stretch to cast her as the prettiest girl in town, but resisting the urge to telegraph a character’s craziness takes real discipline. Ms. Weld pulls off the neat trick of making Sue Ann seem even more like a normal, carefree teenager after she kills. Pointing a gun, as she’s preparing to commit a murder she has long dreamed of, Ms. Weld’s smile has never been sweeter.

 

 

Miriam Bale wrote a fantastic piece for the FSLC festival, L Magazine:

The most crucial film in the Tursday Weld series. Almost a counterpoint to the very 60s B&W suburban pop cult favorite Lord Love a Duck, also about a manipulative deviant in love with teenage Weld, Pretty Poison doesn’t feel dated like that other film but seems to exist as a playful, hard candy-colored dystopia in parallel with Red Desert. It’s a strange film, sexy and slightly psychedelic, that feels as if it was dropped into the past from the future. The titular poison is colored chemicals, the plot is comic book noir, yet the performances are natural. Perkins gives a career-topping performance as the painfully smart lanky weirdo with a dark past. He’s clearly crazy but it almost seems possible that majorette Weld, with her blue convertible and very lovable curves, could rescue him from a fate of permanent creepiness, until it’s revealed that her attractive vacantness might swallow him whole. The manipulated is the manipulator; the role-switch is exhilarating, and the heartbreak is sharp.

 

Kim Morgan fans the flames of her crush, at her blog The Sunset Gun:

God I love Tuesday Weld. I love her so much it almost hurts. My favorite Weld performance? As Sue Ann Stepanek in Pretty Poison,the definitive Tuesday Weld movie. Playing the beautiful but deadly high-school majorette to Anthony Perkins twitchy, creepy fire-starter, she is the deliciously deviant underbelly of America’s heartland. Where blondes are supposed to be good girls but, in her case, are most definitely not. Made in 1968 and directed by Noel Black, the picture was something of a dud upon release (too sexually disturbing? too strange?) and has achieved cult status ever since. And deservedly so. With it’s violence, pitch black comedy and sexy viciousness (watch Tuesday commit murder and immediately want to have sex after) the picture is wonderfully subversive and deeply strange. And Weld…she is charming, scary, beautiful and sickly erotic. Need I explain the plot? The manipulation of Perkins (who thought he was doing the manipulating)? The killing of her mother? The crazy, beautiful, psycho intensity of Weld? No. You really should watch it for yourself. Again, Tuesday, Tuesday. As Tiny Tim sang, “If only Tuesday Weld would be my wife.”

 

 
Dan Callahan in his Alt Screen feature:

The Tuesday Vs. Mother dynamic was borne out in Weld’s best film and best performance, Pretty Poison (1968). She was in her mid-twenties at this point, but she’s still convincing as high school-aged Sue Ann Stepanek, a drum majorette who gets involved with Dennis (Anthony Perkins), a shy, eccentric fantasist. Weld is a spontaneous actress who’s totally open to chance on screen, and the chilly, almost dainty sleeper Pretty Poison is the one film that takes full advantage of that, holding the camera on her sculpted, tiny doll’s face until we can see the gears working away under the enameled perfection. As Perkins’s Dennis spins out childish stories to her about being part of the CIA, Sue Ann recognizes a chance to act on her darkest urges. Mentioning her mother (Beverly Garland), Sue Ann says, “She’s really kind of a problem, Dennis,” and Weld uses her familiar distracted mannerisms to let us see that Sue Ann is just performing being distracted. Underneath this pose is rock-hard calculation.

 

After having sex with Dennis out in the open air, she asks, “Hey Dennis, when do we do something exciting? I feel empty.” It’s clear that no amount of sex or cashmere sweaters can possibly appease Sue Ann’s vague urge for excitement. Mother Stepanek is a nasty piece of work, that’s certain, and she seems to be in competition with her daughter, but just when we’re starting to see conventional reasons for Sue Ann’s off-kilter behavior, she conks an old night watchman over the head with a wrench and then cheerily cries, “Oh! He sure is bleeding, isn’t he?” as if her life is just a spy movie she’s watching. Perkins’s role is in some ways more difficult; he has to play several different levels at once as this overgrown, sweet boy who gets in over his head, but it took guts to play Sue Ann as full-out sociopathic as Weld does, especially when she pushes the still-living night watchman into a lake and then hitches up her skirts and sits on him so that he’ll be sure to drown, a brazenly sexual and disturbing image.

