Released on the last day of 1967, “Pretty Poison” was too smart and far too ironic for the Hollywood of the time to handle. The directorial debut of Noel Black, working off a well-crafted script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. from the novel “She Let Him Continue” by Stephen Geller, “Pretty Poison” appeared in the wake of the success of “Bonnie & Clyde.” It also marked the return to American feature films after eight years by Anthony Perkins, who had gone to Europe following his starring role as Norman Bates. So naturally, the new movie was marketed as a hybrid — “Bonnie & Psycho” – which got it completely wrong.
There were some similarities. Like the Warren Beatty film, “Pretty Poison” claimed a definite film noir pedigree. The obvious antecedents of a young man and his pretty girl going on a crime spree were Nicholas Ray’s “They Live by Night,” which starred tall, dark and handsome Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell (remade by Robert Altman in 1974 as “Thieves Like Us” with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall); and 1950’s “Gun Crazy” by Joseph H. Lewis, with John Dall and Peggy Cummins. Godard’s 1961 “Breathless” with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg certainly fit the bill. And the tradition continued in 1973 with Terrence Malick’s interpretation of the Charlie Starkweather murder rampage, “Badlands,” starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as another pair of young lovers leaving a trail of bodies behind them in Middle America.
But “Bonnie & Clyde” had been too recent and made too big a commercial and critical splash. And the fact that “Pretty Poison” co-star Tuesday Weld had been offered the role of Bonnie Parker by Beatty and Arthur Penn and turned it down – she was a new mother and didn’t want to travel to Texas – made the comparisons easy. “Bonnie & Clyde’s” huge presence put the new one in its shade: even the advertising campaign picture, with Weld gleefully firing a revolver, her pert pink tongue clearly visible, promised more sex and violence.
And it delivered, although not in the way audiences had been primed to expect.
Noel Black was a product of the UCLA film school (like Francis Ford Coppola) and came of age during the height of the influence of the French New Wave in America. But as Pauline Kael noted, he eschewed the more energetic and commercial visual techniques of those of his contemporaries who had started in advertising, opting instead for a more “straightforward, transparently honest and unpretentious style.”
That is apparent when one takes a look at the 18-minute short that brought Black to the attention of Hollywood. “Skaterdater,” which is readily available on YouTube, is a film with no dialogue about a group of seven sidewalk skateboarders in Southern California. While the surf-pop music of Mike Curb plays, the film shows the seven middle school-aged boys speeding around residential streets and shopping centers all together on their little wheeled boards – that is, until a budding erotic interest breaks up “that old gang of mine.” “Skaterdater” won the Palme d’Or at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award.
On that basis Black was hired to direct “Pretty Poison,” which he shot entirely on location in Massachusetts. The screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., must have considered himself fortunate to have his script in the hands of a director more interested in exploring the nuances of character and motivation than those with whom Semple had worked on television (“Batman,” “Burke’s Law,” “The Green Hornet”) and a previous feature film (“Fathom,” starring Raquel Welch). And although Hollywood never seemed to know what to do with Tony Perkins, Semple and Noel Black had a pretty good idea.
From the first scene in a small, nondescript room, a cold opening prior to the credits, Semple and Black announce that their movie would turn some conventions on their heads and be about something other than gunplay and car chases. Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), a psychiatric caseworker, is conducting an exit interview with parolee Dennis Pitt (Perkins, looking not a day older than when he was the proprietor of the Bates Motel). Everything is proceeding nicely – until that is, Dennis says that he’s been studying to be included on the first space probe to Venus. “Stop that!” Azenauer barks, and we learn that, although he protests that he was just joking, Dennis has a problem with fantasizing. Azenauer sternly, tells Dennis that he’s going out into the real world now, and “It’s got no place at all for fantasies.”
Cut to a green field, where a band of high school majorettes is marching to loud fife and drum music on the soundtrack while the credits roll. Soon, amidst all the fresh faces and flashing bare legs, the camera finds blonde Tuesday Weld, holding a flag, stepping smartly and looking straight ahead. The camera isn’t the only thing watching her: perched on a fence with a wide smile on his face is Dennis, obviously smitten.
Five minutes in and “Pretty Poison” has given us our three principals and set the stage for the action. All that awaits is the discovery process.
Discovery is what separates “Pretty Poison” from those other “boy-girl-gun” movies and what helps it to hold up so well. “Keechie” and “Bowie” in “They Live by Night” are two nice kids who fall in with the wrong crowd. They want to be nice, regular people. They even dream about it – they just can’t make it work. In “Gun Crazy,” Bart falls for Annie, who warns him that she is “bad, but wants to be good.” Instead, she leads Bart first into a life of stick-up robberies and, eventually, murder. Kit Carruthers in “Badlands” is bad to the bone, a stone-cold killer with no remorse with whom Holly tags along, more like a faithful dog than an actual human being. Nobody learns anything. Nobody changes.
Dennis Pitt, literally sitting on the fence, is “on the lam.” Without his caseworker’s knowledge, he left the job that had been arranged for him a year before and has taken employment at the Sausenfeld Chemical Corporation in western Massachusetts. He seems OK, but there are disturbing signs. Dennis lives in a trailer. He monitors Russian language broadcasts on his shortwave radio. He has a miniature camera that he uses to take pictures secretly of the Sausenfeld plant’s exterior. He’s mailing those pictures to someone, anonymously. It’s clear he thinks that something strange, probably illegal, is going on, but it’s also implied that his fantasy life, now edging into paranoia, is reasserting itself.
