When a mentally disturbed young man tells a pretty girl that he's a secret agent, she believes him, and murder and mayhem ensue.
There's some truth to the old saying "if you're good at something, never do it for free." However, if you're especially good at doing one thing, then you may not want to do it too often otherwise, that's all you're known for. In Hollywood, that is called "typecasting." Play the romantic lead one time too many, that's the only job you ever get. Play the vile jerk so often that audiences know you only as that guy, don't expect to play the nice guy in a comedy any time soon. For Anthony Perkins, it was playing the mentally disturbed individual with murderous tendencies. Perkins may have been best known for the murderous Norman Bates, but it was his impressive turn in 1968's 'Pretty Poison' directed by Noel Black that would paint Perkins' career into a corner.
Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) has taken the long hard road towards getting his life back on track. Decades ago when he was still a small boy, Dennis burned down his aunt's house not knowing the woman was still inside. After growing up inside an institution, Dennis' doctor Morton Azenauer (John Randolph) believes he's ready to re-enter society. After moving to a small town to work in a chemical factory, Dennis spots the beautiful high school cheerleader Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld) in a parade. As Dennis' fantasies about the girl build, he convinces her he is actually a secret agent in hiding. Playing off her own desires for adult affection, Dennis loops Sue Ann into his playful schemes. But small-time pranks soon turn deadly, and Dennis may not be the only disturbed individual in town.
'Pretty Poison' is a slow burn, seemingly innocent little thriller that takes its time building up its central characters before socking the audience in the gut. Director Noel Black and writer Lorenzo Semple J.r smartly play with audience expectation by delaying gratification. As we watch Perkin's Dennis scheme about like a teenage boy playing a spy game, we see Weld's Sue Ann emerge as an even more disturbed character. What is fun and games for Dennis becomes life and death for Sue Ann as she subtly begins to manipulate Dennis into doing what she wants him to.
From the get go, you can pretty much expect things to end badly for Dennis. Naturally, you want a likable young man like him to come out alright in the end, but as the film progresses, you know there's no clean way out for him. Knowing that aspect going in allows the film to take its time and build tension by establishing the relationship between Dennis and Sue Ann. One would think Sue Ann to be a bit smarter than she seems. After all, who is going to believe a yarn that some random guy is actually in the C.I.A. and needs her help to complete his assignment? That would require a bit extra effort to suspend disbelief, except the filmmakers very smartly allow Dennis to "prove" himself to the young girl naturally setting her up as an impressionable victim.
I don't want to give too much away and spoil the show for anyone, but suffice to say, I was very impressed with where this flick takes its characters and story. When Sue Ann's Mother played by Beverly Garland appears, you expect some fireworks, but this film smartly twists and turns these moments in ways you don't altogether expect them to go. Likewise, when John Randolph's supportive and nurturing, even fatherly Doctor Azenauer arrives in town to check in on Dennis, you expect certain plot beats to thump into place, but the film smartly pulls back leaving the biggest twists and shocks to drop at the very end.
Perhaps what I enjoyed most about 'Pretty Poison' is how it had the look and feel of a cheery springtime after school special. When you watch enough thrillers, you expect a sort of visual tone to them and I liked that 'Pretty Poison' bucked tradition by keeping things looking light and carefree. By the time the true nature of certain characters are revealed, it's a stark contrast to the bright and cheery mood that had been established for most of the film's 90-minute runtime. 'Pretty Poison' may not be the greatest, genre-busting thriller of all time, but it's very effective and should keep most audience members guessing. It's unfortunate that Perkin's would get so terribly typecast the rest of his career, but his turn as Dennis is one of the best roles he played. If you're in the mood for a solid little thriller that knows how to turn the plot screws just right, 'Pretty Poison' should keep your attention glued to the screen.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Pretty Poison' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc with a limited pressing of 3,000 copies. Housed in a clear sturdy Blu-ray case, the disc comes with a booklet containing stills from the film with an essay by Film Historian Julie Kirgo. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
'Pretty Poison' lands on Blu-ray with a crisp and beautiful 1.85:1 1080p transfer. While all around this transfer gets some high marks, some may be worried by the opening and closing scenes of the film. The film itself has a very high color saturation lending itself to that dream-like innocence I mentioned in the primary review. During these opening and closing moments, that color saturation appears to have been dialed up to 11. Skin tones are incredibly tan, primaries too thick and rich, and the black levels can feel almost crushed. Thankfully, the rest of the film doesn't appear to have been affected and is perhaps a baked in issue with the source print. Even with the richer than normal saturation levels on the color, there is still a very lifelike quality to the image. With a natural grain presence, detail levels are fantastic allowing the viewer to soak everything in without any compression issues to speak of. Depth and dimension are maintained throughout thanks to some solid black levels and shadow separation. There are a few day-for-night moments that aren't very convincing and actually flatten the image quite a bit. Other than a few brief moments where things appear slightly off, this is a fantastic looking film without any notable age-related wear and tear present.
With its simple yet effective DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono audio mix, 'Pretty Poison' has a lively auditory presence. The film is mostly conversational, as our lead lovers talk about their childish plots and schemes. The opening Souza march has a nice lively quality to it as it dominates the scene. Sound effects and atmospherics while limited in scope do allow for a sense of space and dimension to the track. This is especially true whenever Dennis is at his chemical plant job. Imaging is fairly subdued as there really isn't much call for channel movement anyway so a simple mono track gets the job done nicely. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout without any age-related hiss or pops present.
Audio Commentary: Executive Producer Lawrence Turman and Film Historians Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs provide a lively and engaging commentary track. A lot of discussion is devoted to the production, casting, Perkin's career before and after the film. All Around a good listen.
Audio Commentary: Director Noel Black and Film Historian Robert Fisher provide a nice companion commentary track. Black offers up a lot of information about the production and is also a solid listen.
Deleted Scene Script w/ Commentary: (HD 3:12) This is a pretty interesting little extra, a scene that was cut that would have added a little more drama to the relationship between Dennis and Sue Ann, but wasn't really necessary to the story.
Original Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:57)
There's something about slow burn thrillers that always manage to grab my attention. I like watching little pieces of the plot and the characters fall into place and I especially enjoy the twists and turns along the way. 'Pretty Poison' is a solid, creepy, and unnerving thriller with some terrific performances from its lead cast. It may have lead to Perkins being typecast for the rest of his career, but it's still a worthwhile film and one of his best. Twilight Time brings 'Pretty Poison' to Blu-ray in terrific order with a solid A/V presentation and a nice assortment of bonus features to pick through. If you're in the mood for a creepy little chiller thriller, 'Pretty Poison' is recommended.