 

 

Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

An unobtrusive little psychological thriller, subtle and very smart. Anthony Perkins gives what may be his most sensitively conceived performance; he’s a character who develops from a quirky, sneaky, funny boy into a decent, sympathetic man. He toys with fantasies but knows they’re fantasies. Tuesday Weld plays a small-town girl, crazy for excitement, who accepts his fantasies in a matter-of-fact way and proceeds to act on them. Lorenzo Semple, Jr., wrote a beauty of a script (based on Stephen Geller’s novel She Let Him Continue); the horror in the movie isn’t just in the revelation of what the pretty young girl is capable of–it’s in your awareness that the man’s future is being destroyed.

 
Time Out London:

Ever since this corrosive tale of insidious madness and deceptive innocence in Small Town USA, buffs have sought out Noel Black’s other work (mainly for TV), vainly hoping to find something as good. The film is blithely written by Lorenzo Semple Jr, who suddenly proved at a stroke that he was worthy of more than the script consultant’s job on Batman. And the performances are great. Perkins’ role, as a dedicated fantasist employed at a chemical factory, treads on Psycho ground without ever causing the usual feelings of déjà vu; but Tuesday Weld is the film’s linch-pin, brilliantly playing a girl whose drum-majorette demeanour hides the most amazing emotions. In a word, recommended.

 

 
Bill Weber for Slant:

A simmering small-town New England noir with an acidic comic streak, Pretty Poison retains its vintage 1968 aura, a studio film casting stars as its unlikely and unsavory couple, linking the blood-spattered eros of Bonnie and Clyde (produced the year before) with coming indie pulp like the The Honeymoon Killers. Showing its social jaundice between grotty bursts of violence, it casts Anthony Perkins (at 36 still in his disturbed-young-man phase) as Dennis Pitt, a onetime juvenile arsonist whose flights of fantasy “have no place at all” in the world awaiting him upon release from years in an institution. Dennis settles, in hermitlike fashion, in a western Massachusetts town, assuming a quality-control job at a lumber mill that dispels pink waste into local waterways, listening to Russian broadcasts on the short-wave radio in his trailer, and creating a delusional identity as a CIA agent that eventually lures flag-squad schoolgirl Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld, smiling with faux-precocious frankness) into a game of undercover playacting and moonlit trysts. The movie’s big joke is that Sue Ann turns out to be the potent, sociopathic one; for once, Perkins is out-psychoed by an honor-roll student who worries she’ll be late for hygiene class.
 
Director Noel Black, in his first and only celebrated feature, has the era’s typical zooms and second-long flashbacks (to Dennis’s burning youthful home) in his arsenal, but utilizes his leads’ strengths in making Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s dialogue, adapted from a novel by Stephen Geller, play as a cracked, baroque duet. Perkins’s deadpan, stilted spy nonsense (“We’re striking a blow for every decent citizen in this area”) sounds like the delirious hambone speeches Semple wrote for the loopy Batman TV series, though it’s Weld—who reputedly loathed her performance—at the center of the movie’s indelible images of a teen queen playing at murder: straddling a corpse in the shallows of a river or taking charge of vengeance against her sneering, chain-smoking mother (Beverly Garland). “She looked surprised” is Sue Ann’s spacey analysis of her senior-year rebellion’s latest casualty, and Pretty Poison dodges having her taste for mayhem come off as misogyny; rather, it’s the complement to her feckless boyfriend’s pronouncement, “You do have quite a capacity for loving.”

 

 

Richard Brody reassesses his initial opinion, for the New Yorker:

The characters seemed to talk and to act in clichés. Little did I know: Hollywood classics remained virtually unknown to me, the term “film noir” hadn’t yet entered my vocabulary, and it was only later, under the implicit tutelage of the criticism of the French New Wave filmmakers, through whose advocacy I came to see some mainstream American movies of previous generations and to see them and love them as works of art, that I recognized the clichés of “Pretty Poison” to be winks and nods, homages and references, and, especially, grafts: the director, Noel Black, planted Hollywood in New England, and, like a biologist, showed how well the species thrived there. The procedure was New Wave-ish; the motive and the result were political; without a word about Vietnam, civil rights, or any of the variety of heated conflicts that were roiling America and, for that matter, the world, the movie, made in 1968, feels hectic with the political and social passions of the moment, even as it draws on the styles of the past. Another title could be, simply, “The Last War”—the one that, inevitably, Strangelovian generals and ideologues were fighting—and also “The War at Home,” the one that was taking place in the streets.

