Pretty Poison (1968)

It’s a shame that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Anthony Perkins when he was around, except to keep recasting him as Norman Bates into perpetuity. I mean that both literally in the case of the three(!) Psycho sequels and figuratively in the dozens of Bates-knockoff characters he was asked to play besides. Whenever you catch a glimpse of Perkins venturing slightly outside the tiny corner he was typecast into, the results are always electric. I’m thinking particularly of the sweaty, bugged-out mania of his work in Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (which is admittedly just Norman Bates on an overdose of poppers) and the surrealist filth of his self-directed turn in Psycho III. It would have been nice to see Perkins given the freedom to play a role that couldn’t be described as a dangerous psychopath, but that just wasn’t in the cards. Instead, we have to search for scraps of variance in his frustratingly homogenous career, which feels a lot like being a fan of Vincent Price or Bela Lugosi or any other impeccably skilled horror icon who wasn’t given enough of a chance outside their respective genre boxes.

Pretty Poison is very much one of those post-Psycho roles where Perkins was cast as A Norman Bates Type. The movie even opens on his exit interview with a psychiatrist as he’s being released from a mental institution, so that the film could even play as an unofficial Psycho sequel if you squint at it the right way. Still, it manages to strike a tone that distinguishes this performance from Perkins’s typically deranged presence, even if his broader character traits play on the audience’s familiarity with the actor’s career. In Pretty Poison, Perkins’s expert conveyance of dangerous mental instability is played more for dark, sarcastic humor than it is for genuine terror. It’s a dryly funny movie with a wicked mean streak, allowing Perkins to find hints of sardonic wit within his usual Unhinged Serial Killer oeuvre. His anti-hero protagonist is still dangerously detached from reality here; it’s just that he engages with the real world from a place of distanced, absurdist mockery rather than cold-blooded revenge. In fact, once he’s confronted with a fellow lunatic who is willing to take a few lives while having her own fun, he’s not entirely sure what to do with her.

Tuesday Weld stars opposite Perkins as his young, erratic protegee. Perkins is enraptured with the teenage beauty and—unsure how to approach her in a direct, honest way—pulls her into his fantastical delusions as an unhealthy form of seduction. Perkins lies to the bubbly, seemingly naïve teen about being a secret undercover agent for the CIA, recruiting her for a highly-classified mission of vague intent. What he doesn’t account for is Weld’s potential enthusiasm for the violence of espionage, and she quickly escalates his playful spy fantasies into full-on murderous mayhem. By the time she’s rhythmically drowning an innocent old man between her legs on a riverbank as if she were masturbating to orgasm, Perkins is completely overwhelmed by the inversion of their power dynamic. He spends the rest of the film just trying to keep her indulgences in the bloodshed of their “espionage” to a minimum, completely horrified by how real she’s made the fantasies he used to entertaining as his own private, sarcastic amusement. Serves him right for tricking a teenager into bed, I suppose.

Pretty Poison is a little too weighed down by its era’s Cold War paranoia and teen-girl fetishism to be a total, enduring success. It’s fun enough as a tongue-in-cheek riff on the Bonnie & Clyde template, though, even if its New Hollywood sensibilities feel a little stodgy & forced (especially in the way it clumsily panders to Youth Culture in a throwaway gag about LSD). The real thing that makes the film worth a look is Perkins’s unusually playful performance at the center. He’s cast as yet another Norman Bates Type here, but he manages to find new, subversively comic textures to that archetype that he didn’t always get a chance to explore. Tuesday Weld ably holds her own as his bouncy, murderous foil, but I doubt there are as many movie nerds out there looking to track down her most idiosyncratic performances in the same way (give or take a Thief superfan or two).

