Pretty Poison (Blu-ray Review)12 Dec, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, Beverly Garland, John Randolph.
After spending a year following 20th Century-Fox execs around in 1967, writer John Gregory Dunne saw his instant classic The Studio published in 1969, when it became the book-form movie journalism (as opposed to review collections) to read during that era. Looking back, the lineup of Fox releases whose productions Dunne chronicled wasn’t without ambition, at least when compared to what January-to-October brings us nowadays in a Marvel universe. But boneheaded executive decisions were definitely made, and it was in this general time span that Fox dumped 1968’s Pretty Poison into a 42nd Street NYC first-run theater for its premiere engagement — back when 42nd Street grindhouses were pretty much as portrayed in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. That is, take a couple grenades with you when you go to the men’s room and prepare for an overall circus atmosphere (I remember a double bill of Rio Bravo and Don Siegel’s Madigan at one such venue in ’70 or ’71 where a vendor walked down the aisle hawking Eskimo Pies).
A still-twisted tale cast to the hilt thanks to leads Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, Poison’s potential captured the imagination of critics Pauline Kael and Joe Morgenstern (he then with Newsweek long before becoming the eventual Wall Street Journal Pulitzer Prize winner). The two journeyed off to catch it — this makes me think that Fox didn’t even bother to give the picture the kind of routine press screening that would have been routine for the latest Raquel Welch potboiler — and loved what they saw. Their follow-up rave reviews became a wakeup call, and Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s screenplay (adapted from a Stephen Geller novel) later ending up taking the year’s New York Film Critics’ Award. Cult-dom was assured, and when the great critic Danny Peary wrote his provocative Alternate Oscars book, he named Weld best actress of ’68, though this is also one of the two greatest performances of Perkins’ career. (If the film historian in you can’t name the other one, here are condolences).
It would be initially easy to categorize the Perkins character as just one more psycho — but actually, the poor guy he plays is a fidgety decent sort prone to flights of fantasy who, at 15, burned down a house with his abusive aunt inside it (a side issue he swears he didn’t intend). Now released from a facility under the occasional watchful eye of an overworked case officer (John Randolph, back from the Hollywood Blacklist), Perkins finds employment at a Massachusetts chemical plant that (in a side issue that gives the movie a lot of extra sting today) is polluting the river outside. Soon thereafter, at an adjacent outdoor eatery, he meets Weld’s majorette of his dreams: blonde, hot, flirty … and very disturbed, though it takes a while for him (and us) to process this. She’s either dizzy or as smart as the fox she certainly is physically. In any event, she humors his outlandish pickup line about being a covert CIA operative.
Advanced for her years (this was Weld at 24, playing a teen), this vixen is still in high school, and it’s one of a wicked script’s great amusements that when Perkins takes her under his wing as an unofficial Agency assistant, she’s occasionally compromised by school and honor concerns and a exceedingly nasty single mother who likes to ground her in a bedroom with an obligatory pink telephone and bedside stuffed animal. Mom is played by Beverly Garland of TV’s “My Three Sons” and cutout bin ‘B’-movies (think early Roger Corman) — and though small, this was the role of Garland’s career, and it’s totally nailed. Curiously, for all their mutual disdain, someone has bankrolled the super-cool powder blue convertible in which Weld buzzes around town — while their house could use some deck work, and Garland hangs their laundry out back to dry. Naturally, the convertible doesn’t make Weld look less sexy.
The toxic Perkins-Weld relationship escalates in ways this poor guy could never have anticipated. No one wants spoilers for a skillfully shot movie that gets a nifty Twilight Time assist here, but suffice it to say that Poison looks to have been an influence on Terrence Malick’s Badlands and the David Lynch oeuvre (one detective even wears a hearing aid). Director Noel Black came to the project after earning huge acclaim and an Oscar nomination for the short subject Skaterdater. Oddly, he was never able to capitalize on his success (though for a long while, he worked regularly in TV); in one of this Blu-ray’s two bonus commentaries, film historian Lem Dobbs (sharing voiceovers with Poison producer Lawrence Turman and Twilight Time’s Nick Redman), categorizes Black’s quick theatrical follow-ups — Color Me Babe and Jennifer on My Mind — as two of the worst movies ever made. I haven’t seen either, but if I recall correctly, Babe may not have lasted even a week in its New York engagement. And while Turman occasionally expresses indication of displeasure with Black on certain issues (while ultimately praising what the director indisputably got out of an exceptional script), Black does seem competently on point on an alternate commentary here carried over from the aged DVD release.
A belated critical success that Fox quickly moved out of 42nd Street and into the much more refined 8th Street Playhouse (which I believe is the same theater that ran a Weld retrospective in the summer of ’70 when I was living in Greenwich Village), Poison still never got the box office it deserved. When it got to my Central Ohio home base in 1968, it still couldn’t get a downtown booking, and my fellow movie enthusiasts had to settle for a premier engagement at what was primarily a second-run theater. Which, on the hit-and-miss times this neighborhood house did get a first-run, was usually something from American International or (earlier in time) the Joey Dee-Gary Crosby-Charles Nelson Reilly Two Tickets to Paris, at which Joey made a personal appearance in front of enough patrons to fill maybe two rows. At this point, especially, Poison deserved better — yet thanks in great part to Perkins and Weld, Poison scored two tickets to posterity.