An air of simmering perversion permeates the 1968 thriller-cum-social commentary Pretty Poison. Perennially creepy Anthony Perkins is appropriately unnerving as Dennis Pitt, a troubled young man just released from several years in the nuthouse for burning down his house—while his Auntie was inside. Dennis readjusts to society via a humdrum factory job in a lazy town. To escape the numbing monotony, Dennis re-imagines himself as a secret agent and records his daily activities with a spy camera. Perkins took advantage of his mannish-boy looks to dive headfirst into roles of youthfully inconspicuous and completely unhinged deviants. Perkins’ patented ‘caught with his hands in the cookie jar’ expression was never more convincing than here, in a modern take on the spider and the fly. Tony, contrary to expectations, is not the spider.
Anthony/Dennis epitomizes otherness. He’s no hippie or obvious outsider easily trodden upon. Dennis looks ‘normal’ yet he’s just smug and alien enough to make the everyday people in his life uncomfortable in their own mundane existence. The chiding, no-nonsense boss is repelled by Dennis and his disdain for the dull lifestyle thrust upon him, while his overly pert landlady is so bored herself (and looks rightfully fearful of becoming a pod a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers) that she’s intrigued by Dennis and his pretense of having another, more glamorous life.
So how does Dennis go about picking up hot, all-American cheerleader-jailbait Sue Ann (played by the pouty, delicious Tuesday Weld)? He surreptitiously involves her in a (make-believe) clandestine mission, seducing her with thoughts of espionage and danger. Oddly enough, she joins in with a majorette’s gusto. Even odder is how her enthusiasm escalates when the games of deception lead to murder.
Although beyond teenage years at the time, Weld embodies the iconography that Sue Ann represents. On the surface she’s the most coveted of prizes—blonde, bouncy, always looking for excitement, and on the honor role too! Yet Sue Ann’s dark side—as well as the flaws in this American idyll—soon starts to show, particularly when Sue Ann’s oppressive mother appears. It’s a revelation how Weld can be so archetypically sexy and gleefully evil at the same time.
Making his feature debut, director Noel Black showed an assured hand, taking advantage of the metaphorically rich visual motifs in the script (unfortunately, Black never topped this effort, unceremoniously slipping back into a television dominated career). One memorably visceral image is a shot of blood-like liquid gushing explosively out of a burst pipe at the factory where Dennis works (no wonder Godard was so fond of the color red). Moments such as this underline how violence is equated with sexual thrills (also evident in the fervor with which Sue Ann handles anyone that gets in her way, the factory guard in particular). It is here that Pretty Poison recalls the classic low-budget noir Gun Crazy. However, unlike the sexually consumed pair of anti-heroes in that blood soaked tale, Dennis proves to be a pathetic patsy, incapable of living out any sort of deep seeded fury to its fullest, rendering Pretty Poison both a cautionary tale and an indictment of society’s failings.
David Wilentz dreams in color.