Kim Morgan on Pretty Poison

“What a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?”

There’s a scene in Noel Black’s 1968 Pretty Poison that’s so unnerving and memorable, it still makes a viewer feel off balance today. Tuesday Weld’s beautiful, blonde 17-year-old high school majorette named Sue Ann Stepanek has just bashed some poor night watchman on the side of the head – twice – and he lies on the ground, bleeding, near dead. She and her new boyfriend, disturbed but sensitive Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), have been mucking around at the chemical plant he has been working for (and was fired from) on one of their dates/clandestine “missions.” Dennis is loosening a chute that dumps chemical waste into the town’s water supply and at the same time, filling Sue Ann’s head with lies that he’s a spy for the CIA – she’s excited to help him. She’s really excited.

She loves the intrigue and the mischief, and she loves to rebel. She loathes her mother (when her mother slapped her earlier that night, Sue Ann slapped her right back) and she’s not keen on rules (save for Dennis’s “classified” commands she delights in). And she is her own person. That is for sure. She is, indeed, her own kind of person.

But as Dennis is messing with the chute, the night factory guard, Sam (whom Dennis seems to like), catches him. Dennis stares back terrified – for good reason – he’s recently been released from a mental institution. He’s a man (presumably in his 20s, or early 20s – Perkins was 35 at the time) with a record, a past arsonist who accidentally set his aunt – and her home – on fire (he was 15 then). He’s got a parole officer, Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), who is kind and patient with him. But Dennis – playing around with these spy games with this young woman – and now a nice old man’s got his skull bashed with a monkey wrench? He’s got a lot to be scared of.

Sue Ann, on the other hand, does not seem to be scared of anything. In the universe of Pretty Poison, with its tree-lined, white-picket-fenced setting (the film was shot in Great Barrington, Massachusetts) this might seem surprising, that is, if a person were to apply the common standards of how society thinks of young women (and how they likely do in this town). She’s a remarkably beautiful girl with lovely hair (I always think of Nick Cave singing about blonde teenage murderess, Lottie, from “The Curse of Millhaven” – “My hair is yellow and I’m always a-combing, la la-la-la, la la-la-lie. Mama often told me that we all got to die!”). She’s a straight-A student with a bright future ahead of her. So, she, out there at night with her disturbed boyfriend who has led her into this bad scene – she should worry for her future. She should bemoan over why he dragged her into this. But she doesn’t. And she thinks fast. She calmly, deliberately, brains old Sam, blood oozing all over his face. She seems a little proud of herself too. Like she just solved a relatively hard algebra equation.

Sue Ann: I hit him twice. You see he started to go down and then I bopped him on the side of the head. Oh … he sure is bleeding, isn’t he?

Dennis: Yeah…

Sue Ann: The C.I.A. does cover this kind of stuff, doesn’t it? Hmm?

Dennis: Uh … Yeah … sometimes

Sue Ann: Well, what should we do? (Dennis pulls Sue Ann to him to hug her) You’re sweating.

Dennis: You’re cool.

You’re cool. As in her skin temperature. As in her soul. As in he still loves her. It’s all spinning out of control for Dennis, who thought he was in control with her. So… there she goes… Without asking or alerting the freaked-out Dennis, Sue Ann, with all of her sociopathic common sense and know-how, takes the night watchman’s gun out of his pocket (she’ll save that for later), and pushes the dying man’s body into the water. He’s now almost good and dead. And then she sits on his back. To make sure. To drown him.

This is when the movie, which has already placed us into the unsettling world of Dennis and his problems, his possible craziness, and Sue Ann’s beautiful strangeness (though, before this moment, we didn’t realize just how fucking weird she is), I think, knows it’s perverse. In the black of night, her yellow hair glowing, her pink cardigan and blue and white plaid dress almost sparkling, she sits on top of the dead man’s back, her bare legs splashing in the water – with just a hint of … something, an erotic suggestion. A hint, which is smart because it would seem cheap and exploitative if it were anything else. The hint makes the viewer feel almost as if you imagined it. (We didn’t because later in the film, in a moment of disturbance, Dennis will flash to this same shot, freaked out.) When she’s done drowning the man, she sensibly tells Dennis: “He was dead, Dennis. The chute’s right over him. When it falls down in the morning, they’ll figure that’s what killed him.”

