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Stories of young lovers with a killing streak are not uncommon in the movies, and the best of them - Arthur Penn's rollicking Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Terrence Malick's artful Badlands (1973), Oliver Stone's bloodthirsty Natural Born Killers (1994) - have become classics of modern film. Pretty Poison, a pitch-dark 1968 comedy directed by Noel Black, arrived in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde, and its rough similarity to Penn's game-changing hit is one reason it slipped into theaters and then TV without attracting much notice. Then too, Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld are great fun to watch, but they don't have the far-reaching charisma of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Penn's movie, or even of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Malick's contribution to the genre. And while Penn, Malick, and Stone put their killer couples on the road, speeding through the countryside with the law at their heels, Black keeps his duo stuck in a rural Massachusetts town where a teenager itching to travel may have to settle for carrying a flag with the high-school marching team. Still and all, Pretty Poison has acquired a loyal following over the years, and its reputation continues to rise.
Perkins plays Dennis Pitt, a likable guy with an easygoing smile, a troubled past, and perhaps a troubled present as well. The first time we meet him he's being released from a mental institution; when he jokes with probation officer Morton Azenauer (John Randolph) about signing up for the first space flight to Venus, the unsmiling officer gives him a serious reminder that fantasy and reality can be a dangerous combination when you're back in the world for the first time in years. A bit later we learn that Dennis was convicted of arson at age fifteen, after starting a house fire that killed his aunt. Now he's an adult who has to behave himself if he wants to remain free, so he takes a job in a chemical factory and settles into a work routine that's dull enough to send almost anyone toward fantasyland.
Things liven up when he meets the girl of his dreams: high-school siren Sue Ann Stepanek, played by Weld with her usual high spirits. Dennis spots her practicing steps with the marching team on a road near the factory, and he strikes up an acquaintance with her the first chance he gets. He does this on his own unusual terms, giving her extremely strong hints that he's a secret agent for the government looking for an assistant just like her. Sue Ann is thrilled, and while Dennis has nothing to do with the government, he actually does have a secret mission in mind. The factory that employs him dumps enormous quantities of brightly colored chemicals into the river running alongside it. By unbolting a section of the drainage chute, Dennis tells Sue Ann, they can sabotage the plant's operations, thereby saving the environment from poisons that are pretty to look at but awful in their effects. He doubles down in his resolve when Azenauer pays a visit to the factory, inadvertently losing Dennis his job by spilling the beans about his past.
When the sabotage scheme goes wrong in a deadly way, Dennis is horrified. He's also astonished to see Sue Ann enjoying the situation as if it were an exciting adventure instead of an unfolding tragedy. Things get even stranger when Sue Ann's mother interrupts their plan of getting away to Mexico, bringing about more mayhem and revealing still more poison in Sue Ann's ostensibly sweet personality. Dennis has caused much chaos and confusion in his time, but compared with Sue Ann he's almost a responsible citizen. The ending is subtly ironic, suggesting that if Sue Ann is eventually brought to justice, the previously clueless Azenauer may be the person to thank.
Perkins has two great talents as an actor. One is the ability to appear amiable and even charming on the outside while suggesting dark, dangerous currents deep down; his Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's superb Psycho (1960) is the all-time best example. His other great talent is for getting nervous - just slightly at first, then a little more and a little more, expressed through muscle tics, eye movements, and other tiny symptoms caused by anxieties building to the breaking point. Pretty Poison puts both talents to good use, and Perkins's performance would take over the entire movie if Weld weren't such an ideal partner, giving Sue Ann a fresh-faced beauty and eager-beaver attitude that contrast marvelously with the malevolence festering inside her. Feminist film critic Molly Haskell has shown that Hollywood fostered a "Lolita cult" in the 1960s, centered on child-woman figures like Sue Lyon's eponymous nymphet in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) and Mia Farrow's more innocent Allison MacKenzie in the TV version of Peyton Place that ran from 1964 to 1969. Weld's Sue Ann Stepanek is a first-rate specimen of the big-screen Lolita, and she draws Dennis into a web of temptation and disaster without half trying, since he helpfully weaves half the web himself. Dennis is the movie's protagonist, but Sue Ann is its propulsive force.
After making his mark with the exhilarating short Skaterdater in 1966, Black directed only a handful of features before turning to the television work that dominated his thirty-year career. He injects some potent visual ideas into Pretty Poison, especially in his use of color and in understated touches like the rays that seem to emanate from Dennis's head as he gazes at his chemical-checking screen in the factory. In all, though, the picture's style is very much of its late-1960s era, employing halfhearted zoom shots and nodding toward sexual openness with irreverent dialogue about "making out" and "making it" and glimpses of Sue Ann in a bra. Pretty Poison seems mighty tame alongside 1968 pictures like Roman Polanski's audacious Rosemary's Baby, George A. Romero's explosive Night of the Living Dead, and Kubrick's mind-bending 2001: A Space Odyssey, all of which were bigger hits at the time and are better remembered and more highly respected today. But that's all the more reason to take another look at Black's mischievous blend of comedy, thriller, and psychodrama. It's an odd hybrid that shouldn't be allowed to slip through the cinematic cracks.
Director: Noel Black
Producer: Marshal Backlar and Joel Black
Screenplay: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.; based on a novel by Stephen Geller
Cinematographer: David Quaid
Film Editing: William Ziegler
Art Direction: Jack Martin Smith and Harold Michelson
Music: Johnny Mandel
Cast: Anthony Perkins (Dennis), Tuesday Weld (Sue Ann), Beverly Garland (Mrs. Stepanek), John Randolph (Azenauer), Dick O'Neill (Bud Munsch), Clarice Blackburn (Mrs. Bronson), Joseph Bova (Pete), Ken Kercheval (Harry Jackson), Don Fellows (Detective), George Ryan's Winslow High-Steppers (Drillmaster & Team).
C-90m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by David Sterritt