Tuesday 24 August 2021

Movie Review: Pretty Poison (1968)

A psychological crime drama, Pretty Poison is a maliciously twisted tale of small-town manipulation and murder.

An awkward young man with a delusional mind, Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) is released from a mental institution after years of treatment. He was incarcerated for burning down his aunt's house, but now his parole officer Morton Azenauer (John Randolph) believes Dennis is sufficiently rehabilitated and able to reintegrate into society.

After drifting for a year and not reporting to Azenauer, Dennis finds work at a riverfront chemical factory in a small town. Vibrant high school majorette Sue Ann Stepenek (Tuesday Weld) catches his eye, and he seduces her by claiming to be an undercover CIA agent investigating a foreign conspiracy to poison the community by dumping pollution into the river. As their relationship becomes more serious, Dennis meets Sue Ann's domineering mother (Beverly Garland), who sees right through him.

But Sue Ann appears impressed and excited to be involved in espionage, and agrees to help Dennis sabotage the factory. But then a murder is committed, and the fun and games turn deadly serious.

A deceptively low-key story of damaged minds plotting mayhem, Pretty Poison explores the different faces of evil. The script by Lorenzo Semple Jr., adapting a Stephen Geller book, reveals its secrets slowly but surely, allowing malevolent intentions to seep into the community much like the pollution being released into the river. 

In an efficient 89 minutes, director Noel Black creates a sense of creeping unease. Dennis is clearly unwell, his attempts at reintegrating into society hanging by a thread. His current imagination and past record threaten his employment, and his wild CIA agent story is surely no basis for a long-lasting romance. It's only a matter of time before his life falls apart.

But like his malfunctioning brain, all is not what it seems. Just when Dennis appears to be winning Sue Ann's unconstrained affection and acting out his juvenile spy adventure, Pretty Poison embraces a stunning twist and true immorality emerges out of quaint charm. Fantasies and small lies evolve into criminal acts then violence, as acts of deceit first overlap then collide. The line separating victim and antagonist is suddenly blurred, and sexuality emerges as both a weapon of exploitation and a close companion to the thrill of criminality.

Anthony Perkins successfully transposes his Psycho-created troubled young man persona into a less secluded and more social milieu. Tuesday Weld matches him with a camouflaged and revelatory performance, creating in Sue Ann a memorable and multi-layered screen presence. 

Pretty Poison first laments the perceptible struggles of a broken mind, then gloriously surrenders to more insidious threats hiding within a community's heart.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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