 
And his accompanying video essay:

Nathan Rabin for The Onion AV Club:

Perkins begins the film with the superior smirk of someone forever enjoying an inside joke at humanity’s expense, but once his affair with Weld develops a body count, his bravado gives way to panic. He’s far too familiar with the horrors of involuntary confinement to view the prospect of returning to it with anything but horror. Weld, meanwhile, boasts the delirious bloodlust and untroubled conscience of a 200-proof sociopath, treating murder as little more than a breezy game of make-believe. Weld throws herself into her character’s chipper amorality with frightening conviction; as in Lord Love A Duck, she’s brilliant at playing a character whose perfect façades mask oceans of pain and bitterness. Black’s dry direction cannily ekes black comedy out of the juxtaposition of small-town drudgery and murderous intrigue, in the process crafting a distinctly late-’60s version of film noir. In Pretty Poison, the darkest of deeds happen in the blandest of small towns, and the clean-cut girl next door might just be a femme fatale with malice on her mind and blood on her hands.

 

 
David Cairns implores you, for Shadowplay:

Boy, Pretty Poison, that’s some film. You should definitely rush out and get ahold of a copy, definitely. If anybody gets in your way, BRUSH THEM ASIDE LIKE INSECTS.
 
Noel Black, far from prolific but clearly rather interesting, directs. The years after the decline of the studio system and before the “new Hollywood” seem peppered with misshapen gems like this. Lorenzo Semple scripts, and it shows another side to him from the campy Batman show and Flash Gordon script. I love both those things, but the slide from quirky screwball to noir here prefigures Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (my fave Demme?) and is probably more deep, dark and interesting. Anyway, Demme’s is the only other film I can think of that achieves this exact genre-shift (although Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place actually kind of touches on comedy to begin with before heading for the shocking dark) and they’d certainly go great together.
 
Like Tony Perkins and Tuesday Weld! They have chemistry! They’re very different players in every respect, but both good and seemingly instinctive and they pay keen attention to each other. Their reactions to each other are so genuine we have to believe they’re into each other.

 

 

Cairns also directs readers to this piece by Dan Sallitt, but advises you stay weary of spoilers:

A director can do a lot to level the tone of a script without being conspicuous about it. Black and Perkins take an interesting approach to the Wacky-Nonconformist comedy: Perkins spits out his wackiest lines with heavy sarcasm, or spins his CIA fantasy with straight-man dispatch that reveals a wry self-awareness. Instead of living in the character’s fantasy world and being expected to like it, we find ourselves watching a smart guy coping with the real world, and revealing his personality in the process. Perkins is subtly marked as an object of study rather than as an identification figure. If the WNC problem isn’t erased altogether, the film at least manages to lay the basis for a workable characterization while Black treads water, waiting for the next act.
 
As the noir plot engages, Black does the film an even bigger service by pegging its tone more and more to Perkins’ Sternberg-like, resigned awareness that his love is fatal, and yet still redemptive for him. The riskiest scene occurs two-thirds of the way through the film, when Perkins proposes to Weld the morning after she has murdered for the first time and turned him into a fugitive. To pull the trick off, Black and Semple need to make Perkins’ love so important to him, and so darkly portentous, that it can share the film’s moral focus even though a body is floating in the river behind the lovers. I think Black manages this balancing act, and keeps Perkins’ distracted romantic transcendence on the front burner through all the noir machinations that take the film to the finish line.

 

 

Nick Pinkerton for the Village Voice:

Even a pat, movie-of-the-week wrap-up can’t diminish Pretty Poison‘s central performances. Dear friends in life, Perkins and Weld were simply able to tune in to each other’s frequencies, here as in the dangerous symbiosis of their 1972 collaboration, Play It as It Lays. Like any good study in couple’s psychopathology, a familiar relationship is visible here, but in a parodic, mutated form. In clear stages, Pretty Poison details the gradual inversion of Dennis and Sue Ann’s power dynamic—a transference of roles between the apparent exploiter and deceiver and the apparently exploited and deceived. Self-possessed Sue Ann takes the driver’s seat and winds up dropping Dennis off at her convenience, like a distracted mother (“Hasta luego, nut!”), while he is left stammering his story to a pair of detectives from the Kafka Agency. Locked away all those years, Dennis doesn’t realize that innocence isn’t what it used to be, so it’s he who winds up losing what is left of his own boyish trust. The measure of the movie’s cynicism: It doesn’t deal in predators and prey—only in predators of different species.

 


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