A simmering small-town New England noir with an acidic comic streak, Pretty Poison retains its vintage 1968 aura, a studio film casting stars as its unlikely and unsavory couple, linking the blood-spattered eros of Bonnie and Clyde (produced the year before) with coming indie pulp like the The Honeymoon Killers. Showing its social jaundice between grotty bursts of violence, it casts Anthony Perkins (at 36 still in his disturbed-young-man phase) as Dennis Pitt, a onetime juvenile arsonist whose flights of fantasy “have no place at all” in the world awaiting him upon release from years in an institution. Dennis settles, in hermitlike fashion, in a western Massachusetts town, assuming a quality-control job at a lumber mill that dispels pink waste into local waterways, listening to Russian broadcasts on the short-wave radio in his trailer, and creating a delusional identity as a CIA agent that eventually lures flag-squad schoolgirl Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld, smiling with faux-precocious frankness) into a game of undercover playacting and moonlit trysts. The movie’s big joke is that Sue Ann turns out to be the potent, sociopathic one; for once, Perkins is out-psychoed by an honor-roll student who worries she’ll be late for hygiene class.
Director Noel Black, in his first and only celebrated feature, has the era’s typical zooms and second-long flashbacks (to Dennis’s burning youthful home) in his arsenal, but utilizes his leads’ strengths in making Lorenzo Semple Jr.‘s dialogue, adapted from a novel by Stephen Geller, play as a cracked, baroque duet. Perkins’s deadpan, stilted spy nonsense (“We’re striking a blow for every decent citizen in this area”) sounds like the delirious hambone speeches Semple wrote for the loopy Batman TV series, though it’s Weld—who reputedly loathed her performance—at the center of the movie’s indelible images of a teen queen playing at murder: straddling a corpse in the shallows of a river or taking charge of vengeance against her sneering, chain-smoking mother (Beverly Garland). “She looked surprised” is Sue Ann’s spacey analysis of her senior-year rebellion’s latest casualty, and Pretty Poison dodges having her taste for mayhem come off as misogyny; rather, it’s the complement to her feckless boyfriend’s pronouncement, “You do have quite a capacity for loving.”