A Kiss Before Dying signals its intent with a score befitting a light musical or frothy romantic comedy headlined by youthful heartthrob Robert Wagner. For the uninitiated, the story is based on Ira Levin’s novel and remains all but prepared to plunge into the depths of deceitful drama. This happy pretense only remains for an instant.
The first scene of Gerd Oswald’s picture is between two people we would come to know quite well. Joanne Woodward is turned away from the camera and the handsome profile of Robert Wagner is on full display. They share an intimate conversation as she bawls, and he tries to comfort her. The word “pregnant” was a trigger in 1950s society and so much of the dialogue dances around, but the point gets across clearly enough.
This young woman has gotten pregnant, and she’s not married to her young man. They’re still in school. If you’ll allow me the first of many comparisons, Bud Corliss (Wagner) feels like a less conflicted take on Monty Clift’s protagonist in A Place in the Sun. As a sociopath and a man of ambition, he is an even fiercer aberration of the Horatio Alger archetype. He has no intention of remaining with this girl even as he continues to soothe and placate her.
It’s true that premeditated collegiate crime feels so involved in the 1950s. There’s no worldwide web so Bud nabs a book from the school library on toxicology and sneaks into the chemist supply room to mix a deadly cocktail for his girl. His objectives are explicitly clear.
Mary Astor is almost unrecognizable a generation after her greatest successes as Bud’s mother, but she’s still got spunk. Jeffrey Hunter feels a bit out of place in the picture. It’s true his holding court with a pipe throughout the entire movie is not the most believable bit of business for him. If I’m getting my dates right here he is the same year he was cast as young Martin Pawley in The Searchers.
Whether it’s purely bad casting or the fact he gets shoehorned into a convenient role as a college lecturer and part-time police detective, it’s a shame he was not set up for greater success. Regardless of his handsome face, he usually displays an incisive earnestness propelling him into more interesting territory. It plays rather like the inverse of Wagner’s turn here since Wagner pushes past his outward appearance to give us a brooding performance full of palpable malice.
If there is an element of A Place in the Sun in the movie, then the pessimistic adolescent worldview, specifically in the classroom, feels reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause’s Griffith Observatory scene. In a brief classroom discussion of man, reconciling predestination and free will and theological determinism, there’s this same sense of young people having no idea what to make of the philosophy they’re being force-fed. At their worst, they totally disregard its bearing on their lives.
Then, Joanne Woodward’s unceremoniously tossed from the picture. One wonders if it’s her early exit or the fact that it was an early film credit that made her rate the performance lowly.
Regardless, the most obvious touchstone going forward is a bit of Psycho. The intrepid sister (Virginia Leith) of the deceased starts by joining forces with a man to get to the bottom of the death, though she lacks the plucky fire we might easily attribute to Vera Miles.
As a fairly curious filmgoer, I’m always drawn to performers I’ve never been familiar with before. My own viewing habits have a way of fastening onto new faces that intrigue me — often those who I’m unfamiliar with — but they carry the screen in an impressionable manner. Even in a picture like Violent Saturday, Leith turned an eye with a performance that stood out. Here it’s generally amicable but never electrifying.
The film also has two moments that might be considered dramatic “setpieces,” and they both feel generally corny. They lack the Hitchcockian ingenuity, the unrivaled commitment to the vibrant theatricality of Douglas Sirk, or the impassioned emotion of Nicholas Ray. It really is a shame because otherwise, buoyed by a gorgeous palette, the movie suggests all sorts of kinetic energy.
A lot of it flows directly from Wagner, who is delightful front to back as a conniving devil. I only wish there might have been more of Astor and George Macready and that Hunter and Leith were put to better use. The same might be said of Woodward who was on the road to bigger and better things.
We’ve seen this story done better in so many other forms. I’ve listed many of them off quite shamelessly all throughout my discussion; here is part of the core issue. How can you begin to compare A Kiss Before Dying with all these bona fide classics? How do you even begin to compare it with its source material? Instead, if we allow ourselves to remain present, and invested in the individual experience, A Kiss Before Dying is a tantalizing Technicolor noir.