Pretty Poison (1968)


(director: Noel Black; screenwriters: Lorenzo Semple Jr./from the novel She Let Him Continue by Stephen Geller; cinematographer: David Quaid; editor: William Ziegler; music: Johnny Mandel; cast: Anthony Perkins (Dennis Pitt), Tuesday Weld (Sue Ann Stepanek), Beverly Garland (Mrs. Stepanek), John Randolph (Morton Azenauer), Dick O’Neill (Bud Munsch), Clarice Blackburn (Mrs. Bronson), Joseph Bova (Pete) Don Fellows (Detective); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Marshal Backlar/Noel Black; Fox Home Entertainment; 1968)

“Over the years has developed a strong cult following.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Convicted arsonist with mental problems Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) gets released from a mental hospital prison after serving a long sentence for burning down his aunt’s house with her in it when he was a teen. His parole officer (John Randolph) warns him about his fantasies not being well-received in the outside world and even though he’s not fully cured, he’s released on parole and is given a job in a chemical plant in the small town of Winslow, Massachusetts. Noel Black (“Prime Suspect”/”A Man, a Woman, and a Bank”), in his directorial debut, pleasingly directs this perverse black comedy-melodrama with tongue-in-cheek wit and social awareness that over the years has developed a strong cult following even though it bombed commercially with the mainstream crowd on its theater release. It’s based on the novel She Let Him Continue by Stephen Geller and is ably written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (script consultant on the Batman television series).

Dennis is a friendly dreamer and nerd, who seems harmless despite killing his aunt. He’s bored with his factory job and envisions himself as a government secret agent catching Commies. The playacting Dennis hooks up with teenage pretty blonde high school drum-majorette Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), the all-American type, who goes along with his wild tales about being secretly a CIA operative. The two become romantically linked, as we become horrified that this psycho is taking advantage of this under-aged innocent girl. The twist is that Sue Ann is more dangerous than the nutty Dennis and manipulates him in a scheme to murder her nagging widowed mother (Beverly Garland), and when he can’t go through with shooting her Sue Ann gleefully does and lets him take the blame for the murder.

That it works so well is because Perkins, as expected, makes for a good psycho character and Weld is surprisingly amazing in her sang-froid pathological killer role where she appears apple-pie normal but is more poisonous than Perkins (thus the film’s title). In fact Perkins, as loony as he is, is the moral compass and is less scary than the perceived normal sweetie-pie honor roll girl. The mainstream audience evidently never got the subtle message sent and rejected an intelligent psychological crime thriller, one that’s been much copied and still plays well today.