Pretty Poison (1968)


*. Poor Tony Perkins. Once a psycho, always a psycho. At least until a bigger psycho comes along.
*. He knew he was going to be typecast forever after Psycho. He even plays these characters, like Dennis Pitt here or Norman Bates again in Psycho II, where he’s trying to reform himself after being released from the loony bin, but to no avail. The crazy shit just keeps dragging him back in.
*. And what an odd body he has. Shoulders like the deck of an aircraft carrier, narrow waist, flat ass, and when we see him without his shirt on he’s sporting a pair of well-developed man boobs. These parts don’t even come close to adding up.
*. But we’re on Dennis Pitt’s side. He seems odd, but harmless. Still, we’re concerned throughout the first part of this film. What did he do to get stuck in a reformatory? Why does he hang out watching high school girls in the park? Sue Ann needs to be careful. Norman Bates seemed innocent too.
*. I keep talking about Psycho, but I think it’s a film that’s being used here. Audiences would have been suspicious of Anthony Perkins because of Norman Bates. That he isn’t Norman Bates is made abundantly clear when he can’t dispose of the body in the trunk of the car. It’s a psycho-fail. That was Norman’s specialty.


*. Noel Black. I saw the name come up and immediately wondered “Who the hell is Noel Black?” After doing some research I found he had a shining debut at Cannes with the short film Skaterdater, then did this movie, after which he went on to a long career in television. I’ve actually seen Skaterdater. It was something of a rite of passage for schoolkids of my generation, being a sweetly innocent-romantic coming-of-age tale. I had no idea the same guy directed this movie, but when you think about it . . .
*. Apparently Weld didn’t like Black at all and considered this one of her worst performances. In fact, it may be her best. It’s interesting how that sometimes happens. Vincent Price didn’t like working with Michael Reeves on Witchfinder General either (a film that came out the same year as Pretty Poison), but at least he could recognize after the fact that it was one of the best things he ever did.
*. I don’t think Pretty Poison is a complicated movie. In Pauline Kael’s judgment it is “a good little movie, and I use ‘little’ not in a pejorative sense but as a form of protection and also a term of affection.” This seems about right to me.
*. In could also be considered a parable. The setting is an idyllic America. Sue Ann even lives on Fresh Air Lane. I’m reminded of Blue Velvet‘s Lumberton, another mill town that seems too pure to be true, and is.
*. The leitmotifs and symbolism are all pretty obvious. There’s the pollution the chemical company is dumping in the river. There’s the rhyming of the marching girls in their red uniforms with the line of red bottles on the production line. There’s all Dennis’s talk of being under pressure and feeling ripe and ready to burst, and the pressure explosions that go off at the diner and the factory. You notice this because you’re meant to notice it, and it makes you nod your head.
*. The story isn’t complicated either. It’s basically a noir set-up, with Sue Ann as the femme fatale. As I’ve had occasion to observe before (see my notes on Where Danger Lives), it’s always a bad sign in noir when a woman is doing the driving and the man is riding shotgun. It invariably means she’s taking him somewhere he doesn’t want to go, but he’s too weak or stupid to stop her.
*. I’m putting Sue Ann’s genealogy into play because she’s such an intense character it’s easy to think of her as something new. She isn’t. Danny Peary even makes a terrific observation about how she’s really the little girl from The Bad Seed all grown up.
*. As I’ve said, Pretty Poison isn’t a complicated film. Sue Ann is a sexual animal. The illicit makes her horny. When she kills the watchman she does so by hiking up her skirts and riding him in an obviously sexual manner. And the way she licks her lips when she kills her mother is hard to mistake. But if there is one abiding point of debate about this movie it’s with regard to just how Machiavellian she is.


*. As Peary puts it: “Sue Ann is a strange character. It isn’t exactly clear when she stops believing that she is helping Dennis with CIA activities or if she believes his story in the first place.” This is the question.
*. Peter Rainer tries to have it both ways: “Particularly on a second viewing of the film, it’s clear that Sue Ann is on to Dennis very early. He’s the patsy she has been looking for to eliminate her harpy mother (Beverly Garland). Sue Ann is like Barbara Stanwyck’s black widow from Double Indemnity (1944) transplanted into the environs of Norman Rockwell. But she is not as overly calculating as the standard noir vamp, and this is, finally, the most disturbing thing about her. She’s a sun-kissed psychotic with a killer instinct so primordial it’s practically unconscious with her. Her murders are like dream walks.”
*. I don’t buy all of this. I agree that it’s clear Sue Ann has Dennis figured as a mark right from the beginning. Dennis is obviously “a jerk, a loser with a capital ‘L'” (Peary), and as he learns (or perhaps it is only facing up to what he has always known), she is far more worldly and experienced than he is. So I don’t think there’s anything unconscious about Sue Ann’s machinations. She is, however, something pure and natural, the type of American girl that gave Freud nightmares: dominant, sexually precocious and threatening.
*. In fact, I think she’s the kind of American woman that frightens American men. She’s jailbait, and more. It’s a nightmare that hasn’t lessened in fifty years. The finale in the police station, with the media and the police fawning over the victimized Sue Ann (“Here’s your Pepsi, sweetheart”) must have been in the mind of David Fincher when he filmed the end of Gone Girl. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Gus Van Sant had it in mind while working on To Die For too.
*. The movie was a one-off and dead end. Noel Black pretty much disappeared. Perkins and Weld never did anything else as good, and they were both young (she was 25 and he was 36). Dying at the box office will do that to you.
*. And why did it die? Well, the studio was partly to blame. But more than that, by making Sue Ann the All-American sweetheart the movie becomes a very powerful rejection of American values. Sue Ann doesn’t represent the dark underbelly of American life, some id-like force in need of control, but rather a rottenness on the surface. A desire for the beautiful things in life doesn’t lead us to do evil; the beautiful things themselves are evil, and they will win in the end. Thinking otherwise is Dennis’s undoing. He is, as Sue Ann explains at the end, the real psychopath.


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