Monday, July 6, 2015

Short Take: Pretty Poison

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Critics’ favorite, cult film, sleeper--these are all terms that apply to Pretty Poison (1968). This quirky film is an intelligently made psychological thriller. Anthony Perkins stars as a young man who was institutionalized in his teens, and is now getting a fresh start in a small New England town. He enjoys fantasies of himself as a spy, and in order to impress a pretty high-school student (Tuesday Weld), he begins acting the part. But the playing out of his fantasies gets increasingly out of hand. The girl’s fun-loving air proves the mask of a psychopath. Industrial sabotage leads to murder, and the young man gets pulled further into the girl’s vicious conniving. The film, quietly and very effectively, pulls off a remarkable dramatic reversal. One starts with concern over the girl getting involved with this rather creepy misfit. However, one ends in complete sympathy with the fellow, and wholly caught up in the horror of watching their relationship upend his life. Director Noel Black, working from an excellent script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., keeps the pacing loose. The scenes are thoughtfully staged, and the fine use of the western Massachusetts locations helps the story breathe. Black emphasizes character drama over sensationalism every step of the way. The two stars are superb. Perkins is a little hard to take at first. He plays his character's oddball antics with an arch smugness, and it’s off-putting. But he also keeps the viewer aware of the fellow’s insecurities and fundamental decency. His carefully developed performance is a balancing act that’s key to the story’s overall power. Tuesday Weld dazzles. No performer can make giddy thrill-seeking seem more delightful, and as the film goes on, she turns that reaction inside out. The girl’s high-spirited, game-for-anything manner is at first charming, then startling, and ultimately terrifying. The film also stars Beverly Garland as the girl’s brusque mother, and John Randolph as the Perkins character’s probation officer. David Quaid provided the cinematography. The screenplay is based on the novel She Let Him Continue, by Stephen Geller.

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