An Inauspicious Start to a Poisonous Triumph

An Inauspicious Start to a Poisonous Triumph

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Oct 24th 2018

“What brought a nice young kid like Sue Ann to a shocking moment like this?” proclaimed the ads featuring an aroused young woman firing a pistol and heralding the opening of “a crazy, mixed-up love story” in New York neighborhood theaters 50 years ago yesterday. Marketed by its bewildered studio as a kind of updated derivative of the previous year’s cultural touchstone Bonnie and Clyde (1967) with young lovers with fantasizing tendencies going on an antiestablishment binge of bad behavior, it did not get traction originally with audiences and certain critics. Newsweek’s Joe Morgenstern was an exception, and he took the movie business to task: “Pretty Poison [1968] is a special film indeed, and Hollywood’s financiers and merchandisers are struck even dumber than usual by the problems of selling special pictures. With no convictions of their own about its character, they picked the name of this one by taking a poll. Having settled on a conventionally lurid title, they certified its apparent shoddiness with squalid little newspaper ads. The film was ready to be released last July, but the producers were scared to death of the violence in it in the wake of two political assassinations. They waited, therefore, until the National Rifle Association had regained control of the country, and dumped it on the market without further ado. Unless the movie business is truly bent on self-destruction, a film like Pretty Poison deserves a return engagement in fine theaters that pride themselves on fine entertainment.” 

Yikes! What he was describing was, in the view of fellow approver Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, “an unobtrusive little psychological thriller, subtle and very smart” about a psychologically troubled ex-mental patient, played by Anthony Perkins, reintroduced into “normal life” in a quiet New England town, where he meets a curious and attractive high-school student, incarnated by an uncannily perfect Tuesday Weld, and fails miserably in recognizing her true nature underneath her wholesome, fresh-faced persona. As historian and The Great Movie Stars author David Shipman writes of Weld: “More than any actress since Louise Brooks, she was able to suggest both a cherubic innocence of spirit and a satanic enjoyment of evil for its own sake.” Thinking he has the upper hand in their quickly accelerating relationship based on his fanciful imposture of a CIA operative on an undercover mission, he unwittingly uncorks a demon. Kael observes: “Anthony Perkins gives what may be his most sensitively conceived performance; he’s a character who develops from a quirky, sneaky, funny boy into a decent, sympathetic man. He toys with fantasies but knows they’re fantasies. Tuesday Weld plays a small-town girl, crazy for excitement, who accepts his fantasies in a matter-of-fact way and proceeds to act on them. Lorenzo Semple Jr. wrote a beauty of a script (based on Stephen Geller’s novel She Let Him Continue); the horror in the movie isn’t just in the revelation of what the pretty young girl is capable of – it’s in your awareness that the man’s future is being destroyed.” 

Indeed, as precisely realized under the alert direction of feature-film newcomer Noel Black, he was a vintage film-noir man-with-a-past dupe updated for the swinging, counterculture ’60s; given our divided America today, with persistent shadows of darker strains of frustration, intolerance and partisanship underneath calm exteriors, it’s still bracingly relevant. Film Noir: The Encyclopedia essayist Steven M. Sanders observes: “Pretty Poison enacts the kind of noir anxiety that accompanies Pitt’s [Perkins] realization that he has succumbed to a life of fantasy-adventure. This life suddenly breaks apart when he becomes aware that Sue Ann [Weld] embodies forces far more lethal than any he can find in himself. He realizes how precarious is his hold has been on reality, and this realization immobilizes him as he slips into catastrophe.” Was it all too pretty and too poisonous for 1968? If so, it surely isn’t now. 

Revisiting the film in 2012, Ken Salikof in the New York Daily News connected the dots in his piece, accessible here: The New Yorker’s estimable Richard Brody would later look again and assert: “The film is a brilliant, even riotous reconfiguration of a pile of cinematic clichés, starting with Perkins’ familiar persona, most notably from Psycho, and including tropes from Cold War thrillers, teen date movies, domestic melodramas, medical mysteries and police procedurals. The mash-up makes the film feel like something of a put-on at the same time it feels joltingly real. It’s as if the director both lovingly conjures the textures of daily life in a small New England town, and yet plants cinematic stereotypes there to see whether they’ll thrive. The procedure was New Wave-ish; the motive and the result were political; without a word about Vietnam, civil rights, or any of the variety of heated conflicts that were roiling America and, for that matter, the world, the movie, made in 1968, feels hectic with the political and social passions of the moment, even as it draws on the styles of the past.” Oddly, Perkins, Weld and Black were reportedly dissatisfied with their work on the film despite its subsequent high regard. But Pretty Poison’s pleasures, abundant and subversive, are all accounted for on Twilight Time’s delicious hi-def Blu-ray.