Pretty Poison (film)
Original film poster
|Directed by||Noel Black|
|Produced by||Lawrence Turman
|Written by||Lorenzo Semple Jr.|
|Based on||She Let Him Continue
by Stephen Geller
|Music by||Johnny Mandel|
|Edited by||William H. Ziegler|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
Pretty Poison is a 1968 psychological thriller/black comedy film directed by Noel Black, starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, about an ex-convict and high school cheerleader who commit a series of crimes.
While not generally considered an example of neo-noir, the film does include certain elements of the genre, including a femme fatale, a character trapped into circumstances beyond his control, criminal protagonists and, of course, murder.
There was a 1996 television film remake with the same title and plot.
Dennis Pitt is a disturbed young man on parole from a mental institution who becomes attracted to teenager Sue Ann Stepenek. He tells her that he is a secret agent, and takes her along on a series of "missions" that eventually end in murder. While Dennis is wracked with guilt over both what he has done and what he has allowed to happen, Sue Ann is excited by the "adventure" and entreats Dennis to run away with her to Mexico. First, however, they have to get rid of her disapproving mother.
Dennis knows that the police will take Sue Ann's word over his, so he takes the blame for their crimes. Sue Ann, meanwhile, betrays him without a second thought, sending him to prison for life. Dennis is more than happy to be locked up, as it keeps him away from Sue Ann, of whom he is now quite frightened. While Dennis refuses to tell his skeptical parole officer Azenauer the truth, he asks him to "see what Sue Ann is up to" in hopes she will be exposed for what she really is. The film ends with Sue Ann meeting a young man and lamenting to him that the people who took her in after her mother's death won't let her stay out late; it is implied that she will use and destroy him just as she did Dennis. But Dennis' parole officer is indeed watching as she departs with her latest victim.
The novel was optioned for the movies. Lawrence Turman agreed to act as executive producer for producer Marshall Backlar and director Noel Black, who had just made the short Skaterdater together. Skaterdater had been made for $17,000 and sold to United Artists for $50,000, winning the Palm d'Or for Best Short Film at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, and being nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film.
Turman had just made The Flim Flam Man for 20th Century Fox and obtained finance from the same studio. Lorenzo Semple Jnr was hired to write the screenplay. Turman says Semple turned in a "magnificent script in six weeks."
Black later recalled he cast Perkins after seeing him on stage in The Star-Spangled Girl. "He had enormous charm and intelligence, the very qualities I wanted to come through in the role he would be playing," said the director. "I was looking for the young Tony of Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, not Psycho, although commentators naturally made the comparison between Norman Bates and the character in Pretty Poison.”
Filming was difficult, with problems between Weld and Black. Actor John Randolph recalled that, "Noel knew how to set up shots, but he knew nothing about acting. Tuesday Weld was neurotic as hell. She would break down and cry. She hated the director, and she permitted that hatred to color everything she did."
In 1971 Weld would call the movie her least favourite:
The least creative experience I ever had. Constant hate, turmoil and dissonance. Not a day went by without a fight. Noel Black, the director, would come up to me before a scene and say, 'Think about Coca Cola'. I finally said, 'Look, just give the directions to Tony Perkins and he'll interpret for me.
Black later reflected:
Tuesday and Tony got on professionally, though she probably resented how much more in tune he was with me than she was. He was the quintessential professional. Even though he had made 20 or so movies and this was my first, he listened to everything I had to tell him. What he brought was a personal sense of humanity and dignity, which gave the character a sympathetic quality.
Beverly Garland was cast as Weld's mother. "I loved the part," she said later. "I felt it was one of the best things I'd done... I thought it was a great movie, well directed. Noel Black did a great job. But the studios got very upset with him because it took a long while to shoot. Studio people kept arriving and saying, 'You're taking too long' and they had him under a lot of pressure... Noel had some wonderful ideas and some camera stuff that took time. He went to great pains with that movie and the studio got very upset with him. But I think the movie shows that he took the time."
Fox had difficulty securing a release for the film in New York so instead opened it in Los Angeles in September 1968. The Los Angeles Times reviewer called it "a small, stunning, thoughtful exploration of degrees of madness and of sanity."