We see her sitting on this poor dead man, smiling, calm. When she makes her way back up to Dennis, she looks down at the body and says smiling, happy: “God, what a night.” When she and Dennis are back in the car after she’s sat in the water on top of the man she just murdered, Sue Ann then pounces on Dennis. She’s excited with blood lust. She wants to make it.

Pretty Poison was Black’s first and best feature (though his Jennifer on My Mind is such a tonally crazy picture, that I’d recommend it for those curious about contending with dead, heroin OD’ed girlfriends; Cover Me Babe is also seriously flawed, yet fascinating. His short, Skaterdater won the Palm D’or at Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award for best short film in 1966). It has a dark, deadpan wit, scripted by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (the Batman series, The Parallax View, The Drowning Pool, Three Days of the Condor) and gorgeous, at times, experimental cinematography by David Quaid (The Swimmer). I love how green the picture looks – so lush and pretty – quaint, but with so much existential dread and angst and dysfunction all around. David Lynch might love this movie.

The daylight exteriors of Sue Ann driving a baby blue convertible, Dennis sitting at the hot dog stand talking about murder, Sue Ann in a green dress looking very pretty as she watches, with binoculars, the night watchman’s body being dragged from the water – the light of the picture makes its dark humor all the more unsettling. The danger and ubiquity of poison all around us – both external and internal rot. Another great moment: The gun Sue Ann stole off of the dead night watchman she murdered – we see it again in her teenage room with flowered wallpaper and a framed picture of ballerinas – it’s in a drawer containing a blue curler, bobby pins, pink beads and other teeny things – a darkly humorous tableau of pretty girly normalcy and female rage. She will shoot her mother, four times, with it – a squinting, focused, intent look on her face and with a twisted smile – tongue protruding from her lips like both a kid and a seasoned pro. And then, everything back to relative calm, considering the circumstances, Sue Ann planning how to get rid of the body (though Azenauer will call soon after and Dennis knows he’s going to eventually be blamed for this). I actually thought Sue Ann might eat the breakfast her mother just made for her (she asked for pancakes) directly after killing her. Instead, she wants to have sex with Dennis, whom she says she wants to marry and run off to Mexico with. She’d been packing her bags and picking out dresses to wear before her mother came home. As her mother lies there dead on the staircase, Sue Ann sits on the bed and hugs Dennis, asking: “What do people do as soon as they’re married?”

Dennis is (was) an arsonist, and since he accidentally killed his aunt as a teenager, he’s served many years away – and knows a thing or two about trauma. He nervously settles into this new town (his boss is an asshole), and he thinks he’s too smart for his job. His parole officer, Azenauer, agrees about his intelligence – but to stop with the crazy, or play-acting crazy, the jokes, and especially the fantasy. Azenauer warns him at the very beginning of the picture: “Believe me, Dennis, you’re going out into a very real and tough world. It’s got no place at all for fantasies.”

And then… a fantasy emerges. In a dizzying sequence, Dennis spies the beautiful Sue Ann Stepanek, first as a drum majorette, and then at a hot dog stand (as we’ll see later, a lot goes down at that hot dog stand). When they first take a drive in her car, she lies and says she’s 18 – but he knows better. OK, she’s in high school and almost 18, she says. He will fall for her – trying to play it cool at first, trying to take control with his games (fantasies), but when he sees her murderous glee, he realizes he’s not driving this relationship anymore. Nevertheless, he can’t leave her.

Dennis continues this routine of both trying to not play by the rules, while also, actually trying to listen to his parole officer. He’s clearly got some unresolved anger and fear going on, and he needs to feel more significant than he actually is. One reason why an impressionable teenage girl would be a target for him. And he really should not be up to this kind of predation. No, she should not.

He’s a broken man, and it’s often quite sad. In an incredible scene, both heartbreaking and then, darkly funny (because of Weld’s brilliant, perfectly timed response ), Perkins’s Dennis reveals to Sue Ann what happened all those years ago with this aunt:

Dennis: I didn’t know she was in the house. I swear I didn’t. See, I’d been playing with some girl next door. Playing doctor or something. Her name was Ursula. And my aunt caught us. [Crying] It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad. My aunt beat me with a pile of sticks. So, I took that pile of sticks into the cellar, and I set fire to them, Sue Ann. But I thought my aunt was out. Oh, that poor fool. She sneaked back into the house after she told me she was going out. I guess she hoped to catch me committing lascivious carriage or something, but I didn’t know it, Sue Ann, I didn’t know she was in the house. You see? You see…

Sue Ann: [Smiling] You’re all sweaty when you were the one with experience in killing people.