Not long afterward Dennis is chatting with a short-order cook at a roadside stand across from Sausenfeld. They are discussing a newspaper report of a case of “lascivious carriage” at the local make-out spot. The cook is put off by the age of the man in the story. The older fellow must have taken advantage of the girl, the cook says. Dennis disagrees, pointing at the photo in the paper: “Study the girlfriend,” he says. “She looks too innocent. Might be a case of entrapment.” Then Sue-Ann Stepanek (Weld) pulls up in her blue two-seater convertible. She needs someone to make change.
Dennis is comically awkward at first, bumping his head and fumbling for coins. But when Sue-Ann gets what she needs from the cook and goes to a payphone booth to make a call, Dennis pretends that he is some kind of operative. He hands her a small bottle of Sausenfeld product, cryptically tells Sue-Ann she must meet him at the local movie theater that evening and then jogs away with no further explanation. Sue-Ann stares at his retreating form with wonder.
That begins their relationship. At the start, Dennis is fully in command, sure of himself and dominant. He plays hard-to-get, talks in obscure code-like language, and intimates that very important things are happening in their little town. He’s cool and mysterious. Sue-Ann is captivated. An A-student planning for college, she lives with her mother. She never knew her dad, who was killed in Korea. Afflicted by boredom and restricted by her mother’s rules – “We’re two of a kind,” Mrs. Stepanek (character actress Beverly Garland, in her personal favorite movie role) confesses to Dennis about her daughter later – Sue-Ann is primed for action. When Dennis tells her that the chemical spill-off from the Sausenfeld plant into the local waterway is a dire threat to all humanity and must be stopped, the restless young beauty eagerly volunteers to serve.
There are difficulties, however. Dennis discovers that Azenauer has tracked him down. He worries that having failed to comply with the conditions of his probation, he may be returned to his former institution. Working on the production line at the plant, his mind suffers snap flashbacks (one of the few Nouvelle Vague devices that Black uses): we see a house engulfed in flames — the incident that put Dennis away when he was 15 — as well as the majorettes on parade. Inside and out, the pressure is building.
Sue-Ann has a more prosaic obstacle: Mom. Or rather, mom’s boyfriend, whom Sue-Ann despises. She wants Dennis to use his special operative “techniques” to eliminate the boyfriend somehow. At first, Dennis demurs, but once he and Sue-Ann become intimate, he agrees to help.
“Bonnie & Clyde” had glamorized both its violence and sex, as befitted a motion picture filmed in the late 1960s. “Pretty Poison” was not nearly as violent, but it had strong, conflicting currents of sex running through its tale of homicidal youth.
There’s Dennis’s disturbing history. That burning house he sees in those snap flashbacks was his aunt’s home. When he was 15 his aunt had discovered him “playing doctor with his niece, Ursula.” She punished him. In revenge, Dennis set fire to what he thought was an empty house, not knowing that his aunt had returned from a trip and was inside. She burned to death. Illicit desire had led to violence, death and punishment.
Sex and violence are a matched pair for Sue-Ann. She is boldly straightforward about both. She moves aggressively on Dennis early on. When she and Dennis go on the nighttime mission of sabotage at the Sausenfeld Chemical Company, a night watchman confronts Dennis. But the old man never sees Sue-Ann, who smashes in his skull with a wrench. The two lovers embrace immediately afterward (Sue-Ann: “You’re sweating.” Dennis: “You’re not.”) and realize that the night watchman is still alive. Without hesitating Sue-Ann rolls him into the shallows of the river and then sits straddle-legged on top of him until he drowns.
The killing of the watchman unnerves Dennis. His fantasy has become a gruesome reality. Now shedding his old habits of mind, the former cocksure secret agent becomes a weepy mass of facial tics and stutters. Gradually dropping all pretense, he confesses his old arson to Sue-Ann, who is undisturbed. Like an experienced operative, she is only concerned with planning their getaway, once she learns that the police have found the watchman’s body.
In fact, her fantasy enlarges. “We could be a husband and wife team, sent all over the world on special missions,” she tells a stunned Dennis. Or they could run away together to “the Bay of Mexico” the non-existent locale that Semple serves up as farce and as a homage to the futile escape plans of the criminal pairs in both “They Live by Night” and “Gun Crazy.” Listening to Sue-Ann the moviegoer, like Dennis, senses a bigger crime, some unspeakable outrage, is imminent.
Although 1968 seemed a good year for a movie about the seduction of madness, “Pretty Poison” was a box-office flop. It didn’t propel Noel Black to eminence, it did nothing for Anthony Perkins’s career and it reinforced Tuesday Weld’s bad cinematic luck. Lost in the backwash of the Beatty-Dunaway classic, Black and Semple’s ironic little gem about deceptive appearances and self-discovery disappeared almost without a trace.
“You only learn what you discover for yourself,” Dennis says late in the film to Azenauer, and the last scene of this brilliant little movie shows that the veteran caseworker, who had once believed that there was no room in the world for fantasies, has also woken up to reality.