Its two attractive star leads had commercial and critical cachet, its writer and director were considered rising talents to watch and its executive producer’s most recent credit was a Best Picture Academy Award® nominee. But when it first opened in Los Angeles 49 years ago yesterday, Pretty Poison (1968), starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, directed by Noel Black, written for the screen by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and shepherded on the releasing studio’s behalf by The Graduate’s Lawrence Turman, couldn’t catch a break, despite a supportive Charles Champlin Los Angeles Times review calling it “a small, stunning, thoughtful exploration of degrees of madness and of sanity.” Twentieth Century Fox gave the public three tales of murder that year – The Detective, The Boston Strangler and Lady in Cement, all incidentally Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray releases – but the powers-that-be were hard pressed to attract the public to a dark fable that blended deadpan humor, teasing sexuality and eruptive psychosis in quite the larkish way Pretty Poison did. When the film got to New York a month later in a low-key neighborhood theater release, it finally got more critical champions in Pauline Kael and Rex Reed, but a come-from-behind Bonnie and Clyde-styled box-office popularity rescue was not to follow. Another strong partisan, Newsweek’s Joseph Morgenstern, was also bothered by how the movie was treated.
Of this “truly marvelous thriller,” he wrote: “Tony Perkins and Tuesday Weld give a pair of superb performances as a disturbed young loner and his bewitchingly innocent, twitchingly all-American honor roll student and drum majorette of a girl friend. Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s screenplay, based on a novel by Stephen Geller, sustains a level of wit and tension that few modern films aspire to, let alone achieve. And, wonder of wonders, the director of this modest, almost flawless entertainment is a 31-year-old American, Noel Black, who had done Skater-Dater, a stylish short about kids on skateboards, but had never directed a feature film until producer Lawrence Turman put him to work on this one. The marriage of their elegant performances and Semple’s high-style dialogue must really have been made in heaven. Semple is the writer who set the tone for Batman on TV, and you can readily hear a common denominator in his ability to devise an artificial style and stick with it through thick or thin. Here, however, Semple leads us like lambs to the slaughter of a plot twist, turns parody on and off at will, and holds our interest as the story hustles its way to a slightly fuzzy but certainly serviceable denouement. If the style is intriguing, the substance is no less so: pollution of our rivers, streams and spirits, the fantasies America lives, guilt and innocence and the camouflage they wear. This is a lot for a 90-minute movie to have on its mind.” He presciently concluded: “Pretty Poison is a special film, indeed, and Hollywood’s financiers and merchandisers are struck even dumber than usual by the problems of selling special products. 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 onto 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.” For director Black’s take on the film and its personal reverberations, see his 2014 Film Comment interview with Patrick Bergan here: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/in-memoriam-noel-black/. Those Intrigued at the prospect of something special should consider investigating TT’s generously outfitted disc of Pretty Poison in your own fine home theater.