Dennis: [Sobbing and slightly laughing] Oh, God. Sue Ann. You say such crazy things. Maybe that’s why I love you.

Sue Ann: Cross your heart? Cross your heart?

Perkins is so impressive in Pretty Poison – funny and creepy and vulnerable and a bit heart-breaking by the end. It’s a fascinating performance – he’s not really crazy, he’s almost play-acting a paranoid schizophrenic (he listens to radio shows in Russian, and, as said, comes on to Sue Ann through boastful lies about his work with the CIA.), so his actions just leave a question mark, in an intriguing way. As director Black said to writer, Perkins’s biographer, Ronald Bergan in 1994: “He had enormous charm and intelligence, the very qualities I wanted to come through in the role he would be playing. I was looking for the young Tony of Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, not Psycho, although commentators naturally made the comparison between Norman Bates and the character in Pretty Poison.”

He’s not really like Norman Bates, though there’s a sex-death dysfunction he’s grown up with. But it’s as if he has no other way but to act crazy because that’s what everyone expects of him. But why pretend all this? Because no one ever believed him before? And fantasies aren’t always a bad thing, even if Azenauer  warns him against them. But this world – Azenauer is right – it doesn’t like those indulging in fantasy so much. As Noel Black said (in a Los Angeles Times story), Perkins’s Dennis is “a Walter Mitty type who comes up against a teeny-bopper Lady Macbeth.”

The act “works” to a certain extent because Sue Ann, likely bored out of her skull from typical boys who’ve romanced her, taken her to dumb dances and copped feels in cars, and who is also clearly damaged herself (her home life is unstable, her mother, doing what she wants, fine, but not necessarily protective, more just repressive to her daughter) is drawn to Dennis. Sue Ann sleeps with the twitchy mystery man (the first guy she’s “made it” with, though, when she brings up a sailor in a photo who creepily looks a lot older than she is, she might be lying – and we wonder if that was something unpleasant for her) and she also falls in love with him.

Or so she says. We are never sure if she really had any feelings for him. We get the sense that she could have planned a trap this whole time. That she knew, from the very beginning, that he was lying. Or, if she started to catch wind of his lies or got bored, she flipped the switch. The easy read on Sue Ann is that she’s a stone-cold psycho, a bad seed, but she’s also a damaged, enraged young woman with a power and a magnetism all of her own. There’s surely a reason she’s got anger. Yes, she’s mad at her mother, but Dennis becoming her new boyfriend so quickly, thinking he can manipulate her and mold her to what he wants (which will backfire on him in major way – obviously), even if she says she’s in love and wants to run away with him and all that, his attempt to trick her – this probably, deep down, really pisses her off.

Pretty Poison is also tapping into the gorgeous off-center appeal of Weld, while testing our crush on Thalia from Dobie Gillis. She holds so much more – some kind of secret – a joke or a specific knowledge, maybe arcane knowledge, that only she knew but was keeping it to herself. You just try to find out what it is. (Watch other wonderful, complex Weld performances: Soldier in the Rain, Play It as It Lays, Who’ll Stop the Rain, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Once Upon a Time in America, Thief, and more) Those mysterious eyes, sometimes placid sometimes excited, her curiosity, vulnerability and strength, and beauty mixed with her intelligence and, in Pretty Poison, fascinating wickedness.

Weld was (and still is) cool. You completely get why Sam Shepard, after seeing her on a talk show wrote in “Motel Chronicles:” “Tuesday Weld appeared in bare feet and a full shirt and the interviewer (I think it was David Susskind) spent the whole time putting her down for having bare feet on his show and how this was a strong indication of her neurotic immaturity and need for attention. I fell in love with Tuesday Weld on that show. I thought she was the Marlon Brando of women.”

