As if anyone needs a reminder, killing someone – especially your pregnant girlfriend – is never, ever a good idea. Bud Corliss, the character Robert Wagner plays in A Kiss Before Dying (1956) never learned that clearly. He always thinks of murder as the first option in many situations and it ultimately leads to his undoing.
The film is based on a novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby) and marked the directing debut of Gerd Oswald. Wagner tried to break from his good-guy image by playing Bud, a twisted college student who only uses people to get rich. At the beginning of the film, he’s dating Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward) and dreams of marrying her so he’ll have access to her father’s wealth. Unfortunately, Dorothy becomes pregnant (She actually says “pregnant” in the film!) and Bud is convinced that her father will disinherit her. So, he puts on an elaborate plot to stage her suicide.
A Kiss Before Dying turns into a prototype Psycho at this point, since the picture shifts focus to Dorothy’s sister Ellen (Virginia Leith), who is convinced that Dorothy wouldn’t kill herself. With the help of Gordon Grant (a bespectacled Jeffrey Hunter), Ellen tries to find the truth. Meanwhile, she’s being romanced by Bud! Gasp! Will Ellen figure out Bud’s connection to her sister in time? You’ll have to see to find out.
Despite being beautifully photographed by Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch) in Cinemascope, the film feels completely wrong for color. It only serves to heighten the ludicrousness of A Kiss Before Dying‘s more melodramatic aspects and robs the film of a chance to be truly dark. The film is at its best when following Wagner’s moody performance, but it often staggers into over-the-top melodrama. Perhaps it’s that Wagner’s supporting cast isn’t really up to the task of following him. As this is only Woodward’s second film, she’s hardly at her best and fails to leave an impression once she’s gone. Hunter doesn’t have much to do but deliver exposition and Leith shows why she never really rose above B-movies.
Mary Astor also shows up in her first film role since 1949 to play Bud’s mother. George Macready plays Ellen and Dorothy’s father.
Kino released the film on Blu-ray earlier this month. The picture shows significant damage, although some scenes look fantastic. But some pulsating colors really get in the way of enjoying the movie. During one key scene between Ellen and her father, the blues are beating like a heart, making it difficult to pay attention to the dialogue. The sound is also quite weak and often required me to raise the volume to hear the dialogue. The only extra is a two-minute trailer.
A Kiss Before Dying is at its best when the twists arrive, even if they are a bit predictable. But there are certainly better thrillers out there. Oswald has a really hard time maintaining tension since the script by Lawrence Roman often brings things to a halt so characters can sit and talk. That said, there’s some fine set-pieces sprinkled in, but this is a movie to see before making a decision on adding it to your collection permanently.
Thanks to Kino for providing the Blu-ray to review!