However the film flopped. When Fox did secure a New York release, they claimed they had trouble getting critics to attend a screening, and persuading the two stars to promote the movie.
Black later claimed, "their unwarrantable action was partly explained by it being the year  of the double assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and a corrosive tale of insidious madness in which a teenage girl shoots her own mother, seemed, to timid studio chiefs, excessive.”
The film opened in New York on 23 October, to poor reviews from the daily papers. The New York Times claimed that "everything that was spare in the novel somehow becomes overblown" and that while Perkins "is quite good... Tuesday Weld is numbingly dull as the girl."
It received excellent reviews from magazines and Sunday papers - notably Pauline Kael in The New Yorker - but that was not enough to save the film commercially. A return engagement in Los Angeles in December was not successful.
"One of the best films of 1968 remains a pleasant memory for the few of us lucky enough to see it," wrote Rex Reed, who thought it was "an offbeat, original, totally irreverent examination of violence in America, refreshing in its subtlety and intelligent in its delivery."
Lawrence Turman later said "the critics, of all people, rescued Pretty Poison by continually writing about it. It's easy to second guess a studio and it doesn't help. What matters is that the film came off the map from being nothing and nowhere to finding its audience. It's a special film. I'm very proud of it, but like all films it didn't satisfy all my dreams. The direct cost was $1.3 million and I think we'll turn the corner on the television sale."
"I don't care if critics like it; I hated it," said Weld. "I can't like or be objective about films I had a terrible time doing." For Perkins, however, the film further typecasted the actor once again in roles portraying disturbed, unhinged protagonists denying audiences the opportunity to see an actor of tremendous range and ability.
Awards and honors
- Producer Goes From 'Graduate' to 'White Hope': Turman Bucks the Tide in Movie Turman Warga, Wayne. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 09 Nov 1969: p1.
- Daniel E. Slotnik (August 1, 2014). "Noel Black, 77, Dies; Directed Dark Comedy Cult Hit". The New York Times.
- He, She and He---a Wow Triangle Haber, Joyce. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 07 Mar 1968: d19.
- Reader's: Report By MARTIN LEVIN. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 06 Mar 1966: BR26.
- An Outsider in the Great Society Gold, Irwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 15 Mar 1966: c5.
- "Rep Diary: Noel Black on Pretty Poison" By Ronald Bergan Film Comment August 04, 2014 accessed 22 Feb 2015
- Accent On (Troubled) Youth: JUNIOR LEAGUE DEBUT SWITCH By A.H. WEILER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 14 May 1967: D11.
- A PERSONAL REVOLUTION: Anthony Perkins Trying to Mature Boyish Image ANTHONY PERKINS Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 20 Dec 1967: c1.
- Turman 'Continue' Producer Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 17 May 1967: d14.
- Interview with Laurence Turman at Done Deal accessed 23 February 2015
- Psychotic Role for Tuesday Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 16 June 1967: c13.
- 'Continue' Role for Perkins Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 11 Aug 1967: d18.
- Premiere Slated for 'Pretty Poison' Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 19 Aug 1968: f29.
- "Pretty Poison" at Alt Film Guide accessed 23 Feb 2015
- Tuesday's got her dukes up: Watch out, Tuesday's got her dukes up Reed, Rex. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 31 Oct 1971: r7.
- Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls and Makeup Tom Weaver, McFarland, 2006 p 166
- 'Poison' in Premiere at Vogue: 'Pretty Poison' at the Vogue Theater Champlin, Charles. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 20 Sep 1968: c1.
- Remember My Forgotten Movie By REX REED. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 02 Feb 1969: D13.
- Pretty Poison' V.C.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 24 Oct 1968: 55
- Film Students Seek to Learn, Not Emulate: Noel Black Talks to Boston U. Seminar About Directing His 'Pretty Poison' Elicits a Variety of Reactions By ROBERT REINHOLDSpecial to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 13 Feb 1969: 50.
- Citywide Engagement for 'Pretty Poison' Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 12 Dec 1968: f35.
- MOVIES: 1969's ten best movies--from 'Z' to 'B & C & T & A' Siskel, Gene. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 02 Jan 1970: a1
- Critics Name 'Lion in Winter' Best Film by 13-11 By A. H. WEILER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 31 Dec 1968: 20.