Pretty Poison July 16, 2018
1 Hr., 29 Mins.
young-man persona first introduced in Psycho (1960), as Dennis, a delusion-prone childhood arsonist who’s just been released from the psych ward after a decades-long stay. Starring opposite him is the toothy former child star Tuesday Weld as Sue Ann, a freshly 18-year-old cheerleader and honor-roll student.
In Pretty Poison, the two serendipitously become friends, then lovers, in part due to a lunch-hour meet-cute. By the time they first get acquainted, Dennis is lost in a fantasy. Thanks to a habit of listening to Russian radio broadcasts in the evenings to pass the time, he’s begun believing he’s a secret agent.
Dennis doesn’t keep it to himself, either. Just a few minutes into their getting to know one another, he’s convinced Sue Ann that he works for the CIA, and that he needs her to help him carry out missions, whose details will be disclosed later. Sue Ann, whom we gather is attracted to him, bored with her ever-vanilla life, and an avid watcher and reader of pulp TV and novels, not only doesn’t question his claims — she also almost immediately commits herself to this stranger.
She embarks on “missions” with him; she’s increasingly ready for moonlit makeout sessions. She fancies being the more savory (at least in her eyes) version of the gun moll. The only thing dependably getting in the way of her elation is her mother (Beverly Garland), who loves meddling.
Eventually, Pretty Poison reveals its true identity. It is not actually an in-the-making lovers-on-the-run actioner but rather a blackened comic melodrama. During its last act, it is breathlessly disclosed that Sue Ann is not nearly as foolhardy as we think she is. Turns out she’s a diabolical femme fatale using the unsteady Dennis as a tool to commit the crimes she’s always wanted to carry out herself. (Namely offing her “obstacle” of a mother.) No matter if he’s the offender or not, Sue Ann has the ability to pull her nice girl persona out from her seemingly empty pockets and wag fingers. It wasn’t her who killed so-and-so — it was that erstwhile arsonist who was just released from the sanitarium!
Sick, sure. But Black, working off an astringent script written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (who then was best known for his work on the Batman series of the 1960s), doesn’t treat this material as if it were anything other than a commingling of neo-noir and pulp. The movie sets out to be a sensationalist soirée comprising small-town evil and the artistically inclined dime-store thrill, and it is exactly that.
Pretty Poison has become something of a cult favorite, but I’m wont to believe that has less to do with the film’s being ahead of its time or plain-old fascinatingly idiosyncratic (it isn’t, just intelligently cockeyed) and more to do with the reality that the teen queen Weld, who’d only started transitioning from teen lore to adult-oriented entertainment, makes for such a fun juxtaposition. A goody-two-shoes cheerleader who also happens to be a sociopathic schemer? It’s something you’ll have to see for yourself, even if nothing surrounding that concept is quite so unforgettable. B-
nitially, Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (1968) seems a thematic cousin to classic lovers-on-the-run thrillers like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Badlands (1973), just with a drizzling of zestier pulp flavor to set it apart. Ease into it, though, and it begins to look less like the rip-roaring, cartoonishly violent gambol we might’ve made it out to be in our expectations-attentive minds and more a friskier take on the deadly-is-the-female trope as popularized by Billy Wilder’s caustic film noir from 1944, Double Indemnity.
The film stars the willowy Anthony Perkins, still shackled to the troubled-