Pretty Poison (1968)

Pretty Poison (1968)

“Our mission needs ice-cold nerves.”

Synopsis:
An inmate (Anthony Perkins) released from an insane asylum receives help from his parole officer (John Randolph) in finding a job in a lumber company, and woos a beautiful teen (Tuesday Weld) he meets at a hot dog stand by telling her he is a CIA agent. Soon the young couple are committing crimes, and after Weld kills a guard, Perkins realizes he’s in over his head — especially when Weld reveals the depth of her frustration with her controlling mother (Beverly Garland).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “sometimes violent black comedy” — “written by Lorenzo Semple (from Stephen Geller’s novel), and directed by Noel Black” — is “one of the few still-sparkling gems of the late sixties”, and notes it’s a “terrific film” with a “cult following” (he writes about it at length in his first Cult Movies book). He points out the “sharp humor scattered throughout its serious framework”, writing that “its style reminds [him] of William March’s The Bad Seed” — indeed, “17-year-old Sue Ann [Weld] might well be the diabolical eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark grown up.” Peary asserts that that “picture’s theme, as reflected in the paradoxical title and as embodied by Sue Ann, is that paranoid America is not so much in danger from foreigners as it is from evil, epidemic-like forces that are spreading in America’s heartland”, with the “small, peaceful Massachusetts town” where the film takes place “a microcosm of a sick, self-destructive America.” He adds that “Weld is great and Perkins matches her, properly playing Dennis as a man who is very much a boy.”

In his Alternate Oscars, Peary names Weld Best Actress of the Year for her portrayal as “a typical American teenage innocent, a pretty, high-spirited blonde, who is on the honor roll, takes hygiene classes, and carries the American flag while marching with her school band”, but who actually represents psychopathy hiding in plain sight. He posits that “as Sue Ann grew up she refined, even perfected, her evil, keeping it veiled under a cheery veneer” — and now it “corresponds with her sexual amorality”. Weld “gives Sue Ann the comic edge to match Perkins’ oddball Dennis”: “no matter what ludicrous idea Dennis cooks up, Sue Ann is willing; in fact, she’s one scheme ahead of him”, and “no one is better than Weld at showing excitement at acquiring things”. Peary reminds us that after her debut role in Rock! Rock! Rock! (1956), Weld was best known for her “memorable, money-hungry” character “Thalia Menninger on television’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis — her prototypical role — and her manipulative teenager in Lord Love a Duck.”

In Cult Movies, Peary elaborates upon Perkins’ character Dennis, noting he “reminds [him] of the scene in Psycho (1960) in which Perkins, as Norman Bates, loses his cockiness when the car containing Janet Leigh’s body momentarily fails to sink in the lake. At this moment, Norman realizes that he can be caught”, just as he is time and again in Pretty Poison. Speaking of Psycho, Stuart Galbraith IV points out in his review for DVD Talk that, “For 1968 audiences, part of the film’s surprise is that it completely flip-flops audience expectations. They were still avoiding those late-night, home alone showers in the wake of Psycho, so Anthony Perkins in another fresh-out-of-the-nuthouse role strongly suggested another Norman Bates-like character” — whereas his character here actually elicits “relative sympathy” compared to Sue Ann, thus throwing “audiences off-balance”. Also of note is the small but crucial supporting role played by Beverly Garland, giving a “deliciously cold performance” as Weld’s shrewish mother; we understand Weld’s animosity towards her, but also feel sympathy about her untimely demise given that she’s “being nice to Sue Ann for the only time in the picture”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tuesday Weld as Sue Ann
  • Anthony Perkins as Dennis
  • Beverly Garland as Mrs. Stepanek
  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a still-enjoyable cult favorite.

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One thought on “Pretty Poison (1968)

  1. A once-must (at least) – as a valid cult item, and for the main performances (Weld / Perkins / Garland). As per my post in ‘Revival House of Camp & Cult’ (fb):

    “You are some character, Dennis. I’m surprised the C.I.A. lets you out without a keeper.”

    ‘Pretty Poison’: Ah, the late ’60s! ~ when I went to the movies every weekend (with friends or by myself, it didn’t matter), regardless of what was playing. We had two theaters across the river from my town – if a dud was at one, I went to the other one; or I saw the dud *and* the other one. *Anything* was better than most of what was on tv. … Of course I didn’t realize at the time just how rich so many (of the better) films of the ’60s were (and, in many cases, still are). Yes, many of them were wonderful / uplifting flicks. But others had one thing in common: They were warning my young mind to be careful of other people – not necessarily killers or the insane, but often those who seemed rather ‘normal’ but… had serious issues. This is what I saw in ‘The Graduate’, ‘Last Summer’, ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, ‘Midnight Cowboy’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’… ‘Myra Breckinridge’. 😉

    ‘Pretty Poison’ had its own lesson to teach me about beauty being skin deep… and how beautiful people can get others to do things for them just because they’re beautiful. It’s why Tuesday Weld (Sue Ann) is able (or so she thinks) to get Anthony Perkins (Dennis) to help her get away from her domineering mother (a delicious performance by Beverly Garland). Sue Ann is not all-that-smart (she’s an impulsive teen) but she knows she’s pretty. What probably ends up surprising her, however, is that Dennis doesn’t care all that much that Sue Ann is immensely fuckable.

    Even at 13, I could sense that Perkins was never believable playing someone attracted to a woman – but, here, his Dennis is primarily interested in having a partner-in-crime. ~ which seems to relieve Sue Ann: she doesn’t have to worry about the game-playing that would be involved if she were manipulating someone with 24/7 visions of how young and hot she is. (She’ll still be able to handle the police for that reason… and there will be no distraction in dealing with… Mom.)

    As I continued growing, I also (of course) met beautiful people who were also very nice people. But it wasn’t hard spotting the ones who knew how to ‘use what they had’. I once knew a drop-dead-gorgeous guy who knew how to charm anybody but who also seemed to find the process of charm a chore. He said to me once, “People are always *giving* me things for no reason.” I recall thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a reason, sweetheart; a big, ravishing reason.’

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