-Brandon Ledet

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

I have not yet seen the latest entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise despite its soaring critical consensus, which posits the film as the greatest action epic since Fury Road. This is more a result of scheduling & MoviePass-related mishaps than it is indicative of a lack of interest, as the previous entry in the Tom Cruise series, Rogue Nation, was my favorite episode to date. Even though I’ve somehow missed out on Mission: Impossible – Fallout in its first few weeks on the big screen, it has been on my mind, something the Mila Kunis/Kate McKinnon buddy comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me was banking on as clownish mockbuster counterprogramming. Despite the Bond reference in its title, the timing of The Spy Who Dumped Me’s release is deliberately in tandem with the guaranteed Tom Cruise money-maker, possibly in hopes of offering lighter fare for audiences already in the mood for its spy thriller genre territory. This tactic is unmistakably clear in the very first sequence, where a handsome American spy (Justin Theroux) fights off an undercover contingent of international baddies in a Lithuanian open-air market, a blatant knockoff of the iconic Mission: Impossible theme music soundtracking the affair. There’s no real comedy to this mise-en-scène action set piece opening, just a violent chase through European settings that’s meant to feel like just another spy mission in a long series of international exploits that we’re joining midstream. The sequence concludes with the bang of a makeshift microwave explosive, a violent burst that propels popcorn into the frame for the title card, just to let the audience know this is an escapist summertime version of the serious stuff: a literal popcorn flick. The Spy Who Dumped Me is the light action comedy counterprogramming to Mission: Impossible’s more self-serious espionage thriller offering, and it’s totally charming for that.

As the parodic, less-than-serious version of the modern espionage thriller, The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn’t have to do much to distinguish itself from the Mission: Impossible franchise to avoid direct mockbuster territory. That hurdle it clears with ease. The more difficult task it stumbles over is distinguishing itself from the Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig team-up Spy. In both works, everyday women are inducted into international espionage missions when the action-hero men in their lives (Theroux & Jude Law, respectively) are taken out of commission. The Spy Who Dumped Me only differs from the Spy template by affording its nobody-turned-international-spy protagonist (Mil Kumis) a lifelong bestie sidekick (Kate McKinnon). After being dumped via text message by her undercover spy boyfriend (ostensibly for her own safety), Kunis finds herself in desperate need of an adventurous shake-up to spice up her milquetoast lifestyle. The more free-wheeling McKinnon encourages this new thirst for adventurism with every opportunity she can. When the spy boyfriend is taken out of action and their own safety is compromised, she pushes Kunis to turn this opportunity into a besties’ European vacation. Instead of the usual sight-seeing, selfies, and clubbing exploits of American women traversing Europe, the pair indulge in shoot-outs, car chases, and elaborate heists. They kill people. They’re almost killed. It’s all in good fun. The overall set-up & individual gags are all very similar to Feig’s Spy picture, but the emotional core is less rooted in Kunis’s need to break out of her shell (as was the case with McCarthy’s) than it is in her friendship with McKinnon. The pair push, encourage, challenge, and genuinely love each other enough for the story to distinguish itself from Spy in its central character dynamics, even if all the background detail & overriding genre structure render the two films unavoidably comparable.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is so comfortable with admitting to its Mission: Impossible parallels that it includes the line “Your mission, should you choose to accept it . . .” in an early scene of tiki bar flirtation. I assume its parallels to Spy were much less intentional, a byproduct of the film’s overall adherence to mainstream comedy tropes (including go-to modern comedy gross-outs like flaccid male nudity & extended diarrhea gags). Formulaic comedy foundations have led to plenty enjoyable pictures in the past, tough, typically dependent on the strength of the performers involved. McKinnon does most of the heavy-lifting there are as the film’s de facto clown (a role she eventually takes very literally in a climactic Cirque du Soleil sequence). Her over-the-top SNL energy keeps the mood light & affable, even in scenes where baddies & bystanders are being torn to shreds by bullets. She’s even afforded plenty of room to bring her real-life personality quirks into the role, teaching grotesque bros about feminism & loudly broadcasting her life-long love of Gillian Anderson (playing a fantasy version of Dana Scully who eventually climbed the FBI ranks to head her own espionage bureau). Even if the excitement around Mission: Impossible – Fallout hasn’t ignited an immediate thirst for more (and sillier) espionage thriller content or the memory of Spy is too vivid for you to enjoy its comedically inferior echo, Kate McKinnon alone is well worth the price of admission for The Spy Who Dumped Me. This early in her career it’s still rare to see her afforded extensive, front & center screentime, so this movie cannot be overvalued as a McKinnon showcase. The lagniappe delight in that indulgence is that she gets to participate in a sweet, endearing action comedy about female friendship, one where the action & the friendship dynamic are both surprisingly convincing & well-staged. With that comedic & emotional core, any adherence to genre formula or parallels to more substantial works are beside the point of this self-proclaimed popcorn flick’s in-the-moment entertainment value, which is rich & plentiful throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

