Pretty Poison (1968) *****

Faultessly prophetic. Acquiring significantly greater power than at initial release. You can easily imagine Dennis (Anthony Perkins) these days as a conspiracy theorist on social media. You can picture Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld) as the impressionable acolyte learning at his feet. What she picks up most is the art of manipulation. And it’s done with marvelous flair,  disturbing information slipped in at the right moment, and so focused are we on Dennis we scarcely notice Sue Ann’s transformation.

There’s a sense of Big Brother – Dennis evades his probation officer for a year to prevent his activities being overseen – and untrammelled big business, the chemical factory nonchalantly poisoning the local river. And it all takes place in Humdrum U.S.A.: hot dog stands, teenagers practising for parades, evenings at the movies, necking in the woods, mindless jobs in factories, with just a hint of overbearing police wielding a moral big stick.

Classic example of the marketing team getting cold feet. Fox didn’t know how to sell this
in the subtle fashion it required so it came over in the bulk of the advertising
materials as second cousin to “Bonnie and Clyde.”

The 1960s had taken a new line on the wicked women of the 1930s and the femme fatales of film noir. They might be mentally disturbed like Lilith (1964) or scrapheap fodder like Bonnie Parker (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), but more likely to be cartoon villains decorating spy movies. This follows a completely different path, exploring latent tendency that might have remained hidden forever except for encountering the right spark.

Dennis is an outright oddball, a fantasist who has created for himself another world of being a secret agent intent on thwarting an alien plot. (Less intense than A Beautiful Mind, 2001) Some people, the next door neighbor, for example, who without question drops in spools of microfilm at the chemist for development  under her own name, are easily taken in. Others are not, his employer at the chemical factory itching for an excuse to fire him, Sue Ann’s mother (Beverly Garland) who catches him out too easily.

Dennis snares gullible bouncy blonde Sue Ann in textbook style. He elicits mystery, popping in and out of her life, peppering her with secret codes, tradecraft, warnings, a farrago of information that would appeal to the insecure. She goes from girlfriend to accomplice, an eager participant in Dennis’s admittedly clever plan to cause the plant to shut down. But when he is rumbled by the nightwatchman and rooted to the spot in fear, it’s Sue Ann who comes to the rescue, clubbing the interloper, pushing his body in the river, sitting triumphantly aside her still conscious victim holding his head under the water.

The twist is: reality has paid a visit. Dennis is shocked at the murder. Although his past is now revealed, he is remorseful that it caused unfortunate consequence. Sue Ann’s reaction is the opposite. She wants post-murder sex. Cool to the point of calculating, remorse scarcely entering her vocabulary, taking command, spinning a web Dennis doesn’t see coming.

It plays out brilliantly, even to the point of Dennis taking comfort in the fact that he has spawned a murderess, one who might embark on an endless killing spree, such is the attractive innocent mask she hides behind.

You would put down Anthony Perkins (Psycho, 1960) as warped the minute his lop-sided grin slips into place. But there’s a youthfulness to this nutcase, always sprinting away, and he’s not, like Norman Bates, sitting in a lair awaiting potential victims, and, in a sense, he’s humanized by a beautiful woman falling in love with him. He’s out there like a con man with the practised patter that’s going to snare the pliable. If he was planning to wage war on the chemical polluters we’d be on his side immediately, and although that kind of action wasn’t yet going to turn anyone into an automatic screen hero, it does now, so a contemporary audience would be inclined to view him through an entirely different, and more sympathetic, prism.  

Perkins’s playing is perfectly judged. He takes the mickey out of stuffy superiors, smart enough to elude the probation officer for a year, astute enough to find a job that gives credence to his secret identity, ingenious enough to come up with the perfect crime, and certainly his vulnerability evokes audience sympathy, especially when it transpires he may be the subject of unlawful judgement.

But Tuesday Weld (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) is this movie’s gift. She is stunningly believable, both as the innocent dupe and the calculating killer. Yet she never emerges from her teenage dream. Even when her actions are clearly more grown-up she remains winsome and youthful. If Perkins is revealed as a child who had never grown up, Perkins becomes an adult in teenager’s clothing.

It’s only at the end you think perhaps this movie should be read back-to-front and that Perkins was the victim all along. (Arthouse filmmakers have been more celebrated for less.) Which would make her the mother (or perhaps daughter) of all femme fatales. There is no limit to what she going to get away with. If it was made today, there would be a sequel a year.

Noel Black (Run, Shadow, Run/Cover Me Babe, 1970) was the cult director’s cult director, eventually making a living in television, and only occasionally managing a big screen effort. This would have been a twisty enough number at the time but has rightly grown into a cult.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

5 thoughts on “Pretty Poison (1968) *****”

  1. Yeah, this is a really solid film. Weld is the all-American nightmare. It’s not Dennis’s paranoid imaginings that are the real threat so much as Sue Ann’s superficial charm, which is always going to win out in the end.

    Quite a one-off for most of the talent involved. At least I don’t think Perkins or Weld or Black did anything else as good (that I’ve seen anyway). But that’s often the way with these cult flicks.

    Liked by 1 person

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