Pretty Poison (1968) – Review by Pauline Kael

When I discovered that Pretty Poison had opened without advance publicity or screenings, I rushed to see it, because a movie that makes the movie companies so nervous they’re afraid to show it to the critics stands an awfully good chance of being an interesting movie. Mediocrity and stupidity certainly don’t scare them; talent does.

A Fresh Start

by Pauline Kael

When I discovered that Pretty Poison had opened without advance publicity or screenings, I rushed to see it, because a movie that makes the movie companies so nervous they’re afraid to show it to the critics stands an awfully good chance of being an interesting movie. Mediocrity and stupidity certainly don’t scare them; talent does. This is a remarkable first feature film by a gifted young American, Noel Black — a movie that should have opened in an art house — and it was playing in a vast and empty theatre, from which, no doubt, it will depart upon the week. And the losses will be so heavy that the movie companies will use this picture as another argument against backing young American directors. The television ads for Pretty Poison are a pitiful attempt to make it seem strident and coarse and brutal — to attract teen-agers by passing it off as a cross between Psycho and Bonnie and Clyde. Those attracted this way are likely to hate the film. Pretty Poison simply isn’t a picture for a big theatre; it doesn’t have the zing to be popular with large audiences. Lorenzo Semple, Jr., has written an unobtrusively thoughtful and well-controlled script — the best script of any American movie this year. Black’s subdued direction has the uncorrupted sensitivity that, given the way movies are made and sold, and what the public seems to want, doesn’t last long. Although Pretty Poison is a psychological thriller, it is modulated and fine-drawn, and (simply because of the way it was thought out and felt out) it presupposes an attentive, intelligent audience. Whether there is an audience for an American picture of this kind is doubtful, because the audience that might respond to it expects American movies to be loud and vulgar, and escapes to quiet foreign pictures. Feeling snug in this division, they don’t go to a subtle or quiet American picture when one comes along, so our movies get shriller all the time, and an American director who makes a movie on the assumption that the audience is as intelligent and sensitive as he is is a beautiful dreamer. (Yet can an artist work any other way?)

Even if Pretty Poison had opened in an art house, it might have had two strikes against it; art-house customers are almost certainly too snobbish to go to see Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, though both are remarkably talented. Perkins’ abilities had been recognized until his career was undermined by a lunatic piece of miscasting in Jules Dassin’s preposterous but popular Phaedra; when Melina Mercouri swept him up in her arms, he was made to seem ludicrous. People left theatres giggling at the idea that a woman might prefer this skinny boy to her husband, when the husband was played by Raf Vallone. Perkins hasn’t been a star since. Tuesday Weld has never been one, and maybe it isn’t just her unlucky name. (If you talk about her ability, people think you’re kidding.) Maybe it isn’t because she hasn’t had a big role that would catapult her to fame, either. Maybe it’s because she’s the kind of actress who doesn’t let people know she’s acting, the way Estelle Parsons or Geraldine Page lets them know. How else can one explain an actress’s giving the performances Tuesday Weld has given in Rally Round the Flag, Boys! and Soldier in the Rain and The Cincinnati Kid and Lord Love a Duck and still not being taken seriously? She’s not at her best in Pretty Poison, but she’s awfully good. Perkins has the better role — a character who develops from a quirky, sneaky, funny boy into a decent, sympathetic man (a loner, but not by choice), making us realize that the man was waiting there in the character all along. I think it’s the most beautifully conceived and the most precise performance Perkins has ever given. John Randolph and the other performers are uniformly good. The director and his associates seem to know how to handle actors and how to edit acting. The movie was shot on location in Massachusetts (I didn’t detect a single studio shot); the photography is simple and sunny, though perhaps rather too lyrical. There are a few bad plot turns (especially at the end), but they’re minor. Noel Black comes from the same film school (U.C.L.A.) as Francis Ford Coppola, but his style is less commercial and less forced, if also less energetic. Some of the best students in several American film schools are beginning to work in this uncoercive, transparently honest, and unpretentious style; it may be the beginning of a clean, direct, and, if I may use the term, indigenous yet new kind of American filmmaking. One characteristic of this style is that there’s not a shot in the movie which doesn’t clearly and directly contribute to the theme. This straightforward way of working, which, among young Americans, generally distinguishes student films from underground films, is very different from the French New Wave. It’s closer to the modest way Fred Zinnemann used to work. It’s the opposite of the way most directors from television work; there’s no fakery in it, and no shock treatment. It’s a way of using craftsmanship not for flash and ingenuity and impact (as in television commercials) but with sensibility — sticking to the subject and exploring it, developing and opening up the material. This may not be a completely satisfactory approach to movie-making — we may want more immediate excitement and more daring — but it may be one of the best ways for young filmmakers to give American movies a fresh start. I’m afraid almost no one will see Pretty Poison unless a few critics praise it excessively, and yet excessive praise may lead to disappointment: Pretty Poison is a good little movie, and I use “little” not in a pejorative sense but as a form of protection and also a term of affection.

New Yorker, November 2, 1968


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