Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tonight's Movie: A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

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 (1956).

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.

I can't say I enjoyed Woodward's screen time, as Dorie was almost -- but not quite -- as whiny as Shelley Winters' character in A PLACE IN THE SUN. Certainly, her character was coping with a major life problem, but I felt Woodward's portrayal lacked appeal in terms of both looks and personality. Some of that may have been by design, as it's pretty clear she annoyed Bud as well; surely the only reason he was going out with her in the first place was her moneyed family background, as well as her willingness to have a physical relationship. It quickly becomes clear that Bud's supposed concern for her is all a put-on, and if she can't deliver the riches he's dreamed of, she's expendable.

The intelligent and attractive Ellen and Gordon (Hunter) provide a needed contrast to Bud and Dorie, and I found it especially enjoyable when their characters moved front and center in the second half of the film. I only wish there had been a couple more scenes with their characters interacting as they play detective, as I really enjoyed both actors and would have liked to see their relationship developed further.

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.

2019 Update: I enjoyed seeing this film on a big screen in a 35mm print at the Noir City Hollywood Festival.


Blogger Vienna said...

I haven't seen this film in a long time and after reading your review, I think it's time to catch up.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I agree that the movie is pretty good. More entertaining than PLACE IN THE SUN? Mmmm, maybe. Better than George Stevens' movie? No way.

The plot point which you don't exactly spoil was considered quite a shocker at the time.

I can't disagree with your assessment of Joanne Woodward's character, but her performance of that character is right on the money, I think.

Virginia Leith, on the other hand, is incredibly bland and blank and boring. I find it easy to see why she went from this pretty-big-deal movie to BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE in just a couple of years. She simply was not a good actress. (And she's actually much better in the ridiculous BRAIN as a disembodied head than she is as this glamorous leading lady.)

10:58 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Vienna, I hope you'll write about it when you have the chance to revisit the movie!

Rick, thanks for your feedback! I love a number of George Stevens films, but I'm one of probably a minority of film viewers who strongly dislike A PLACE IN THE SUN.

I'm not familiar with Virginia Leith's career but enjoyed her in this very much. I'll be looking for her other films so I can assess her work in a wider context.

Best wishes,

3:30 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I agree with you about this--it's not only a more entertaining movie than A PLACE IN THE SUN but also a better one. I don't think Stevens really understood that story in PLACE (compare the earlier version AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, directed by Josef von Sternberg, which is much better). I actually used to dislike PLACE more--the last time I thought some things about it came over, specifically the romantic aura created in those Clift/Taylor closeups/dissolves, accompanied by Franz Waxman's memoraable music, which doesn't make it a good movie overall. Very honestly, I am more down than up with George Stevens, who so often seems so studied and overdeliberative--even his best movie SHANE, which is, in the end, great (and he did understand this one perfectly and to moving effect), can be accused of this. Beyond ALICE ADAMS, SWING TIME and THE MORE THE MERRIER, there aren't any others of his that I would be keen to go back to now.

By contrast, screenwriter Lawrence Roman and director Gerd Oswald understood A KISS BEFORE DYING perfectly--not just the pathology but the ambiance and culture of which the movie are a part. Oswald was a brilliant director, which is evident even in a modest filmography such as his (the Western FURY AT SHOWDOWN is especially striking). He certainly didn't have Stevens' opportunities but it's so impressive the way he handled those he did have.

Sorry, Rick but I part company with you on Virginia Leith and wish she too had been given more opportunities--of the few others, she's especially good in a very good role in VIOLENT SATURDAY. And it sure doesn't hurt that she is drop dead gorgeous.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, I really enjoyed your comments on the movie and that you appreciated what was accomplished -- I love what you say about how the film captures the ambiance and the culture as the movie depicts the '50s so vividly.

I most appreciate those amazing shots of Elizabeth Taylor in A PLACE IN THE SUN...but that's where my admiration ends.

Stevens' SWING TIME and THE MORE THE MERRIER are sublime, and along with those and SHANE, off the top of my head I especially enjoyed I REMEMBER MAMA and GIANT. I knew both I REMEMBER MAMA and GIANT first as books (MAMA was called MAMA'S BANK ACCOUNT) and admired how Stevens translated them to the big screen.

Looking over Virginia Leith's short filmography I'm surprised to realize how many I have available to see, including TOWARD THE UNKNOWN which I got from the Warner Archive as one of the stars is a young James Garner. Glad to know someone else appreciated what she had to offer in this film. I also have a recording of FURY AT SHOWDOWN from Encore Westerns so I have more viewing ahead of me to enjoy!

As always, thanks for contributing so much of interest to the discussion!

Best wishes,

9:07 PM  
Blogger Christopher Lindsay said...

I agree: Wagner's performance was truly "chilling." For me, the jazzy opening track was cool, but not appropriate to the film, which is a noir/thriller. Woodward is much better in The Three Faces of Eve. I wrote a short essay on A Kiss Before Dying called "The Charming Psychopath." The film is an accurate depiction of psychopathy. If you would like to read it, here is the link: I am open to any constructive feedback.

7:56 AM  

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