Psychotic arsonist Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) is not long out of jail when he befriends young high school student Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld). He explains he is a secret agent on a mission and she is thrilled to team up with him. But it soon becomes unclear who is manipulating who, as Sue Ann has some psychological issues and a murderous intent of her own.
- Pretty Poison review by Count Otto Black
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You rated this film: 3
Poor Anthony Perkins. His breakthrough rôle in "Psycho" meant that he would forever be typecast as twitchy, socially awkward guys with mental health problems of a potentially homicidal nature who don't relate too well to girls.
So it comes as no surprise that the character he plays here is, in the movie's first scene, being released from a mental institution where he has spent a long time for unspecified reasons which eventually turn out to be quite extreme. We also shouldn't be surprised when he's almost immediately (and very clumsily) flagged as a Walter Mitty-type fantasist who can barely open his mouth without claiming to be somebody anyone with half a brain can instantly tell he isn't. Frankly, given his behavior throughout the film, it's not very plausible that they let him out. It also comes as no surprise that the girl he presently hooks up with is no good. I don't mean to include any spoilers, but this movie's called "Pretty Poison", and that's co-star Tuesday Weld up there on the DVD cover pointing a gun at somebody and not looking too unhappy about it - draw your own conclusions!
Perkins is excellent as a man who tries to cover up his difficulty at coping with a world he's had no direct experience of since he was 15 by constantly dropping hints that he's a poor man's James Bond, most of which seem to be more for his own benefit than anybody else's. And it's not difficult to see why Tuesday Weld might be able to exert a considerable amount of influence over almost any young man. The interplay between them, as he ensnares her in his live-action secret agent rôle-playing game for a variety of morally dubious if not downright illegal purposes, initially casts him as the manipulative madman. But maybe his strings are being pulled too?
Most of this byplay between the two leads works very well. What brings it down a notch is the oddly artificial nature of the situation. You can see what they were thinking. Hey, wouldn't it be a great gimmick if that guy from "Psycho" played another psycho who exploits an innocent girl, but then it turns out she's the real psycho? The trouble is, they take that gimmick just a little bit too far. Perkins is plausible, but Weld is initially too sweet, innocent and gullible to make her hidden depths of utter craziness believable. It's well played, but I didn't really buy it as a potentially real situation. "Gun Crazy" (the 1950 version) is a better exploration of a not dissimilar relationship between two misfits who get up to very bad things together.
By the way, it's nice to see Beverly Garland, Roger Corman's B-movie queen in the previous decade, still getting work playing Tuesday Weld's mother, a lady who knows she's well past the first flush of youth but is determined to grow old disgracefully, and sees through her daughter's new boyfriend's lies in less time than it takes her to finish yet another large gin and tonic. I'm not sure if that's a step up or down from being strangled by an evil traffic-cone from Venus, but it certainly makes a change.