Kiss Me Deadly! – Rediscovering ‘Pretty Poison’ (US 1968 – 89 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - March 25, 2014
Kiss Me Deadly! –   Rediscovering ‘Pretty Poison’ (US 1968 – 89 mins)

A terrific late Sixties flick, ‘Pretty Poison’ has been rather neglected over the years. A psychological character study with cult stars Anthony Perkins and (especially) Tuesday Weld, at the top of their game.

Recently released from an asylum, former arsonist Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) meets and impresses pretty cheerleader Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), by pretending to be from the CIA on a secret mission. Pitt’s fantasy investigation gets wildly out of hand when his new ‘partner’ Sue Ann, proves to be far more unstable than he is. Sue Ann longs for excitement and to escape her suffocating home-life with her stern mother. Her desires spiral out of control when her murderous nature surfaces, and in the films most shocking scene, she casually shoots her mum dead on the stairs, seemingly licking her lips with delight as she does so. Sexually excited, her cold act frightens Pitt, who is now happy to take the rap for Sue Ann, especially if it means being safely locked away from her, back in the institution.

Sexy Tuesday Weld plays the title role, and is wonderfully delicious as the baton-twirling thrill-seeker. It’s surprising that Weld did not like the movie and thought she gave the worst performance of her career. I think it’s probably her best, and along with ‘Lord Love a Duck (’66), it’s certainly her most enjoyable to watch. Weld had begun her screen career at just 13 when she starred in the teen musical-drama ‘Rock Rock Rock!’ (’56). Weld’s subsequent career has been filled with some excellent cult titles, including the hard-hitting drama ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’ (’78), the satirical sleeper ‘Serial’ (’80), and Michael Mann’s terrific character study ‘Thief’ (’81). Once again Anthony Perkins brings his boyish charm to the role of Dennis Pitt, and is very good as the pawn in the game of the scheming Sue Ann. Although Perkins is not the most unstable character in the film, just playing another disturbed part didn’t help his career a great deal, and he would never fully escape from this type of role. Perkins and Weld had great on-screen chemistry together, and would re-unite in 1972 for the hard to find drama ‘Play It As It Lays’, about an actress recovering from a breakdown. A bleak but rewarding movie with Weld especially impressive in a rather difficult role.

Director Noel Black made his movie debut here and does a fine job. Black only made a handful of movies (with ‘A Man, a Woman, and a Bank’ (’79) and 1983’s ‘Private School’ being the standouts), before he drifted into TV movies. Thriller regular Lorenzo Semple Jr. wrote the screenplay, based on Stephen Geller’s 1966 novel; ‘She Let Him Continue’. Lorenzo went on to adapt ‘Papillon’ for the screen in 1973, and the superb political thriller ‘The Parallax View’ (’74).

The supporting cast is strong here with Beverley Garland a standout as Weld’s controlling mother. Garland was probably best known for her early cult roles in Roger Corman’s ‘It Conquered the World’ and ‘Swamp Women’ (both ’56), plus a good supporting part in the excellent 1957 Frank Sinatra drama ‘The Joker is Wild’. The ever-reliable John Randolph appears as Perkins’ parole officer, and a young, pre- ‘Dallas’ Ken Kerchevel turns up as one of Sue Ann’s potential victims.

‘Pretty Poison’ is an excellent twisty noir that still packs a wallop. Although Weld and Perkins were too old for their parts, you soon forget this as they are both on great form. But it’s Tuesday Weld’s movie all the way, and her memorable turn makes this Sixties sleeper definitely one to catch.

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