Tuesday Weld was nearly as famous for the roles that she passed on as she was for the ones that she took. Weld passed on BONNIE AND CLYDE, ROSEMARY’S BABY, TRUE GRIT, and others. Though the films and television projects she ended up selecting in place of those better known opportunities varied in quality, it’s her performance as a young femme fatale in Noel Black’s 1968 film PRETTY POISON that remains her best performance. Ironic, considering she instantly regretted taking the role and had a strong dislike for Black. There’s just no pleasing some people.
PRETTY POISON stars Weld and Anthony Perkins, an unlikely but perfect union of crazy and deadly charm. Perkins is a delusional arsonist who lures Weld into his crazy games only to discover that Weld may be more psychotic than he is. Soon the tables are turned and Weld slowly becomes a sociopath who wraps Perkins into a murder plot. This is a rough outline, the who’s and what’s are half the fun of this picture which delights in leading the viewer down this twisted rabbit hole that has the structural frameworks of a neo-noir but also carries some sly social commentary thanks to a smart script by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (PAPILLON, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR).
This is really the only film that Noel Black is celebrated for (though A MAN, A WOMEN, AND A BANK has its moments) and after watching PRETTY POISON you kind of feel like you were robbed of a great filmmaker. He really knew how to use his leads to great effect and Weld, no matter how much she dislikes this film, turns in an amazing performance. Perkins is kind of unassuming, there are clear insecurities and fears within his character, but Weld is a true force and slowly turns the screws until the real horror of the events come to light. Black gives her the freedom to explore the boundaries of her character while keeping Perkins focused on a perception of innocence in his target.
Pauline Kael was a champion of this picture (odd considering her dislike for television directors who made the move to features), but her campaign to help the film didn’t have the same effect as her work for BONNIE AND CLYDE. PRETTY POISON ultimately failed at the box office, the studio thought it was nothing more than an exploitation castoff. Black returned to television and though he did make a few more films with decidedly lighter material, he never returned to the level of quality promised in PRETTY POISON. Don’t tell Weld, but this film now enjoys a well deserved following.
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