THE FILM 4/5
“I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?”
Director Noel Black’s feature-film debut, Pretty Poison (1968), is a darkly comic thriller about a disturbed young man (Anthony Perkins) recently released from a mental institution who falls for a radiant All-American teenager (Tuesday Weld). Only trouble is, she turns out to be the genuinely psychotic one of the pair, leading him into a series of “missions” that inevitably culminate in murder.
The best kinds of dark comedies are those that don’t reveal their hand too early on in the running. As a plot progresses and becomes embroiled in more and more absurdity, and you start to realize that the universe in which you’re immersed is very askew and not adhering to the rules of normality, that’s when a dark comedy is at its most rewarding.
Going into Pretty Poison totally blind encourages that reaction. Following a fairly tragic beginning in which a young man is released from a facility for an as-of-yet unknown crime and warned by his parole officer of sorts to stay out of his head and knock off the fantasyland stuff, Pretty Poison at first presents itself as a film about a sad, lonely guy with no one to call friend or family, and who instead resorts to disappearing within himself in an effort to become more interesting and intriguing than he actually is. But, like all the best dark comedies, it’s as the plot slowly unfolds and he falls head-over-feels in love with a very young girl that his fantasy collides with reality in the most unfortunate way possible and leads to some absolutely bizarre and unexpected directions.
It’s a wonder to me that Pretty Poison isn’t more well known; and as Twilight Time puts it, the films they focus on releasing are titles that would probably not be released by their own studios and/or rights-holders because the motive for profit re: niche titles simply isn’t there. As someone who considers himself to be fairly knowledgable in cinema history, I often to look to Twilight Time’s releases to learn about titles that, more often than not, have slipped below my radar. Pretty Poison is certainly one. Why this title isn’t more celebrated beyond the hardcore and dedicated cinephile is staggering to me, and also kind of a shame. But this is why we have Twilight Time and distributors with similar mindsets to thank: they give second lives to obscure titles that, otherwise, may risk fading into history with only a small number left to remember they exist.
Anthony Perkins’ most famous role — that of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary Psycho — haunted the actor for the rest of his days in ways both good and bad. Obviously Perkins knew following the reception of Psycho that Norman Bates was a once-in-a-lifetime role (even if he would go on to play the character three more times), but as can happen to many other actors, he was soon typecast. No one could look at the actor and see Anthony Perkins — they saw Norman Bates. And because of that, Perkins would be saddled with roles as the weird guy, the murderer, the sexual deviant — and in films of low caliber that Perkins’ talent far overshadowed. But eight years following Psycho‘s release, he played Dennis Pitt, not quite Norman Bates-lite, but definitely a character with some heavy emotional baggage that puts him in situations where he’s suddenly finding ways to dispose of dead bodies for someone he loves. (Sound familiar?) But unlike the sinister and brooding Norman Bates, Dennis Pitt is lively, charming, even funny; and Perkins — once you’re in on the joke — is an absolute hoot to watch. His dry, overly serious manner of impressing the beautiful Tuesday Weld’s Sue Anne Stepanek, a high school girl and majorette in the marching band, with his diatribes about secrecy and cloak-and-dagger generalizations is effortlessly funny. Even if in a not-so-obvious comedy, Perkins has never been more engaging and amusing in a role where he essentially spoofs the very dry Joe Friday from television’s then-current Dragnet.
But matching his stride is Weld herself, eagerly playing sexy and faux-naiveté for her own style of humor. And she does certainly come across as equally sexy and dangerous in the way director Noel Black intends — her using her body to weigh down one of their poor victims into the river to drown him, with her legs splayed open and her summer dress rolled back, goes a fine distance in bringing that realization to the screen. She’s charming in that girl-next-door way, but she’s also stunning and intoxicating in that forbidden schoolgirl way; her performance suggests that either she’s as entirely gullible as Dennis Pitt hopes she is, or she’s up to her own brand of mental espionage.
It was through sheer coincidence that about a day or two after watching Pretty Poison for the first time that I slipped in True Lies strictly for some leisure watching. Suddenly, the subplot about liar Bill Paxton attempting to woo Jamie Lee Curtis by spinning yarns about being an agent for the CIA and currently entrenched in a top secret mission suddenly felt very familiar. But, being that James Cameron has never met an idea he didn’t want to borrow, I guess it’s comforting to know that perhaps Pretty Poison hasn’t been totally forgotten after all.
THE PICTURE 4/5
For a film this age, the video presentation is actually pretty remarkable. The image is very stable, with no signs of print damage or marring, and no telecine shuddering issues. Colors are strong as well — much of Pretty Poison takes place in the rural outdoors, so there’s a lot of attractive environments and landscapes to get lost in. Clarity is good as well, with textures, like Sue Anna’s somewhat chaotic house with its busy interior, presenting well.
THE SOUND 4/5
The audio presentation matches its video counterpart. Dialogue is strong and prominent — Pretty Poison is a very dialogue-driven film. The unusual march-driven musical score also sounds fine while offering you a somewhat more dynamic musical experience. (March music isn’t very pretty to listen to, but it does help add to Pretty Poison’s dark comedy elements.)
THE SUPPLEMENTS 3.5/5
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Audio Commentary with Executive Producer Lawrence Turman, and Film Historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman
- Audio Commentary with Director Noel Black and Film Historian Robert Fischer
- Deleted Scene Script and Commentary
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Isolated Music & Effects Track
Pretty Poison can easily be referred to as that other excellent film where Anthony Perkins plays someone not quite right in the head, while also being a fairly more obvious attempt at comedy when compared to Psycho (although rumors abound that Hitchcock always thought of his most famous film as a black comedy as well). Further, Pretty Poison proves that Perkins was a talented actor who remained fairly undervalued for the remainder of his post-Psycho career, never fully able to get out from under its shadow. Twilight Time’s presentation, in both PQ/AQ terms as well as supplements, is a fitting tribute to both an underrated film as well as the leading man who carries it. Very highly recommended.
(Thanks to Movieman’s Guide for the screen grabs.)
Twilight Time are a boutique distributor who specialize in limited editions of culturally significant films from the world’s finest filmmakers. Founded by and comprised of “collectors and lifelong movie buffs,” Twilight Time’s catalogue of releases are specifically chosen to represent the films that, though beloved, would likely not be released by their own studios: “If we didn’t put them out, it is likely that they wouldn’t come out. And we are going to try to put them out … [with] the best picture and sound that we can.”