Tony Perkins and the Psycho

02/01/2012 4:00 AM |

Pretty Poison (1968)
Directed by Noel Black

One of the greatest actresses and beauties of her generation, Tuesday Weld had an emotionally raw yet subtle quality on camera and a brash, sometimes crude way of expressing contempt for Hollywood—and for social mores in general—in real life that made more than one admirer compare her to Marlon Brando. But there doesn’t seem to have been room in the pantheon for an actress who was so openly defiant and independent-minded, especially during the gender-inflexible Eisenhower and Kennedy years when she got her start. So, while postwar Hollywood made Brando the poster boy for naturalistic method acting at its brilliant best, Weld became a cult figure, celebrated by those of us who love her for the feral intelligence and world-weary skepticism that make her characters so compelling even when the movies she’s in are… well, let’s just say not so compelling.

But when the film she stars in is as fierce or unconventional as the actress, you’re in for a real treat. That’s the case with Pretty Poison, a black comedy with then 23-year-old Weld in the title role as teen heartthrob Sue Ann Stepanek.

A big-eyed, lush-lipped blond drum majorette, Sue Ann just happens to be a psychopath, too, but it takes our hero Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) a while to catch on to that part. Tanner and more buff but than usual but more vulnerable too, Perkins plays a harmless, fantasy-prone manchild just out of a mental institution (he committed arson when he was about Sue Ann’s age) who’s now in his late 20s or early 30s.

In one of the movie’s nicely underplayed running jokes, Dennis keeps getting mistaken for a predator after taking up with Sue Ann, who is nearly always treated like the all-American princess she’s so good at playing. (“Here’s your Pepsi, sweetheart,” coos a cop to Sue Ann after the second of two murders she pulls Dennis into.) Weld keeps flashing shards of the disgust, annoyance, and peevish frustration that motivate Sue Ann, but the expressions that momentarily darken her creamy face slide right past the other characters in the film, beaming straight at us viewers.

Set in the picturesque little town of Winslow, Massachusetts, Pretty Poison is forever setting up our expectations and then knocking them down, starting with the straight-man setup of the fatherly advice Dennis gets from his earnest parole officer in the opening scene. (“These fantasies of yours can be dangerous,” says the PO. “Now lay offa this! You’re going out into a very real and very tough world. It’s got no place for fantasies.”) That leads straight to comic suspense of the spider-fly game between Dennis and Sue Ann, in which the roles are soon flipped and the ante keeps getting higher. And punctuating it all is the genuine shock of the murders, each of which retains a satiric edge but packs an emotional punch.

There’s nothing particularly stylish about the direction, but Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s sly script (which was based on a novel by Stephen Geller) is a perfect fit for the actors. Perkins’ stork-like awkwardness and nerve-shot energy, Weld’s flashes of imperious disdain, and both actors’ powerful charisma find a cozy home in this improbably upbeat tragicomedy.

Opens February 3 at Film Forum