Based on Ira Levin's 1953 novel, Gerd Oswald's A Kiss Before Dying (1956) casts one of the 1950's most congenial heartthrobs, Robert Wagner, as a psychotic murderer; his good looks sheathing more than killer charm. Levin's novel won the Edgar Allen Poe Writer's Award and it is to Oswald's credit the movie retains a goodly amount of its’ darkly sinister atmosphere - even if the book's more salacious aspects are implied rather than revealed in this lush Cinemascope production. The screenplay by Lawrence Roman jettisons the first act of Levin's novel - the back story or 'making of' a psychopath – to jump right into the present day. In hindsight, the genius of the picture lay in the decision to cast Wagner; then, considered the slick and stylish male pin-up of his era. The irony of Wagner’s career is that it is mostly predicated on his astonishing good looks and a bravura ego. While other male beauties of any vintage have fallen by the waste side with the passage of time, in proportion to the erosion of their undeniable physical assets, Wagner has continued to find gainful employment in both the movies and on TV long into his emeritus years; perhaps, something about that toothy, devil-may-care swagger perfected as the rather impudent young buck, forgiven just about anything because he fears nothing in front of a camera. Hollywood then, as now, is tenuously balanced on an illusion of smoke and mirrors. Sex appeal goes a long way – too far, perhaps - but only so far in the end. Eye-candy is simply that – and not altogether satisfying without the personality and/or chutzpah to make it stick.
In A Kiss Before Dying, Wagner becomes the unsuspecting root of all evil. At least in hindsight, he makes evil so innocuous – if sinfully handsome – his performance seems to foreshadow Hitchcock’s decision to supplant author, Robert Bloch’s original notion of the pudgy middle-aged serial killer with all-American Tony Perkins for the big screen adaptation of his novel, Psycho (1960). A Kiss Before Dying is subversively elegant – beginning with Wagner’s self-assured cock of the walk. The film is patently a product of the fresh-faced California lifestyle, circa mid-1950’s; Hollywood’s idealized post-war America, observed as a panacea of fin-tailed cars, plush shag carpets and weekend respites to fashionable country club retreats, populated by ivy-leagued/poodle-skirt debutantes and crew cut, cardigan sweater/varsity letter-wearing young men, deprived of their precious male initiative, and thus, never even thinking to take advantage of a young girl’s easy virtue. Emerging from the shadows, like a jungle cat ready to pounce into all this undisturbed modernity and classicism, is Bud Corliss – not of their ilk, though fitfully eager to acquire his toehold into this parallel universe of privilege and affluence.
Alas, Bud has not played his cards right. In short order, we will come to realize he has absolutely no intension of playing by their rules either. He might have found his ‘niche’ with Dorothy 'Dorie' Kingship (Joanne Woodward) – an exceptionally naïve good girl from a good home who has made at least two glaring blunders that will ultimately cost her everything. Overly zealous, jealous and sexed to the gills, Bud has broken the cardinal rule of admission into this cultured sect; namely, having knocked-up the virgin-esque daughter of a wealthy industrialist, certain to squash both Bud and his chances for future advancement like the proverbial bug once the truth comes out. Overnight, Bud’s options in life have been whittled down to two…okay, one. He could marry Dorie on the sly, incurring her parents’ wrath temporarily though nevertheless making ‘an honest woman’ of her before anyone realizes the deed is already done. But even Bud can see this would likely have its immediate and stifling repercussions and lingering fallout on his long-term social mobility; his Teflon-coated reputation no longer intact. So, on to option two – murder. It all sounds like a Dateline episode, doesn’t it? But for the button-down fifties, the idea any man – but particularly one as smolderingly sexy as Bud – would kill his lover and their unborn child simply to avoid the altar and ‘get ahead’ in life, was not only shocking but (choke!) progressive.
