Pretty Poison (1968): The Girl Mr. Yuk Never Warned You About

If there’s one thing that Anthony Perkins can verifiably do, it's play a crazy person, and if there’s a similar truth to be said of Tuesday Weld, it’s that she can certainly be relied on to play a sex kitten. That’s what makes 1968’s Pretty Poison such an engaging film to watch. Eight years after Perkins forever typecast himself with his turn as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, he had been unable to define himself outside of the mentally disturbed box he had trapped himself in. Though he made some great films such as Orson Welles 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Perkins had failed to shake the Bates’ specter. Pretty Poison allowed Perkins to tap back into the crazy person that audiences knew him as, and Weld, building on roles in films such as Rock Rock Rock, Sex Kittens Go to College, and The Cincinnati Kid, makes for a devilish and Beautiful Lady of Genre.

Perkins stars as Dennis Pitt, a recently released mental patient with a record for arson. With help from his counselor, Pitt gets a job at a chemical plant in a sleepy little New England town where he meets the beautiful high school cheerleader, Sue Ann Stepanek. Pitt’s mysterious nature intrigues Sue Ann, and when he tells her that he’s a secret agent working for the CIA, that only serves to heighten her fascination. Sue Ann and Dennis embark on a number of “missions” where the young girl soon proves herself to be a cold blooded and calculated killer, far more capable of violent acts than the delusional Mr. Pitt. Sue Ann soon begins to pressure Pitt to run away with her to Mexico, but before they go, Sue Ann insists they must do away with her domineering mother (Beverly Garland).

Director Noel Black was a relative novice in the film world with only two films and a handful of TV credits to his name, and though he never rose to a loftier perch (his 1982 TV film version of Ray Bradbury’s The Electric Grandmother is his other career highlight), Pretty Poison is a skilled thriller which turns the audience’s expectations on their ear. With Anthony Perkins being so closely linked to Norman Bates, I spent a good deal of the beginning of the film waiting for him to off someone. The twist (which I don’t think is a spoiler as it happens in the first third of the film) of having the innocent, blonde Weld being the callus killer was quite enjoyable. The plot combined with the slick, beautiful cinematography of David L. Quaid, who also shot Santa Claus Conquers The Martians of all things, give the film an essentially modern look. From the camera angles to the pacing, Pretty Poison delivers on all fronts.

The real joy of the film is the chemistry between Perkins and Weld. Like Norman Bates, Dennis Pitt is also controlled by a woman, but it is not the spectre of a dead mother but rather the innocuous virtue of Sue Ann Stepanek that controls Pitt. The film’s quick turn, from watching a crazy man con a young girl to the unveiling of the cheerleading sociopath is so well played by the actors that I took great joy in watching them develop the bait and switch. While Perkins is exceptional, Weld really impresses. Though later in her career she’d make higher profile films like Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I had always considered her more of a pretty face than a skilled actress. Pretty Poison flatly proved me wrong. Weld’s calm demeanor only cracks once, and when it does, it is a sight to behold. Apart from the leads, the film is also blessed by a pair of solid supporting characters. Beverly Garland, who got her start in the 1950 noir D.O.A., turns in solid work as the shrewish mother, and veteran character actor John Randolph (Serpico, Prizzi’s Honor) shines in the small role of Pitt’s probation officer. In an odd bit of trivia, both Randolph and Garland would later appear in Christmas Vacation movies though Garland was in the sequel, Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure.

Pretty Poison definitely left an impression on me, and films in the same genre such as Poison Ivy and Fatal Attraction definitely owe a dept. Noel Black’s film derived its own inspiration from Lolita and everything that Alfred Hitchcock ever filmed about obsession (which is a lot), but Black managed to twist his film in subtle ways that would have surely made the Master of Suspense proud. Fans of thrillers should definitely check this one out, but don’t be fooled by the film’s ‘R’ rating. There's little that isn't pretty tame stuff even for 1968. So don't go into it expecting buckets of blood and Tuesday Weld to doff her top. Pretty Poison isn't about the exploitative or the lurid. It's about the pure terror that the crazed killer might not be the person let out of the loony bin, but rather the sweet innocent girl next door who is secretly a violent predator. We've seen that story time and time again now, but in '68 this was some pretty strong stuff. Though I'd still have to say that this Pretty Poison goes down plenty smooth.

Bugg Rating

Before we get to the Trailer, I could not help but also include this great photo of Tuesday Weld that I found while trolling the back alleys of the interwebs. 

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