“Pretty Poison,” starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, was hardly the greatest Hollywood movie of 1968. As a film about delusional young folk run murderously wild, and the subject of critics’ debates, it was, however, one of that turbulent year’s quintessential stories.
Polarization was even reflected in a battle royal among movie reviewers: Four members of the New York Film Critics Circle threatened to resign after the period piece “The Lion in Winter,” a stodgy slice of Oscar bait, edged out John Cassavetes’s raw, ultracontempo- rary “Faces” for best movie.
The vote rubbed feelings raw. The New York Times reporter present at the Critics Circle conclave described the mood as “heated.” In another con- tentious decision, “The Lion in Winter” lost the screenwriting award to “Pretty Poison,” directed by the 31-year-old Noel Black from a script by Lorenzo Semple Jr., in a sixth ballot vote that — contro- versy within controversy — was notable for its six abstentions.
An unheralded sleeper that was re- edited, shelved and dumped by its stu- dio and then panned in the daily press, “Pretty Poison” was resurrected by its distributor after it was championed by other critics, notably Pauline Kael. It proved to be the most critically divisive movie of 1968 and for some the kickiest. The New York Daily News dismissed it as “a grisly melodrama,” while, jumping on the movie’s bandwagon, Time maga- zine’s critic saw “a sly, jaundiced look at swinging youth and the pervasive American climate of violence.”
In his first Hollywood movie since creating the role of Norman Bates in “Psycho” (1960), Mr. Perkins plays a teenage arsonist, Dennis Pitt, newly paroled after years of institutionaliza- tion and given a job in a chemical factory in a bucolic Massachusetts town. There he meets and seeks to impress Sue Ann Stepanek (Ms. Weld), a local high school student who seemingly falls in line with
his fantasy of being a secret agent for the C.I.A. Sue Ann, who as a drum ma- jorette is herself a figure of fantasy, also nurses a major beef against her disap- proving mother (the veteran B-movie performer Beverly Garland).
Covert antics become sinister once Dennis loses his job and decides to sabo-tage the factory that he believes is pol-luting the local river with colorful toxins.That’s one meaning of the movie’s title.The other refers to sprightly Sue Ann,who, despite her infectious giggle, turnsout to be far more pathological than hersuitor. Before the movie ends, Sue Ann’sturquoise Sunbeam roadster will seemas menacing as the Creature from theBlack Lagoon.
An underrated actress who began hercareer as a child model, Ms. Weld wasparticularly praised for her perform-ance — paradoxical considering herknown dislike for the movie, itself strik-ing in view of her animus toward her real-life mother. (“I hate Mama!” shetold a Times interviewer while flashingher “radiant childwoman smile.”) Ms.Weld’s distaste notwithstanding, thestars are the movie — including Ms.Garland, who steals each of her threebig scenes, blithely undercutting SueAnn in two and dying in the third.
“Pretty Poison” also became an issuein the longstanding feud between NewYork’s two most influential movie crit-ics, Kael and Andrew Sarris. Newly in-stalled at The New Yorker on thestrength of her impassioned defense of“Bonnie and Clyde,” Kael fought to have“Pretty Poison” rereleased and, accord-ing to Brian Kellow’s biography, masterminded the movie’s New York Critics Circle award. Sarris began his Village Voice review with a dig: “A covey of high-flying, high-sounding critics have managed to save ‘Pretty Poison’ from a fate worse than death in the fleshpots of 42nd street, ” Nothing that the movie had reopened at the Eighth Street Playhouse, a showcase European art films, he joked that “unfortunately, ‘Pretty Poison’ turns out to be too pre-tentious for 42nd Street but not preten-tious enough for Eighth Street.”
Sarris viewed “Pretty Poison” as an inflated B-movie, tricked out with “new wave” shock cuts and imitation Alain Resnais flashbacks. Indeed, Mr. Black’s movie benefited from the au courant no- tion that B-movies could be a form of Pop Art. Reviewers naturally bracketed “Pretty Poison” with “Bonnie and Clyde” — not least because Ms. Weld, who declined the role of Bonnie to spend time with her newborn, here showed what she might have brought to the part. More surprising in a review as knowl- edgeable as Sarris’s was the lack of ac- knowledgment for the B-movie classic “Gun Crazy” (1950), a film he had praised as superior to “Bonnie and Clyde” in his 1968 history, “The Ameri- can Cinema.”
“Gun Crazy,” directed by Joseph H. Lewis from a script partly written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, anticipated “Bonnie and Clyde” down to its anti- heroine’s beret. But its outlaw couple even more prophesied the “Pretty Poi- son” kids. Bart (John Dall) is a gawky social misfit, his partner, Laurie (Peggy Cummins), a trigger-happy sociopath no less fresh-faced than Ms. Weld’s drum majorette. As Bart and Laurie switch from sharpshooting to armed robbery, her erotic excitement is com- plemented by his sense of unreality. “Everything’s going so fast, it’s all in high gear, as if it weren’t me,” Bart says, a line Dennis might well have delivered in “Pretty Poison.”
Although Bart and Laurie take to crime for the money, financial gain is secondary to the expression of pure youthful id. Reviewers found the cou- ple’s all-American affect disconcerting. They seemed “more like fugitives from a 4-H Club than the law” The Times’s critic pointed out, adding that “just why two such clean-cut youngsters as Miss Cummins and Mr. Dall should be so cast is something for the Sphinx.”
That, it would seem, was the movie’s point. It’s no surprise that “Gun Crazy,” like “Pretty Poison,” attained cult status in the late 1960s when it was said that violence was as American as cherry pie.