She does have that Marlon Brando cool and complexity – but she is a woman and to be the Marlon Brando of women in the 1960s, and particularly the late 50s and early 60s when she was a young woman and in teeny-bopper roles, probably wasn’t always easy (it’s not always easy at any age). And Weld wouldn’t come off as canned, the well trained good little girl. Nor did she appear to be trying too hard, in spite of what David Susskind apparently thought: “Look how crazy I am.” She had been through some heavy shit in her life – between her mother (if you attempt to read it – the strange, questionable “Daughter Dearest” tell-all “If It’s Tuesday….. I Must Be DEAD!” written by Samuel Veta who states that Weld’s mother, Aileen (Yosene) Ker Weld, gave her “blessing” and “narrated” and “supervised” the book, and that “much was taken from her [Ker Weld’s] daily diaries” before Ker Weld died seems only indicative of dysfunction Tuesday Weld must deal with, even beyond her mother – that this was even put out there by Veta), her relationships, her past struggles with alcohol and depression (she had discussed this in earlier interviews – she has for a long time now, remained very private), and her apparent need for freedom – this wasn’t a woman who was just playing a “bad girl.” And she wasn’t just a bad girl; she was going through turmoil.  She also had a rebellious spirit. She likely still does.

Actress Carol Lynley (Blue Denim, Bunny Lake is Missing), went to school with young Tuesday Weld and Sandra Dee – they were her friends. But as she told Dodd Darin in his book “Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee,”  Weld and Dee (a talented actress who also knew darkness and suffered many traumas herself – this could be an entire essay on its own) were very different. Dee and Weld couldn’t really gel as friends. Lynley said: “Mary [Dee’s mother] and Sandy were very much the same type of woman…. They both had full skirts and coiffed hair, and my best friend, Tuesday, and I didn’t get this at all. Tuesday had a switchblade knife when she was ten, to give you some kind of idea.”

By the time of Pretty Poison, Weld had already been presented by the press (and sometimes by herself) as a notorious Lolita figure (even though she was in her 20s by the time of Pretty Poison). George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck had toyed with this in a surprisingly transgressive cashmere orgasm scene involving her laughing-lunatic incest-ready father, Max Showalter (a gloriously insane moment). She’d even turned down Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita saying of her choice, “I didn’t have to play it. I was Lolita.”

Famously Weld turned down many roles, including Bonnie and Clyde, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Rosemary’s Baby, and more). As she said in a New York Times interview with Guy Flatley, “I may be self-destructive, but I like taking chances with movies. I like challenges, and I also like the particular position I’ve been in all these years, with people wanting to save me from the awful films I’ve been in. I’m happy being a legend. I think the Tuesday Weld cult is a very nice thing.”

She also said in that same interview, “Do I have hard feelings toward my mother? I hate my mother!”

Many critics loved Pretty Poison (including Pauline Kael), but the movie made the studio nervous – it was just too strange – and it didn’t do well. Stranger than Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde a year before (which Pretty Poison is often compared to). Though Pretty Poison does contain an anti-establishment bent, it doesn’t have the same kind of romance. Bonnie and Clyde came together as equals in many ways, and we could not help but fall for them, their glamour, their mythology, and we wound up rooting for them, no matter what. Pretty Poison more resembles a slight inverse of Terrence Malick’s later Badlands with Weld becoming Martin Sheen (though Weld and Perkins are less romantic, cagier, even as their chemistry is strangely perfect, just as it was later – as damaged friends in Frank Perry’s Play It as It Lays, a movie I love and wrote about herethey are magnificent, brilliant together). Weld’s Sue Ann is a little more of a Peggy Cummins in Joseph H. Lewis’s masterful Gun Crazy – she takes over – but, still, there’s no one quite like Sue Ann Stepanek. Last year, J. Hoberman wrote a terrific piece about both Pretty Poison and Gun Crazy, writing, “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.”

You see this cheery, and, as Hoberman said, “cherry pie,” craziness as Sue Ann, after she killed the night watchman, amped up on adrenaline and excitement, is all over Dennis in her cute blue convertible. But, scary for the couple, two police officers shine a light on them. What’s going on in here? She never seems terribly frightened, which makes her seem all the more dangerous. But she’s, again, taking over.

