The Anti-Damsel Blogathon: Tuesday Weld and “Pretty Poison”
The history of movies has been filled with great movies (and not-so-great ones, to put it mildly), but also of projects that never got off the ground, missed opportunities, and casting decisions that made or broke careers. There are all kinds of tantalizing questions in this regard, like what if Orson Welles had been able to release The Magnificent Ambersons in the form he intended, or what if Stanley Kubrick had been able to make his Napoleon biopic, or what if George Raft hadn’t turned down High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. And most germane to the topic at hand is this; what if Tuesday Weld had said yes to Bonnie & Clyde? Weld was one of the leading candidates to play Bonnie Parker in the film (along with Jane Fonda and Natalie Wood), but she turned down the role, partly because she had just given birth to a daughter, but also partly because, as she put it, she knew the movie was going to be a big success. Perhaps, having already been through enough hoopla when she appeared on the show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (which also featured Bonnie & Clyde star Warren Beatty), Weld didn’t want to have to go through it again. Whether not that was true, the fact remained while Faye Dunaway became a star after stepping into the role of Bonnie Parker, Weld never got that breakout role; not only did she turn down other movies that became big hits (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the original version of True Grit), the movies she did choose to do (I Walk the Line, A Safe Place, Play it As it Lays) didn’t have much impact with critics or audiences. For Weld fans, the closest we’ll ever come to seeing what she could have done with the role of Bonnie Parker is her performance in the 1968 movie Pretty Poison. Fortunately, despite the fact this was yet another Weld movie that never found its audience, it’s a very good movie, as well as a very good vehicle for Weld’s talents.
Weld isn’t the main focus of the movie, at least not at first. Instead, the movie – directed by Noel Black and adapted by Lorenzo Semple Jr. from the novel She Let Him Continue by Stephen Geller – centers on Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), a mentally disturbed young man. As the movie opens, Dennis is being released from a psychiatric ward, which he was sentenced to after he burned a house down while his aunt was still inside (he claimed he didn’t know she was there). Upon his release, Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), his case worker, has arranged for Dennis to get a job at a lumber yard (and when Dennis mentions he’d rather work in interplanetary navigation, Morton, unamused, tells him the real world has no place for fantasies). However, a year later, Dennis is working at a chemical plant instead of the lumber yard, and his boss, Bud Munsch (Dick O’Neill), doesn’t think much of him (especially since Dennis shows up late to work and causes an accident by being distracted). Then, one day, when Sue Ann Stepanek (Weld) comes over to the hot dog stand Dennis usually goes to for lunch (she asks for change of a quarter), he follows her over to the pay phone she goes to, tells her not to look at him as he’s being watched (there is a man across the street staring at him, though we don’t know why), hands her a small bottle (which he later claims contains a chemical from where he works), and tells her to meet him at the movie theater later.
It turns out Dennis psychosis is living in a fantasy world. In the first scene, he tells Morton he feels that signing up for interplanetary travel is more commensurate with his talents than working in a lumber yard, until Morton angrily tells him there’s no place for fantasies in the real world. Dennis tries to assure Morton he was kidding, but around Sue Ann, he claims to be a CIA agent working undercover at the chemical plant. He takes her to the make-out point of the town to try and “recruit” her, when it’s clear he’s doing this as much because he lusts after her (the first time he sees her is as a majorette in the high school marching band – which is why he’s able to trip her up when she pretends she’s in college – and thinking back on that day is why he became distracted at work and the accident happened) as to live out his fantasy life of really being in the CIA. Things get complicated by a couple of factors, however. One is Morton is able to track Dennis down at the plant, and is not happy about the fact Dennis has been out of contact with him for a year; Dennis, in turn, is upset by the fact Morton tells his boss about his past and gets him fired. Not only that, but it turns out Sue Ann is even more psychotic than he is. First, when Dennis goes to Sue Ann’s house to meet her mother (Beverly Garland), and her mother, upset that Sue Ann lied to her about Dennis, grounds her, they end up fighting, after which her mother slaps her, and Sue Ann slaps her mother back. Then, when Dennis and Sue Ann go to the plant to commit an act of sabotage (screwing with the pipe that dumps waste into the river), the night guard catches Dennis and is about to put him under arrest when Sue Ann hits him over the head, killing him. Finally, when the police find Dennis and Sue Ann later (not for what happened at the plant, but because he was an older man with a minor) and take them back to Sue Ann’s place, her mother orders Dennis to stay away from Sue Ann (the only reason why she didn’t turn Dennis over to the police was because of the attention it would bring on Sue Ann); that, along with the fact her mother discovers a bit of subterfuge Dennis and Sue Ann have done to get Morton off of his back (pretending he’s got another job prospect), Sue Ann tells Dennis the only logical thing left for them to do is to kill her mother.
