A handsome, socially climbing young man resorts to murder when his dreams of marrying into the upper class are thwarted. This description may immediately call to mind A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951), but it's also the storyline of the lesser-known -- and frankly more entertaining -- A KISS BEFORE DYING.
Robert Wagner plays Bud Corliss, a 25-year-old college student who lives with his widowed mother (Mary Astor). (It's assumed he's a Korean War vet due to his age and a reference to the government giving him a larger stipend if he's married.) As the film begins, Bud's awkward but very wealthy girlfriend Dorie (Joanne Woodward) has just told him she's two months pregnant.
One might assume that if Bud marries Dorie he'll achieve his goal of life among the upper crust, but Dorie is convinced that the unplanned pregnancy will cause her rigid, controlling father (George Macready) to disinherit her. She tells Bud they're going to have to make it on their own, but she believes their love will conquer all.
Bud's carefully laid plans to court Dorie and win her father's acceptance seem to be up in smoke, so he decides his only option is to kill her and move on to Plan B. Bud takes Dorie to get a marriage license, but just as in A PLACE IN THE SUN, when they arrive the office is closed. Rather than taking her rowing, he takes her up to the roof to see the view...
Months later, Dorie's smart, elegant sister Ellen (Virginia Leith) comes to suspect Dorie didn't throw herself off the roof. She begins to investigate Dorie's death with the help of a nice young professor (Jeffrey Hunter) who had known Dorie and whose uncle (Howard Petrie) is the sheriff in charge of the case.
Meanwhile, Ellen also has a handsome new boyfriend in her life and is about to announce her engagement, with the support of her newly mellowed father.
I found this film highly entertaining, with a good cast and a gorgeous widescreen '50s look. The automobiles, sets, costumes, and location shooting in Tucson provide pure colorful eye candy, shot in CinemaScope by Lucien Ballard. A jazzy opening title track is another plus; the film's score is by Lionel Newman, with orchestrations by Billy May and Nelson Riddle.
Wagner is quite chilling as the young man whose smooth moves cover up a deeply disturbed individual, capable of plotting multiple killings. His two-sided relationship with his doting mother is rather fascinating; he piles on the charm with her face to face, but behind her back he reacts to her taste with disgust. His condescension spills out in front of her when he believes she's chosen the wrong attire for an important event late in the film; he lets loose with criticism, undermining her confidence at a key moment. Astor is quietly heartbreaking as Bud's proud yet hurt mother; one hates to think of what she would go through when she learns the truth about her son.
Macready lends some nuance to his role as the uptight father, slowly learning from past mistakes as he navigates his relationship with his surviving daughter.
The supporting cast includes Robert Quarry, Bill Walker, and Marlene Felton.
The movie runs 94 minutes; although I would have appreciated a couple more scenes with Leith and Hunter, that's another nice contrast with the bloated 122-minute running time of A PLACE IN THE SUN.
The film was directed by Gerd Oswald. The Lawrence Roman screenplay was based on a novel by Ira Levin. The movie was remade in 1991.
The MGM DVD has the widescreen print on one side of the disc and a fullscreen print on the other. I watched the letterboxed print, which was beautiful.
The DVD can be rented from Netflix, which also has the movie available for streaming. It can also be streamed at Amazon Instant Video.
2016 Update: This movie is now available on Blu-ray from Kino, and it's also available on a "manufactured on demand" DVD-R from MGM.