Wickedly subversive and wildly original for its time, Pretty Poison (1968) never made big box-office, but still achieved second-tier recognition as a kind of cult film. More deserving than that, the film has finally been upgraded to a stellar Blu-ray presentation; we hope it grabs more appreciative viewers. Though Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) has yet to get the upgrade, the excellent DVD version should be tempting for those whose aptitudes for black comedy (with more than a touch of murder) have been whetted by Pretty Poison.
The first and best feature film to be directed by Noel Black, whose later career would mostly be in television, Pretty Poison was written by prolific scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Papillon and The Parallax View), from a novel by Stephen Geller who, in turn, would write the script for Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Since much of the film’s success resides in the original story and unusual characters, the writers deserve full credit.
Eight years after Psycho, Anthony Perkins plays Dennis Pitt, another disturbed young man, just released from being in an institution for burning down his aunt’s house (with her in it) when he was 15. Dennis, though, is no Norman Bates. He’s a daydreamer and fantasist who becomes enthralled with pretty blonde drum majorette Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld). Convincing her he’s a secret agent for a government unit investigating toxic runoff at the plant where he works, Dennis enlists Sue Ann’s aid to sabotage the factory.
Things go terribly wrong, natch, as Dennis’ schemes run wildly askew with deadly results. Rather than being scared off, however, Sue Ann thrives on the danger and excitement, seizing control just like she appropriates an errant revolver. Like Norman, Sue Ann has an annoying mother (Beverly Garland) she’s ready to deal with. Unlike Norman (ironically!), Dennis can only watch in horror as sweet Sue takes matters into her own capable and deadly hands.
Perkins is good, but Pretty Poison thrives on Weld’s performance. Up to this time, the former co-star of TV’s hip comedy The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis was everyone’s teen queen, despite a troubled private life. Reportedly, she hated her work in Pretty Poison, but she’s as wrong about that as she was when she rejected starring roles in Lolita, Bonnie and Clyde and True Grit. She’s terrific in the film—gorgeous, funny and scary.
Though its plot twists might not seem too original to today’s jaded viewers, Pretty Poison was a real surprise in its own time, and Perkins and Weld, both playing against type, are still a delight to watch, particularly Weld. Along with Lord Love a Duck (1966) and Who’ll Stop the Rain? (1978), Pretty Poison constitutes the consummate Tuesday Weld trifecta.
Three years later, Pretty Maids All in a Row took an even more overt approach to its satiric tale of a series of murders at a California high school, but with decidedly uneven results. On paper, the movie had everything going for it, particularly a European director (Roger Vadim) with serious artistic credentials, and an A-cast, including Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas and Roddy McDowall. The script, moreover, was by future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. And there’s a bevy of hot young starlets (the Maids of the title) in various stages of undress, including the aptly named Joy Bang.
So what went wrong? Certainly not Hudson, who’s in rare form here as a popular high school coach and guidance counselor who, though happily married with a gorgeous wife and young daughter, is unable to resist the lissome lasses from his classes. Savalas is in his best Kojak-mode (two years before the hit TV series) as a detective investigating the growing pile of corpses.
On the other hand, McDowall is totally wasted as the clueless principal; Dickinson does what she can with a silly role as a sexy teacher who gets involved with a horny teen (John David Carson).
Ultimately, the negatives of Pretty Maids All in a Row must be attributed to Roger Vadim and, secondarily, Roddenberry’s script, though it’s hard to know just how closely Vadim followed it or butchered it. Apart from Hudson’s and Savalas’ performances, nearly everything else in the film is heavy-handed, Vadim italicizing, as it were, his satiric jabs. He films women nicely, no doubt, but like Barbarella (his film made just before this one, with Jane Fonda), subtlety was his strength.
In the end, “Pretty Maids” is a great idea but—with the exception of Rock Hudson, Telly Savalas and the charismatic young costars—more curious than accomplished.