If you think this is sounding like the plot to a film noir, you wouldn’t be far off. Dennis is, after all, just like the sad sack of those noir movies who ends up way over their heads, Sue Ann is the perfect example of a femme fatale, and there’s an inevitability to the conclusion here. But Black and Semple put some twists on the noir story. For starters, as with the novel, it takes place in a suburb/small town, not a city (the movie was shot in Great Barrington and North Adams in Massachusetts). Also, while there are nighttime scenes (as when Dennis and Sue Ann have sex for the first time in her car, or when they sneak into the plant at night), Black and cinematographer David L. Quaid (whose most notable other work was another suburban tale, Frank Perry’s film version of the John Cheever story The Swimmer) film much of the movie in the daytime, and with the sun out. They don’t make the colors overly garish, but they do capture the banality of the town that makes understandable what both Dennis and Sue Ann are trying to escape from (if not what methods they use to do so). In addition, while noir often (though not always) used first-person narration (and Geller’s novel is even narrated by Dennis in the first-person, so it would have been easy for Semple to do the same in his screenplay), the movie eschews that, even though it’s so obviously told from Dennis’ point of view (he’s in almost every scene, except for the final scene). Finally, and most importantly, while keeping a doomed tone (and a main character who knows he’s doomed, as Dennis does when he finds out Sue Ann killed the night guard, or when she begs him to kill her mother), Black and Semple make the tone darkly comic. Semple, at the time, was best known for being the creator of the live-action Batman TV series that had started up a couple of years earlier (he was also a writer on two of the best paranoid thrillers of the 70’s, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor), so the tone may not be surprising from him, but it is rather bracing. The novel apparently was sold as a tale of alienated youth, but Black and Semple avoid all that, especially in their portrayal of Sue Ann.
As I mentioned before, we first see Sue Ann in the marching band, and she’s presented to us, and Dennis, as the symbol of the classic blonde archetype (as if to reinforce the point, the band is playing John Philip Sousa). It’s easy to see why Dennis is attracted to her, and at first, we think Sue Ann is merely attracted to Dennis because he’s breaking up the boredom of her everyday life. But Dennis, of course, isn’t completely convincing in his act as a CIA agent (especially at how thrown he is when Sue Ann tells him she can’t meet up with him the night he originally plans to sabotage the plant, because she’s been grounded), and though Sue Ann can see through his act right away, we can see she’s amused by it, turned by it, and willing to use it to her own ends. We also see as much as Dennis may be the one who claims to plan things out, it’s Weld who’s pulling the strings. This is especially clear after the murder of the night guard; while Dennis panics, it’s Sue Ann who comes up with the idea of moving the guard to where the pipe is, so people will assume the plant “accident” is what killed him. It may not be well thought out – certainly, Dennis’ boss isn’t fooled – but it’s more than Dennis can muster up. And when Sue Ann tells Dennis he has to kill her mother, it becomes clear who’s in charge, as well as the dangerous charge lurking under Sue Ann’s facade.
Curiously enough, Weld was never a fan of this movie, or her performance. In an interview she did with Rex Reed a few years later, she called it the worst experience she had from a creative standpoint, and she quarreled with Black throughout. But you’d never know it from her performance here. Even though, at 25, she was too old for the role (though, of course, that was standard practice, and continues today), she brings a girlishness that makes her seem right as a teenager, and of course a sense of playfulness, sexuality, and danger that would have made her a perfect Bonnie Parker. And at no time does she “indicate”, even when she’s pretending to be a victim near the end, or when you see her at the end putting the moves on another guy. It’s an entirely natural and unaffected performance. Perkins, at this point in his career, was being typecast in variations on Norman Bates, and this certainly falls into that category. Even though, he finds nuance here, especially when Dennis realizes he’s over his head. And in any other actor’s hand, the scene where he tries to allude to how dangerous Sue Ann is without explaining it outright to Morton (and says the title) might have come off as clunky exposition, but Perkins pulls it off. Randolph is also very good as the stern but compassionate Morton. The film had the bad timing of coming out after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, so the studio, 20th Century Fox, didn’t promote is as much as they could have (according to Black), but while the New York Times panned it (killing its chances in New York), other critics praised it – Pauline Kael called it “modulated and fine-drawn”, and one that didn’t talk down to its audience, while Gene Siskel put it on his 10-best list when it opened in Chicago a year later – and it eventually became a cult movie. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much to boost anyone’s career; Perkins did manage to get more roles in other high-profile films (and reunited with Weld three years later in Play it as it Lays, another flop), but Black was mostly confined to television for the rest of his career, and as I mentioned above, Weld’s career never took off like it should have. Still, Pretty Poison provides a fascinating glimpse at the career that could have been.