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Pretty Poison

Pretty Poison(1968)

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The feature film debut of 26-year-old UCLA film school graduate Noel Black, Pretty Poison was the sleeper of 1968, a small-scale but brilliantly realized psychological thriller that was practically buried by 20th-Century-Fox upon its release (they didn't know how to market it) but still managed to end up on several critics' top ten best lists. Now available on DVD, the film continues to weave a hypnotic spell after 38 years and makes one wonder what ever happened to Noel Black, who made several subsequent movies but nothing as memorable as Pretty Poison.

Based on the novel She Let Him Continue by Stephen Geller, the film follows Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), an arsonist and recent ex-con who is trying to start a new life in a small Massachusetts town. He lands a job in a chemical plant but has a hard time reigning in his overactive imagination once he gets a glimpse of Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), a stunning blonde majorette at the local high school. Pretending to be an agent for the CIA, Dennis makes a strong impression on Sue Ann and quickly draws her into his private world. But Sue Ann's craving for excitement knows no bounds and she is soon the driving force in the relationship, manipulating Dennis in a plot to murder Sue Ann's controlling mother (Beverly Garland).

Pretty Poison perfectly captures the small town milieu that is oppressive to both Dennis and Sue Ann and provides the contrast to their unchecked fantasy life (it was filmed on location in Great Barrington, Massachusetts). Without the exceptional performances of Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, however, the film might not have worked at all. Perkins creates a genuinely sympathetic protagonist who, despite being a felon and a fatalist, is also well-mannered, vulnerable and no real threat to anyone. He's also no match for Tuesday Weld's Sue Ann whose beautiful features hide a wicked, completely amoral schemer. Both deserved Oscar® nominations for their work here but were overlooked in favor of more blatantly theatrical roles in each category - Cliff Robertson as Best Actor in Charly, and for Best Actress, a tie between Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Perkins and Weld would later be reteamed for the film version of Joan Didion's novel, Play It As It Lays (1972).

According to biographer Charles Winecoff in Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins, the filming of Pretty Poison was much more difficult than anyone expected. As a first time director, Noel Black had little experience with feature film crews. "Noel knew how to set up shots," actor John Randolph [he plays Dennis's parole officer in the film] remembers, "but he knew nothing about acting. Tuesday Weld was neurotic as hell. She would break down and cry. She hated the director, and she permitted that hatred to color everything she did. So Tony was dealing with a director who did not know how to talk to actors and an actress who was hysterical half the time." Even so, Perkins gently rose to Black's defense when the tough New York crew, many of whom had worked with seasoned pros like Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet, began giving the novice director a hard time." Perkins could also be surprisingly generous to his fellow cast members at times and, in one instance, helped Beverly Garland prepare for the scene where she is shot at point blank range by her daughter on the stairs; Perkins showed her how to tumble down the steps without injuring herself.

In 1990 Pretty Poison was screened at UCLA with Perkins, Black and John Randolph in attendance, followed by a question and answer forum. According to Stephen Paley, who attended the screening with Perkins and his family, "He [Tony] only pretended to like the movie at the screening, but in the privacy of the car, driving home, he said, 'That really was a piece of sh*t, so slow moving!" Obviously, actors are not always the best judges of their work. Pauline Kael, in her review of Pretty Poison wrote "Anthony Perkins gives what may be his most sensitively conceived performance" and critics such as Newsweek's Joseph Morgenstern agreed. There's a good chance you will too.

For more information about Pretty Poison, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Pretty Poison, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeff Stafford