Double Agent 73 (1974)

One of the most oddly entertaining aspects of Doris Wishman’s first collaboration with the impossibly buxom Chesty Morgan, Deadly Weapons, was how frustrating it was in its avoidance of delivering on its premise. As the title suggests, Deadly Weapons was billed to feature Chesty Morgan dispensing of bad-guy criminals by killing them with her enormous breasts. It’s a novelty that only occurs twice onscreen in the film, absurdly late into its comically short runtime. Wishman’s punk amateurism & effortless ability to de-sex the sexploitation genre carried the movie through as a bizarre delight, and the film was followed up with a “spiritual sequel” in Double Agent 73. There’s only one boob-related kill in Double Agent 73, and it involves Chesty’s chest being smothered in poison instead of crushing or suffocating her criminal victim. Her titty-enabled espionage takes on an entirely different flavor in this follow-up, one that elevates the entire concept to an even more absurd level of camp cinema delight. Here, Morgan’s weaponized bosom is made to be an espionage tool instead of a lethal weapon. Through surgery, her rack is fashioned into essentially being the world’s largest, most conspicuous “hidden” camera. The results aren’t as sexy as they may have been intended to be, but they are far more hilariously absurd & more plentifully deployed than the killer tits conceit of Deadly Weapons, which stands out as the lesser Wishman-Morgan collaboration (a minor distinction, but an important one).

Chesty Morgan stars as the titular Agent 73, a James Bond-modeled international spy who hides in plain sight as a burlesque dancer. Her latest mission is to assassinate an evil syndicate of heroin dealers headed by the mysterious crime boss Toplar (sometimes humorously referred to as “Mr. T” for short). Toplar’s true identity and Agent 73’s descent down the heroin crime ring rabbit hole are obviously not the main draw in this soft-core nudie thriller. The glory of the movie’s hook it that a spy camera is surgically implanted in the buxom agent’s ample breasts. She’s instructed by her higher-ups to assassinate several men within the heroin ring and to take a picture of every kill after completion, a mission that conveniently requires her to frequently strip to the waist. Her camera isn’t necessarily aimed at anything in particular when she snaps these photos and every deployment of it is matched with a loud shutter sound that consistently elicits giggles. It’s difficult to pick a favorite deployment of the titty-cam conceit in the film: The post-surgery nurse-kill where she takes a picture even though the camera is still covered by a bandage? The scene where she sneaks into a criminal’s office to whip out her titties over a stack of top secret documents? The Deadly Weapons callback with the poison bosom? Double Agent 73 gets a lot more mileage out of its booby-themed espionage than its predecessor, while still sticking to that sweet, sweet 70min runtime.

I’m still getting accustomed to what distinguishes A Doris Wishman Film from other examples of blissfully absurd sexploitation, but Double Agent 73 more than earns her signature cartoon title card in the opening credits. Wishman has a distinctly anti-erotic approach to filmmaking that’s on full display in this movie’s uncomfortable close-ups, heavy breathing, and bizarre intrusions of bloody violence. A trip to a nudist camp recalls her early nudie cutie works like Nude on the Moon. A bizarrely edited homage to the shower scene from Psycho recalls her total-meltdown slasher A Night to Dismember. The snazzy jazz & sped-up fistfights recall her roughies like Bad Girls Go to Hell and Another Day, Another Man. In its own way, Double Agent 73 might be the distilled ideal of a Doris Wishman film: it’s short, blissfully absurd, oversaturated in aggressively unerotic nudity, and follows through on its over-the-top premise in a way more of her films could stand to. There’s a consistency to Wishman’s D.I.Y., unerotic filmmaking craft that never changed over her decades as a schlockteur, for better or for worse. The gems in her catalog, then, are naturally going to be the ones built on ludicrous premises like Double Agent 73’s. It’s not only her best collaboration with Chesty Morgan; it’s likely one her most worthwhile films overall.

-Brandon Ledet