Sex Shooter

Noel Black, Pretty Poison, 1968, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 89 minutes. Left: Sue Ann Stepanek and Dennis Pitt (Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins). Right: Sue Ann Stepanek and Dennis Pitt (Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins).

NOEL BLACK’S satisfyingly sordid first feature, Pretty Poison, was released in 1968; eight years prior, the film’s male lead, Anthony Perkins, had his breakout role in Psycho, and his costar, Tuesday Weld, appeared as one of the titular Sex Kittens Go to College. These earlier screen incarnations crucially inflect the characters the actors play in Black’s film. In Pretty Poison, Perkins’s Dennis Pitt, a fragile fantasist in his early thirties out on probation—his earlier crimes include burning his aunt’s house down—could be thought of as Norman Bates’s less damaged cousin. Weld’s Sue Ann Stepanek, a sexed-up eighteen-year-old high-school honor student who’s been seduced by Dennis’s conspiracy theories, often lures him to “Make-out Alley”; soon she’ll coax him into her matricide plan.

Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and based on Stephen Geller’s 1966 novel She Let Him Continue, Pretty Poison tanked at the box office and was dismissed by many critics, never earning the accolades that greeted two other criminal-lover films of the era, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). Though often spiked with mordant humor, Black’s movie, unlike those more celebrated titles, has no layer of cool detachment or irony; Dennis and Sue Ann throb with hurt, confusion, desire, and rage. Out in the real world for the first time in years, Dennis, whose parole officer secures him a job in a small-town Massachusetts chemical plant, can barely function outside the cocoon of his Scientific American–strewn Airstream trailer, often resorting to supercilious speech as a defense mechanism. He seems to possess one outfit—a light-blue oxford shirt and gray corduroys, an ensemble that makes Perkins, thirty-six at the time, look barely old enough to shave.

Weld has the opposite effect: She was in her mid-twenties during shooting—and looks it. Yet the discrepancy between the actress’s age and her character’s imbues Sue Ann, whom Dennis first notices carrying the flag for an all-girl rifle drill team, with a necessary perversity. Immediately turned on by Dennis’s silly CIA talk—“We’re under surveillance” is his pickup line, delivered at the local hot-dog stand—Sue Ann avidly follows all of his crazy directives, simply for the adventures they promise. When Dennis’s scheme to commit eco-terrorism at his workplace goes awry, it ignites in his girlfriend insatiable lusts—both for blood and carnal pleasure.

The flaxen-haired sweetheart, one minute concerned about being late for her hygiene class and the next aiming a pistol right at her mother’s heart, has an active tongue: It darts out from her mouth when she is concentrating, preparing to kill, or registering delight. The fleshy organ also helps deliver the teenager’s deepening mythomania, which, by film’s end, has surpassed even Dennis’s. If Weld’s and Perkins’s roles before Pretty Poison informed their characters, the compatibility they established in Black’s film would greatly enrich their next (and final) collaboration: costarring as Maria Wyeth, the unraveling Hollywood wife, and B.Z., the tormented bisexual producer (and Maria’s only friend), in Frank Perry’s 1972 adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays.

Pretty Poison plays February 3 through 9 at Film Forum.