Femmes Fatales With Deadly Firepower

Posted September 27, 2018 4:36 p.m. EDT

“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 royale 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’ raw, ultracontemporary “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.” Not everyone was pleased to see Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing “Shame” lose to the Soviet adaptation of “War and Peace” for best foreign-language film by a single vote during an unprecedented seventh ballot. In another contentious 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 — controversy within controversy — was notable for its six abstentions.

An unheralded sleeper that was reedited, shelved and dumped by its studio 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 Daily News dismissed it as “a grisly melodrama,” while, jumping on the movie’s bandwagon, Time magazine’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), Perkins plays a teenage arsonist, Dennis Pitt, newly paroled after years of institutionalization and given a job in a chemical factory in a bucolic Berkshires town. There he meets and seeks to impress Sue Ann Stepanek (Weld), a local high school student who seemingly falls in line with his fantasy of being a secret agent for the CIA. Sue Ann, who as a drum majorette is herself a figure of fantasy, also nurses a major beef against her disapproving mother (the veteran B-movie performer Beverly Garland).

Covert antics become sinister once Dennis loses his job and decides to sabotage the factory that he believes is polluting 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, turns out to be far more pathological than her suitor. Before the movie ends, Sue Ann’s turquoise Sunbeam roadster will seem as menacing as the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

An underrated actress who began her career as a child model, Weld was particularly praised for her performance — paradoxical considering her known dislike for the movie, itself striking in view of her animus toward her real-life mother. (“I hate Mama!” she told a Times interviewer while flashing her “radiant childwoman smile.”) Weld’s distaste notwithstanding, the stars are the movie — including Garland, who steals each of her three big scenes, blithely undercutting Sue Ann in two and dying in the third.

“Pretty Poison” also became an issue in the long-standing feud between New York’s two most influential movie critics, Kael and Andrew Sarris. Newly installed at The New Yorker on the strength of her impassioned defense of “Bonnie and Clyde,” Kael fought to have “Pretty Poison” rereleased and, according 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 highflying, high-sounding critics have managed to save ‘Pretty Poison’ from a fate worse than death in the fleshpots of 42nd Street.” Noting that the movie had reopened at the Eighth Street Playhouse, a showcase for European art films, he joked that “unfortunately, ‘Pretty Poison’ turns out to be too pretentious for 42nd Street but not pretentious 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, Black’s movie benefited from the au courant notion that B-movies could be a form of Pop Art. Reviewers naturally bracketed “Pretty Poison” with “Bonnie and Clyde” — not least because 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 knowledgeable as Sarris’ was the lack of acknowledgment for the B-movie classic “Gun Crazy” (1950), a film he had praised as superior to “Bonnie and Clyde” in his 1968 history, “The American 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 antiheroine’s beret. But its outlaw couple even more prophesied the “Pretty Poison” kids. Bart (John Dall) is a gawky social misfit, his partner, Laurie (Peggy Cummins), a trigger-happy sociopath no less fresh-faced than Weld’s drum majorette. As Bart and Laurie switch from sharpshooting to armed robbery, her erotic excitement is complemented 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 couple’s all-American affect disconcerting. They seemed “more like fugitives from a 4-H Club than the law,” The Times’ 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.

Both “Pretty Poison” and “Gun Crazy” are available for streaming on multiple platforms, including Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and iTunes. (As is “The Lion in Winter.”)