Directed by Noel Black
Starring Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, Beverly Garland
Review by Jordan
Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), a quirky young man formerly institutionalized for fatal arson, is released on parole under the concerned eye of his long-serving officer on condition he report daily and hold down a monotonous job at a lumber yard in a sleepy, uneventful town. Staying at a garage and eating at a trailer diner, it isn’t long before his fantasies ripen and he convinces Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), a cute high school drum majorette with an infectious energy that he has a crush on he is in fact a CIA agent, with the directive to sabotage said yard and chemical factory he states is polluting the town’s water supply.
Their early relationship buzzes with fresh energy and thrives on excitement, with each of them writing new destinies based on fun and without consequence. His lies, as they stem from exuberance, only make Dennis all the more endearing. Sue Ann, though, shows to have a craving for more than just conspiracy theories and the promise of field action, and before too long a a week that started care-free is overrun by paranoia and the heavy weight of guilt and consequence.
This transition in mood, and the subsequent, significant impact it has on the viewer is what elevates Pretty Poison from good to downright great. Released just one year after Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and five years before Badlands (1973), Noel Black’s film gives the impression its teetering on the edge and could derail at any minute: it’s unpredictable, thrilling and humming with moralistic undertones, alone in the world despite it’s broad narrative links to other classics. The lead performances too are captivating in the true sense of the word, with each talent capturing the motivations of their characters and taking them on emotionally opposite journeys. Perkins shows so much with his body language alone; fidgety movements and dry speech eschewing a natural awkwardness and his tendency of hunching his shoulders perhaps harking back to a distant tragedy, and Tuesday Weld maintains a wild fire in the eyes of her wild child, whether she is flirting with strangers, being slapped by her disapproving mother or intently wielding a handgun.
A scene at around the half way mark where both ‘Agents’ begin the practical phase of their mission and encounter the first resistance to their plot in the form of near-retirement nightwatchman displays the work of these actors perfectly; it’s a thrilling moment with a true sense of danger that’s not necessarily directed at the protagonists.
Part drama, black comedy and crime film, sparks fly from the tracks as Pretty Poison careens forward at full speed at nails the firmest elements of the three genres, leaving behind its own defiantly unique legacy sealed with a Sue Ann Stepanek smile and too-good-to-be-true proposition.