Anthony Perkins in “Pretty Poison”
Anthony Perkins in “Pretty Poison”

No one else could portray neurotic young men quite as well as Anthony Perkins. From Fear Strikes Out to Psycho and beyond, Perkins specialized in playing guys who, despite being burdened with major psychological problems, could still engage an audience’s sympathy — even after committing murder in a spooky old motel.

Though getting a little long in the tooth for such roles by 1968 (he was 36 that year), Perkins remained up to the task for director Noel King’s Pretty Poison. Perkins’ performance in this hard to pigeonhole character study can be enjoyed at 8:30 pm on Friday, August 24th, when the film makes a rare repertory appearance as part of Pacific Film Archive’s annual (and free) sculpture garden lawn screening.

Dennis Pitt (Perkins) is a parolee ready to re-enter society. Having accrued a good record during his confinement (for what is not immediately clear), Pitt makes a misstep with sympathetic case officer Azanauer (John Randolph) by joking – we think! — about the secret course he’s recently taken in interplanetary navigation. The overworked Azanauer has arranged accommodations and a job for him at a lumber mill, and doesn’t want to hear about Dennis’s dreams of piloting the first manned flight to Venus.

A year later, Dennis — who’s completely ignored his parole officer’s instructions — is working at Sausenfeld’s Chemical Company, where he inspects mysterious bottles of red fluid from behind a plexiglass screen. Living in an Airstream trailer, listening to radio broadcasts in Russian, and taking pictures with a Minox (the spy camera of choice during the Cold War era), Dennis lives a decent, if somewhat Spartan, existence. The only thing missing is someone to share it with.

Enter Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), the pretty blonde flag bearer for the local high school drill team. The long distance apple of Dennis’s eye, Sue Ann meets him at a local lunch counter, where his enigmatic behavior immediately attracts her attention. Buying his tale of being a CIA agent, she’s soon assisting Dennis in his efforts to stymie a communist plot to poison the local water supply, but the game goes badly awry – and Dennis discovers he may have met his match in the fantasy sweepstakes.

Shot on location in and around Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Pretty Poison was one of only a handful of feature films helmed by Black, who spent most of his career working in television. Apparently, he didn’t get along well with Weld, who professes that this was the worst performance of her career. I beg to differ.

With a Lorenzo Semple, Jr., screenplay based on a novel by Stephen Geller, the film is in some respects a distaff version of another terrific 1968 cult favorite, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. Blessed with a terrific supporting cast – including the marvelous Beverly Garland as Sue Ann’s seen-it-all mother and Dick O’Neill as Dennis’s grumpy boss – Pretty Poison is the perfect way to spend a late summer night under the stars. Remember to bring a blanket!

For more information about the free outdoor screening, visit BAM-PFA.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...