In lieu of the whole Natalie Wood scandal that continues to swirl around Wagner to this day, his performance as Bud Corliss has taken on a far more picaresque quality than it probably possessed in 1956. For those living under a rock or unknowing of any past history that predates their origin of birth, Wagner and Wood were one of Hollywood’s fairytale couples of the mid-1950’s; incredibly talented and impossibly sexy. Alas, like all good fairytales, this one had its dark side. The couple would separate and later divorce in 1962, only to remarry a decade later, after Wood’s second marriage failed; a reunion lasting until the night of Nov. 28th, 1981 when Wood ‘disappeared’ from her husband’s moored yacht; her body fished from the surf near Santa Catalina Island the next morning. Although Wood’s death was ruled as accidental at the inquest, in 2009, the former captain of the vessel openly admitted he had lied under oath. Wood’s body was later exhumed and a second autopsy conducted; the cause of death altered from ‘accidental’ to ‘undetermined’. Interesting now to think of life imitating art or art foreshadowing life, as the case may be herein; Wagner’s performance in A Kiss Before Dying doing more to suggest he possesses a disturbingly roguish streak, capable of anything. I suspect that is why they call it ‘acting’. And in the many years that have since shrouded Wood’s demise and dogged Wagner’s reputation with tabloid-esque fervor to intimate either he, or fellow passenger aboard the yacht, Christopher Walken – were more insidiously involved in a cover-up – Wagner’s performance in this movie, at least, continues to evolve on a more disquieting verisimilitude.
Bud Corliss is a working class guy, doted on by his mother (Mary Astor). He can hear the lonely whistle of the trains even if he cannot afford the fare to ride them. Enrolled in college, Bud has been hot and heavy with Dorothy 'Dorie' Kingship (Joanne Woodward), an impressionable young woman of wellborn pedigree. Dorie cannot see past Bud’s adoring gaze. She might have first tried to analyze his petty larceny by peering into them a little deeper. Why is Bud so secretive about their affair? He will not even hold hands with Dorie in public. It doesn’t make any sense, particularly as Dorie is one of two heirs to a copper mining fortune. Regrettably, her father, Leo (George Macready) is something of a tyrant. Actually, he just wants Dorie to straighten up and fly right. Getting knocked up is not part of George’s future plans for his little angel – nor Bud’s grand love ‘em, then leave ‘em seduction after he gets what he wants. Knowing Leo will likely disinherit Dorie if he finds out about the illegitimate baby she is carrying, Budd plots to get rid of the evidence. But Dorie wants this baby. So, Bud decides to dispose of his girlfriend instead; first, by poisoning her with pills stolen from the chemistry lab. Pitched to Dorie as vitamins to keep her and their child healthy, Bud's plot goes awry when Dorie decides not to take the drugs. Bud's next move is to devise a clever suicide. He gets Dorie to 'transcribe' her own suicide letter into English from a Spanish text, then tells Dorie they are to be married by a Justice of the Peace the next afternoon.
Deliberately arriving during lunch hour, at which time the office is closed, Bud suggests to Dorie they trot up a few flights to the roof and wait for the office to reopen (shades of George Stevens’ 1951 masterpiece, A Place in the Sun). Bud tells Dorie she will never know how much he loves her; then tosses her over the side of the building to her death. Post haste, Bud sneaks from the building unseen and mails Dorie's 'suicide note' to Leo. It all seems perfect. But murder never is, and as time passes neither Professor Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter) nor Dorie's devoted sister, Ellen (Virginia Leith) believes her death was an accident. Leo urges Ellen to put the nightmare behind them. She agrees, to satisfy daddy, but does exactly the opposite. Learning from Gordon her sister was involved with someone on campus, Ellen accidentally comes to suspect Dwight Powell (Richard Quarry); a tennis pro in his senior year. In a dangerous game of cat and mouse, Ellen tricks Powell into meeting her at a local watering hole, but quickly realizes she has made a terrible mistake. Unhappy chance, Powell remembers Dorie's boyfriend quite well and even believes he has a name and address he can give Ellen back at his dorm.
Powell takes Ellen to his residence. As it is not co-ed, Ellen agrees to wait in the lobby while Powell goes upstairs to search for the information. Unfortunately, Bud is already waiting there to ambush Powell and shoot him dead. Making off with Powell's phone book, Bud lays low for several months, gradually ingratiating his way into Ellen's life. The two become involved and later engaged. Meanwhile, Gordon connects the dots between Dorie and Bud and confronts Ellen and Leo with the news Bud was Dorie's lover. Leo believes Gordon, but Ellen defies them both and decides to take Bud on a tour of her father's copper mines to clear the air. Despite her belief in Bud's innocence, Ellen's conscience will not rest until she knows the truth for sure. She goads Bud into revealing certain intimate aspects about her sister's life that only a lover would know. On a narrow stretch of road overlooking the Kingship Mines, Bud confesses to Ellen he is Dorie's cold-blooded killer. Now, he tries to murder Ellen too by throwing her in front of an oncoming truck. In a twist of fate, this attempt backfires. Ellen is hurled to the ground, the driver of the truck, swerving to avoid her, runs over Bud instead. Leo rushes to his daughter’s side; the sadder but wiser girl left to reconsider her naïveté as Bud’s battered remains are taken away.
