Pretty Poison (1968)
“…Wait till you see what they did to his aunt – the night watchman – to her mother.”
Director: Noel Black
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, Beverly Garland
Synopsis: When a mentally disturbed young man tells a pretty girl that he’s a secret agent, she believes him, and murder and mayhem ensue.
WARNING – This review contains SPOILERS!
I was surprised by how good this film was; even during the first twenty minutes or so, when it didn’t seem to be a very good film at all, it was actually very cleverly written. Nothing is what it seems here — you could be forgiven for believing the opening act was part of a badly-written comedy, probably because that is exactly what the writer wants you to think. Lorenzo Semple’s tight script is slyly subversive both in its deceptively light treatment and in the manner in which it portrays small-town Americana (in much the same way that David Lynch would two decades later in Blue Velvet). He tells us that the white picket fences and pretty cheerleaders should never be taken at face value, because there is something rotten lurking beneath that all-American veneer…
Anthony Perkins’ Dennis Pitt has been likened by some to Psycho’s Norman Bates, but he’s nothing of the kind. Bates was a demented lunatic whose madness simmered behind a mask of normality, while Pitt is simply a sad loner, a loser who invents a world of intrigue to disguise the fact that he and his life are so dull. He’s not even bad, really.
It’s a clever piece of casting, in line with the aim of the film, and it immediately wrong-foots the viewer. We are fooled into believing that he has plans more sinister than he actually does by his use of the kind of bad dialogue found in second-rate TV spy shows and his use of age and experience to trick impressionable young teen Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld) out of her clothes. Stepanek isn’t fooled for a minute though, even though the film lets us believe she is. She plays Pitt in a much more sophisticated way than Pitt believes he is playing her — the film’s coda tells us that.
Perkins performance here is terrific. You can see the layers of confidence slowly peeling away as his and Sue-Ann’s roles become inexplicably reversed and he finds himself sinking deeper and deeper out of his depth until he is a mass of sweaty, twitching nerves, blindly following orders, all pretence of control abandoned. Weld is also first class. She plays her character the same throughout, even when her true colours are revealed to us, and resists the temptation to display the usual tics and grimaces of movie-land’s bunny-boilers.
Get your hands on this film if you can. It’s a crime that it is so relatively unknown.
(Reviewed 3rd October 2007)