Film Studies: Hansel and Gretel go crazy in the Sixties

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The Independent Culture

Remember Pretty Poison? Well, the 1968 film of that name is at last being released on DVD. It does not have too much on its side nearly 40 years later: its director, Noel Black, is in limbo - which means that he has not lived up its high achievement; one of its stars, Anthony Perkins, is dead and Perkins is nowadays smothered by the image and legend of Norman Bates in Psycho. As for its other star, Tuesday Weld, well she doesn't have much of a public life these days and that is likely because she barely resembles the Weld of 1968, the one who missed the role of Bonnie Parker because she was pregnant, and who instead played Sue Ann Stepanek in Pretty Poison.

Let me try to tell you its story. The setting is a small town in the north-east. Dennis Pitt (Perkins) has just emerged from an institution. He is on probation, but his friendly probation officer gets him a job at a lumber company. Dennis is 35 or so, which was approximately Perkins' age at the time. He seems disturbed, yet harmless. He takes a lot of photographs of the mill. He meets Sue Ann, a high school drum majorette (Weld was 25 at the time and playing a good deal younger).

They are attracted: he tells her he is in the CIA, investigating the mill; she wants to help him and he agrees - if she will go to bed with him. They become a team and sabotage the mill. When a guard discovers this, Sue Ann clubs him to death. They are about to elope to Mexico when Sue Ann's mother finds them - so she has to be killed. When Dennis turns feeble, Sue Ann does the deed herself without turning a hair. Dennis turns himself in, but Sue Ann has beaten him to it and already informed the police about his killings. He doesn't argue. He just says he loves Sue Ann and goes to prison. Sue Ann is still at liberty, and still exactly what the title is all about.

I haven't really given anything away. From early on, you know how this fairy story is going to end. Still, that erasure of suspense is maybe one reason why the film failed. Another was its failure to follow the common trend of that age: that pretty kids offing older people was not just understandable, it was a message the young audience was eager to hear. But in the case of Pretty Poison, it's plain that this Hansel and Gretel are both crazy - one in a forlorn, sad, male way; the other with an unconsidered, female intensity that would be terrifying if Tuesday Weld was not so great an actress that she makes you think of Alice, Lolita and your first girl-friend as much as Lizzie Borden.

What is most intriguing therefore in Pretty Poison is the Americanness of so many elements of the story - and the complete otherness of its cool tome. For a start, these kids are barely warped versions of American ideals. She is a high school queen; he is a boy who has turned 35 overnight.

The sex is furtive. The violence is open. And there's a wonderful, lunatic failure to register life against any higher cause. But what is alien is the absolute refusal to sentimentalise these kids, to mend them, or to suggest that the warping can be ironed out. This is a comic nightmare just because a girl can and will murder her mother without a tremor of doubt or guilt. The madness is in the air and the water - but how many in America were wise or detached enough to enjoy the black humour. Just consider: The Graduate sets up a similar kind of madness and then has the kids come to their true emotional senses and mend the daft world. Pretty Poison says there is no repair and in the 38 years since it was made we have not been short of proof of that bleak credo. So we might as well treasure this barbed picture.

'Pretty Poison' (Second Sight £19.99) is out now on DVD