A Kiss Before Dying is more melodramatic than suspenseful; though I suspect this to be part of its enduring charm. Levin's book is far more gruesome than the film. In fact, in the novel, Bud murders Ellen too, pursuing a third relationship with Marion, the youngest daughter of the Kingship clan (a character entirely omitted from the film). In the novel's climactic confrontation, Marion actually tosses Bud into a molten hot vat of copper where he is boiled alive. Despite the sanitizing of this rather lurid and pulpy material, director Gerd Oswald gets a lot of economy out of Lucien Ballard's evocative noir-ish cinematography in DeLuxe Color, and, Lawrence Roman's masterful condensing of the finer plot points that move the story along at a breakneck pace in just a little over an hour and a half. Robert Wagner is particularly engaged as the corrosive lover with murder in his heart. Again, it is hard –and mildly painful - to watch Wagner’s performance and not be reminded of the late Natalie Wood or the possibility the more artful ‘kismet’ ending of the film has avenged a sin no amount of time, revised autopsies or more probing investigations into ‘the truth’ can.
Wagner gives a bone-chilling performance as Bud Corliss; a man with no scruples or personal integrity. Joanne Woodward is convincing as the young innocent. We can skip Virginia Leith’s rubber-bra padded version of Nancy Drew meets Bettie Page; stock sexpot, possessing zero on-screen chemistry; and almost forgive Jeffrey Hunter - relegated to the backdrop, with only a handful of lines to involve his character in this story – for being more wooden than a stick of kindling. In 1991, someone at Universal Studios thought it prudent to remake A Kiss Before Dying; director, James Dearden’s epic misfire yielding predictably disastrous results, co-starring charm-free Matt Dillon and stiff-as-a-board, Sean Young – playing the sisters as twins. Like so many movies, it is the original that counts. A Kiss Before Dying still holds up; I suspect because of the ongoing and insidious infatuation we have with the final hours of Natalie Wood’s life. Did Wagner kill his wife, using the template as concocted for the almost perfect crime gleaned from this movie? Hmmmm.
Kino Lorber, the custodians of far too many substandard MGM/UA releases in hi-def, deliver yet another underwhelming 1080p experience. A Kiss Before Dying was independently produced by Crown, but distributed through UA. Regrettably, in remastering this film for home video, MGM has lopped off the UA logo and replaced it with their own. MGM’s old DVD was fairly impressive, so A Kiss Before Dying ought to have looked stellar on Blu-ray. But it’s MGM, remember…and cribbing from the same elements used to master the DVD. And so, what we have here is a master predating today’s technologies and achieved for one format, up-rezed merely to accommodate another. Yes, things do tighten up, but never to reveal outstanding levels of sharpness or clarity. Want more proof it’s an old master? The brief examples of age-related damage evident on the old DVD appear in exactly the same spots on this Blu-ray. Colors are vibrant, but again – not of the eye-popping brilliance we are used to on Blu-ray. Contrast is okay, but blacks look a tad anemic. Whites are generally pristine; flesh tones, natural. The middle reel exhibits slight 'breathing' and the occasional soft flicker and strobe; again, not terribly distracting but obvious and easily corrected using today’s technologies. Don’t expect refined grain, though occasionally the image can look passably accurate and satisfying. We get a tad more information revealed on all four sides of the anamorphic frame. Ho-hum – expected. The audio is DTS but misses out on giving us the original 4-track Westrex stereo. Why am I not surprised? The only extra is a well-worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: if you already own this one on DVD, keep it and save your cash for a studio willing to put up some of theirs – along with more than a modicum of effort – into doing better work and right by their back catalog of golden oldies. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)