What brought a nice kid like Sue Ann to a shocking moment like this?
After his career-defining turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Anthony Perkins resisted Hollywood’s desire to typecast him. He departed for Europe, starring in a series of interesting, artistically ambitious films like Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jules Dassin’s Phaedra and Rene Clement’s Is Paris Burning? Upon returning to Hollywood in 1968, his first role was Pretty Poison, which cast him as – surprise, surprise – a mentally troubled killer. The film is no Psycho, but it’s an intriguing and occasionally unsettling little psychological thriller.
Perkins plays Dennis Pitt, who is on parole from a mental institution and is trying to find something resembling a normal life. He gets a job at a chemical plant in a small Massachusetts town, and quickly begins to develop an obsession with local high school student Sue Ann Stepenek (Tuesday Weld, Once Upon a Time in America). Dennis tells Sue Ann that he’s a CIA Agent working undercover, and begins luring her into a tangled web of lies and risky behavior. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets caught… but how much damage will Dennis be able to do before his plan inevitably unravels?
The film is essentially a deranged take on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, transforming Thurber’s whimsical dreamer into a dangerous lunatic. Initially, the film’s decision to tell us that the character is psychotic right off the bat seems like a miscalculation: why not generate tension by easing us into the depths of Dennis’ psychosis? Ah, but director Noel Black and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. have some other ideas up their sleeves, and the film isn’t going exactly where we expect it to.
Perkins’ performance feels very much like a follow-up to his turn in Psycho – good manners and a nervous, sweet demeanor covering a deep well of torment – but it eventually becomes clear that his fairly predictable work is being employed to keep us distracted from some of the other things cooking in the background. Speaking of which: Tuesday Weld’s performance is a fairly inconsistent piece of work (it was reportedly a very frustrating shoot for her, and she’s spoken very negatively about the film in the years since), but she takes the character to some intriguing places in the film’s second half and is at the center of the film’s most memorable scenes.
Black’s direction is jittery and energetic, successfully capturing Dennis’ mental state despite some occasional pacing issues. There are brief bursts of stylish visual flair littered throughout, and Johnny Mandel’s score amusingly works slyly chipper musical moments into the proceedings. The tale’s structure hits a fair number of conventional bits, but the scenes between Perkins and Weld crackle with peculiar energy: both have a unique screen presence, and they hit some distinctive notes together.
Pretty Poison (Blu-ray) offers a fine 1080p/1.85:1 transfer, though things occasionally get a little murky during the darker scenes. Detail is solid, a moderate amount of natural grain is left intact and colors are fairly robust. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track sounds pretty sharp for its age, presenting the score with energy and the dialogue with clarity. Supplements include an audio commentary with executive producer Lawrence Turman and film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, another audio commentary with director Noel Black and film historian Robert Fischer, an isolated score track, a deleted scene script (with accompanying commentary), a trailer and a booklet.
Pretty Poison is an solid little thriller with strong Perkins performance. It’s worth checking out.