PRETTY POISON Remains a Diabolical Movie Experience

1966’s Pretty Poison is the rare film made years before its time, while being incredibly relevant to the day.

The only way to start this review is by flat-out stating that Pretty Poison is NOT a fun movie by any means; nor is it inspiring or easy to watch at times. However, the film is 100% an honest, if somewhat flashy, portrait of frustrated youth, madness, and instability without a single false note to be found within it. Pretty Poison has enough qualities which are certainly stark and unpredictable enough to give it an oddness which makes it all at once unsettling and magnetic. This is a film so incredibly hard to look away from. And what’s more, you never really want to.

Anthony Perkins stars in Pretty Poison as Dennis Pitt, a young man who after spending most of his teen years and early adulthood locked away following a devastating act of arson finds himself struggling to readjust to normal life thanks to a crummy job, an overly watchful parole officer (John Randolph), and mental issues which continue to plague him. When he recruits the beautiful teenage Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld) to partner with him in one of his fantasy adventures, he feels he’s found his soulmate…until Sue Ann seems to start believing the world Dennis is painting to be true.

Pretty Poison is certainly daring enough for ‘60s film, especially one from a major studio. The movie so expertly typifies unconventionality with an ahead of its time agenda which it maintains through and through. In a sense, Pretty Poison finds itself caught in the wrapping of the traditional studio fare which studios were used to churning out during the ‘60s, while at the same time giving a hint of what was to come in terms of bold cinematic content. Use of the word “queer,” drug taking, sexuality, murder, and other elements were considered forward or ahead of their time, but are proudly put on display here. Pretty Poison makes comments on violence and the state of disenchanted youth in America like very few films of its day could by exploring the inner frustrations and motivations behind such behavior. At the same time, the film never once comes off as over the top or exploitative, but rather true and genuine in its attitudes and portrayal.

At the center of Pretty Poison is a captivating portrait of a disturbed mind. The film doesn’t necessarily humanize an individual such as Dennis so much as it tries to understand him. This feat is perfectly accomplished by showing the two sides of his personality. Perkins’ good guy qualities make him the perfect choice for this role, as his all-American looks provide a stark contrast to the idea of mental illness. In many ways it’s a different effect than in Psycho (undoubtedly the actor’s most famous role). Dennis is innocent, but disturbed. Where Psycho’s Norman Bates is dark and tortured, Dennis is an unassuming good guy living in his own fantasies of being a secret agent. His outward physical image is the stark opposite of someone whom most would categorize as being mentally ill. At a time when mental illness was so incredibly taboo, having someone who looked like Dennis gave the stigma attached to such an affliction a new face. Going deeper, the film shows how someone can live two very different mental existences and switch back and forth between them with the most unsettling of ease.

Director Noel Black once described Sue Ann as a teeny bopper Lady Macbeth, which is perhaps the most perceptive way to read this character. It’s hard at first not to minimize Sue Ann in the shadow of Dennis’s complexity. Yet the teenager is a heartbreaking soul; a girl left fatherless and all but forgotten by her alcoholic, promiscuous mother (Beverly Garland), whom she loathes. The first scene between the parent and child does contain a certain level of campiness but is a strong indicator of the kind of life which makes her want to escape. As the character of Sue Ann becomes more and more prominent, Pretty Poison plunges into a darkness that is so chilling. The most frightening realization for Dennis at this point is that he is no longer able to control the fantasy which has become a warped reality with Sue Ann deliriously at the wheel.

Not to take away from the brilliant work the actor did in Psycho, but Pretty Poison truly is the actor’s finest performance. The actor plays Dennis in the most realistic and compelling of ways, showing the character’s ability to be in control of his feelings one minute before letting his anger and frustrations take him over completely. It’s certainly a testament to what a fine actor Perkins was. Meanwhile Weld (whose supposed battles with first-time director Black were so intense that she now refuses to even acknowledge the film) brings Sue Ann to stellar life with all her blonde majorette looks and a carefree glee which masks a deep pain and a bubbling torment.

Although this was Black’s first feature film, the director pulls the whole affair off through blending genres, playing with subtly pulsating music, and especially through a number of innovative editing choices and camera angles. It would be fair to assume that the film was far from a hit when it was first released. Despite its critical supporters, the movie suffered from a lack of studio faith, the real-life assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. (which turned audiences off from cinema violence for a time), and a lack of support from its female lead, who refused to promote the film. Nonetheless, Pretty Poison is the kind of film which pulls you in from the first scene thanks to its energetic, dynamic feel, which never ceases.

The Package

A pair of commentaries accompanies Twilight Time’s release of Pretty Poison. The most informative and enlightening one features Black, who among other things, praises Weld for being intuitive and terrific, but chalks up any on-set differences between the two to their differing views of the character.

The Lowdown

Pretty Poison remains one of those unsung masterpieces which pushed the boundaries and didn’t once flinch.

Pretty Poison is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

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