Early in Pretty Poison, mental patient Anthony Perkins is sternly informed that there's no place in a hostile outside world for fantasies. But for an inveterate daydreamer like Perkins, a life without illusion is tantamount to death. So before long, a thoroughly non-rehabilitated Perkins is telling tall tales about his imaginary existence as an undercover CIA agent to wide-eyed high-schooler Tuesday Weld. But Pretty Poison's sick central joke is that Weld's perky blonde teenager, by all outward appearances the very image of fresh-scrubbed, all-American innocence, is infinitely more deranged than Perkins' tormented arsonist.
In Noel Black's adaptation of Stephen Geller's novel, Perkins and Weld develop a shared fantasy world that quickly spirals out of control. The terminally restless Weld relishes any opportunity to escape the boredom of small-town life, and she uses Perkins' increasingly transparent ruse that he's a government agent to rid herself of obstacles like her disapproving mother.
Perkins begins the film with the superior smirk of someone forever enjoying an inside joke at humanity's expense, but once his affair with Weld develops a body count, his bravado gives way to panic. He's far too familiar with the horrors of involuntary confinement to view the prospect of returning to it with anything but horror. Weld, meanwhile, boasts the delirious bloodlust and untroubled conscience of a 200-proof sociopath, treating murder as little more than a breezy game of make-believe. Weld throws herself into her character's chipper amorality with frightening conviction; as in Lord Love A Duck, she's brilliant at playing a character whose perfect façades mask oceans of pain and bitterness. Black's dry direction cannily ekes black comedy out of the juxtaposition of small-town drudgery and murderous intrigue, in the process crafting a distinctly late-'60s version of film noir. In Pretty Poison, the darkest of deeds happen in the blandest of small towns, and the clean-cut girl next door might just be a femme fatale with malice on her mind and blood on her hands.
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