Tuesday Weld is ‘Pretty Poison’ on Criterion Channel

Tuesday Weld is a wild child with a dark side in 'Pretty Poison' with Anthony Perkins

A devious, dark humored psychodrama turned small town thriller, Pretty Poison (1968) begins as a kind of Walter Mitty or Billy Liar.

Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) is a mentally unstable young man released from psychiatric confinement and let loose into society where he plays spy games like a big kid in an adult world. While he’s not entirely harmless (his fantasies already led him to arson as a teenager and a vindictive streak leads to a little industrial sabotage), he’s an innocent compared to his new high school sweetie Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld, all blond bounce and wide-eyed excitability).

Call it Bobby sox noir. He’s an older guy, to be sure, and she’s a beautiful high school majorette seemingly charmed by his secretive life and acronym-dotted small talk. Behind her schoolgirl smile, however, is a cagey, bored girl with a sociopathic streak who finds in Perkins an outlet for her darker fantasies. As he concocts “missions” for her, she works this goofy naïf like a pro, proving to be a far better (and certainly more cold-blooded) secret agent than he is.

“The world is no place for fantasies,” his probation officer warns him, and she’s the biggest fantasy of all. Weld plays the wild child as teenage femme fatale with a feral edge to her bright-eyed grin. Perkins, meanwhile, reveals a fragile sensitivity and vulnerability behind his front of double lives. His emotionally-stunted big kid is all intelligence and no experience, essentially raised in captivity and bored stiff with his factory job now that he’s been let loose. His fantasy life becomes his only outlet and Perkins grounds the dark satire with a quiet heartbreak and disillusionment with how the real world is far crueler than the made-up conspiracies of his Cold War spy games. He accepts the role of patsy with a mix of chivalry and resignation.

Director Noel Black underplays the more caustic edges of Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script even as he foregrounds the poison pouring (quite literally) through this dreary little small town. Black keeps the colors muted, as if the workaday dullness and lack of imagination has drained this place of life.

Beverly Garland plays Sue Ann’s disapproving mother and John Randolph costars.

It won the best screenplay award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Not rated

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Pretty Poison [Blu-ray]
Pretty Poison [DVD]

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The Twilight Time Blu-ray features two commentary tracks—one featuring executive producer Lawrence Turman with film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, the other with director Noel Black and film historian Robert Fischer—and a deleted scene with text commentary, plus an isolated score and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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