The police don’t like this guy with this young woman in the car at night and question them. So, Sue Ann drives home on her own (Sue Ann is always doing the driving) while Dennis sits in the back of a police car, downcast. What a night indeed. She’s taking them to her mother’s house – to make the police make sure it’s all OK. Mrs. Stepanek (a terrific, harsh Beverly Garland), who likes to entertain men in her house (which, as said, could be fine – Sue Ann hates it, so we wonder what kind of things she’s has had to put up with, what might stoke her anger), assures the police it’s OK.

But Mrs. Stepanek doesn’t like Dennis and didn’t like Dennis from the get-go. But she clearly doesn’t want the cops sniffing around her house or any extra trouble in her life. She also wants to take care of getting Dennis out of Sue Ann’s life, herself. “You’re one lucky kid, buster,” the cop says, annoyed they can’t bust him on anything. The cop continues, “If I were you, I’d get down on my knees to this woman.” It’s a morbidly amusing moment because, once the police leave, Mrs. Stepanek calls Sue Ann a “dumb little slut.” She looks at Dennis, and after revealing to him that she knows he had fibbed to her earlier, she snarls, “Well, what’s the matter? Don’t you have any nice lies already?” You can’t bullshit this woman. She then demands that he get out. He walks out in the night, and looks back at the house, observing the forms of Sue Ann and her mother near the door. He hears Mrs. Stepanek yell, “Why, you tramp!” She slaps Sue Ann. What does Sue Ann do? Sue Ann laughs.

It all starts rolling down and down and down after that. Almost as if Dennis knows he’s done for, but he’s just going with the dreaded flow – the flow that will land him back in the slammer.

So now Dennis is debris- flotsam – trailing in the wake of Sue Ann’s ship. After killing the guard, and showing rage for her mother, Sue Ann amps up the carnage by shooting mom, point blank, and killing her with glee. This is all too much for Dennis (he cowers in the bathroom), but he loves Sue Ann and agrees to dump the mother’s body. He doesn’t though – he goes to a payphone and calls the police, on himself.  He already knows he is doomed.

And he is right: Sue Ann is picked up and blames it all on him – easily – her lies come without a flinch, as if she’s convinced herself they’re true within minutes.

But we see in Perkins’s emotional look at Weld – his pained but loving eyes – that Dennis still loves her, even while watching her lie, and he tells her just that as he’s carted away. In some ways it speaks to what the picture satirizes: a predatory man taking on a teenage girl, and his predation turns on him. She’s so far advanced, so much angrier than he is, and she’s likely had to shove it in her whole life, that the idea of this malleable innocent is shattered. But, more pointedly, the movie doesn’t attack Sue Ann for her lack of cliched innocence (and I think – good for her), while it shows empathy for Dennis, but it’s not endorsing him either. He’s indulging in fantasy and that cracks wide open. We wonder if he’ll create a whole fantasy life about Sue Ann when he’s locked away – one in which he’s important again.

And, yet, Dennis also seems to love Sue Ann even more for her darkness – even as he is horrified. She’s clever, her mind constantly working; she’s one step ahead (again, part of Weld’s appeal as an actress: that intelligent, darker interior, her beguiling surprises, she’s so much more and we see that instantly, even before she speaks). But how does he feel about himself loving her so much? There’s a reason why, in a fit of Raskolnikovian guilt and dread, Dennis later flashes back to that image of her splashing in the water on the dead man’s back – he’s terrified and probably a little turned on, and he probably feels guilty for being turned on. That wasn’t fantasy, that moment, that was real.

In some ways, Weld’s Sue Ann isn’t just pretty poison, she’s what lies underneath America’s heartland – the fantasy, to bring that up again – where pretty, blonde high school girls are supposed to be “good” but were not, are not, and should not have to be.

Sue Ann could be read as a reflection of the late 1960s “good” girl turning towards the counter-culture – the good girl going wild or giving the finger to the system. But there’s also direct, real female anger here, thanks to Weld’s performance, who fearlessly, mercurially, plays Sue Ann without trying to make her likable. She gets the humor, and she gets the rage, the madness -sometimes flowing within these emotions in a single scene – and she gets how people are much more terrified by a young woman acting this way. Norman Bates famously said, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” Sue Ann would agree, shrug, laugh – and then clean up the blood before taking her history exam.

How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?

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