The promising first feature of director Noel Black’s long, uneven career, Pretty Poison opened unpromisingly enough in 1968 New York, played without press-preview fanfare at the Riverside Theatre at 96th and Broadway, and then disappeared with barely a ripple—an indignity that Film Forum’s week-long revival moves to redress.
Pretty Poison begins with Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), castigated by his parole officer as a chronic escapist, released from a long stay at a mental institution. Dennis looks thirtyish. His crime was committed as a boy; a boy he essentially remains. When we next catch up with Dennis, working at a chemical plant in a small Western Massachusetts town that churns out the same Technicolor toxins of Red Desert, he’s entranced by the vision of a 17-year-old, Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), carrying the state flag for her high school marching band. Swooping in with the pretense of his being an undercover CIA agent on a top-secret mission and baiting Sue Ann with promise of intrigue and excitement, it seems obvious that, given Dennis’s tenuous grasp of reality, he won’t be out of jail for long. The surprise at the center of Pretty Poison is how he gets back there.
Seemingly hooked on his spy-games story, Sue Ann goes along with Dennis. Cracking nonsense jokes (“I foolishly performed an abortion on a peach tree,” he quips to his factory foreman) and loping across town with a tireless, long-legged sprint, his behavior is just odd enough to pass as mysterious. Dennis strings Sue Ann along with illicit substances (plying her with a hit of acid before he deflowers her) and illicit missions (a sabotage break-in at the factory), but though he invents the rules of the role-play, Sue Ann is a startlingly quick study. “Let’s do something exciting,” she gasps, still fresh with the comedown—and letdown—of their first night together. The same frightful enthusiasm is visible later when she piggyback-straddles the body of an unconscious factory security guard while Dennis blanches and gags, blowing his secret-agent-man cover and ability to call the shots.
Tuesday, née Susan Ker Weld, got her first taste of fame in 1959 at age sweet 16 on the CBS teen sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, in which she played dreamy, creamy Thalia Menninger, the obscure object of desire pined after by Dobie in spite of the fact that she was avaricious and callow and all a-jitter on Coca-Cola and puberty. Weld was beautiful, blond, sun-kissed with freckles, and could round out a pair of hot pants, but her milk-fed beauty came alongside a lip-gnashing delivery that betrayed a head buzzing with distractions, her voice sometimes antsy and tremulous, other times tripping over itself in an impetuous rush, an alarm of dangerous possibilities. Like Weld’s best parts of the period—the flirtatious high schooler with a will to power in George Axelrod’s screwy SoCal satire Lord Love a Duck (1966); the moonshiner’s daughter whose guileless, in-the-moment passion undoes small-town Southern sheriff Gregory Peck in I Walk the Line (1970)—Sue Ann is a role that drew on Weld’s particular ambivalence, the appearance of invincible all-American health alongside deeper agitation.
Even a pat, movie-of-the-week wrap-up can’t diminish Pretty Poison‘s central performances. Dear friends in life, Perkins and Weld were simply able to tune in to each other’s frequencies, here as in the dangerous symbiosis of their 1972 collaboration, Play It as It Lays. Like any good study in couple’s psychopathology, a familiar relationship is visible here, but in a parodic, mutated form. In clear stages, Pretty Poison details the gradual inversion of Dennis and Sue Ann’s power dynamic—a transference of roles between the apparent exploiter and deceiver and the apparently exploited and deceived. Self-possessed Sue Ann takes the driver’s seat and winds up dropping Dennis off at her convenience, like a distracted mother (“Hasta luego, nut!”), while he is left stammering his story to a pair of detectives from the Kafka Agency. Locked away all those years, Dennis doesn’t realize that innocence isn’t what it used to be, so it’s he who winds up losing what is left of his own boyish trust. The measure of the movie’s cynicism: It doesn’t deal in predators and prey—only in predators of different species.