Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) is being released from a psychiatric institution today, and he is told by his carer, Mr Azenauer (John Randolph) that he has a job lined up at a plant, and a place to live in a trailer park, but he must contact him each week to ensure that Dennis's fantasist tendencies are still in check. Anzanauer does not believe he will get into the same trouble that saw him admitted to the institution in the first place as a teenager, but he's not entirely sure the young man can be trusted. Yet there are worse people out there than Dennis...
One of the foremost cult movies of the sixties that never really broke through to the mainstream as some of them tended to do many years later, Pretty Poison was the only feature film of note from director Noel Black, who after this made some minor waves tried his hand at a couple of trendy properties which flopped badly, then spent much of the rest of his career in television (although he did make late night TV favourite Private School in the eighties). Perhaps for that reason you had to look to other reasons why this caught on with the minority who would champion it as Tuesday Weld's greatest performance.
That accolade might not mean much to most filmgoers, as Weld never left her teen queen image behind (she was in her twenties and a mother when she made this), but her fans recognised there was true talent on display here, and although she believed she was terrible in the role of Sue Ann Stepanek, that just went to show you an artist is not always the best judge of their work. For Weld's portrayal of seventeen-year-old majorette Sue Ann was one of the screen's great villainesses, echoing favourably with the similar Peggy Cummins in another cult classic, Gun Crazy, from the decade before this was made.
As with that film, although you expect the male half of the couple to be the most dangerous, it's actually the woman pulling the trigger, as Dennis is captivated by the girl's beauty and allows his fantasy life to take over his real life. He thinks he's in control when he spins a yarn to her about being a C.I.A. agent pursuing a mission in the area, but what he might as well have done is approach her with the word "Sucker" written on his forehead as while she is excited by his lines, she's actually reeling him in to her own web of lies. Like many teenage girls, she wants her independence, and Dennis is her ticket away from this smalltown and more importantly, away from her mother (Beverly Garland).
It should be noted Garland is as pitch perfect as the leads, putting across all the qualities that Sue Ann would despise as she orders her daughter around; it's the girl's petulance in the face of her parent that appears to have sent her round the bend. Was Sue Ann born bad, or has she learned her beauty easily manipulates those around her with the exception of her mother, who sees through her methods? The script, an excellent adaptation from Stephen Geller's novel by Lorenzo Semple Jr (who had a truly chequered career in his writing choices), leaves much of the psychology up to the viewer to decipher, but with Dennis's hopeless dysfunction he was yet another of Perkins' sad fall guys, a role he was so good at that he found it difficult to shake off. So if the two leads were iconic in their roles, why is Pretty Poison not elevated to true classic status? Probably because it suggests something about wholesomeness and resourcefulness that says there's something far more corrupt to it than meets the admiring eye, a hugely cynical film which even as a comedy isn't that hilarious. Music by Johnny Mandel.