A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

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.

3.5/5 Stars

Violent Saturday (1955)

“It’s so stupid and pointless to be alive in the morning and dead in the afternoon.”

There’s a lovely contradiction in crafting a De Luxe noir in Cinemascope. It’s visually luscious and still shot on the kind of cheapo budget Richard Fleischer was able to make sing early in his career. This fits its ambitions as a bit of a genre hybrid.

The town of Bradenville is butted up against the mountains with a prominent mining industry. They also happen to represent everything that’s good and decent about an American town in the 1950s. Stephen McNally appears to be one of their ilk, just returned to town on business by bus. He chats up the desk clerk at the hotel and settles into his room.

However, anyone with any familiarity with McNally, knows he must have an angle. True to form, he will shortly be joined by two accomplices as they plan out their robbery of the local bank. The train goes hurtling down the tracks toward town with Lee Marvin and J. Carroll Naish.

It’s a visual cue that feels rather reminiscent of Bad Day at Black Rock, and in some general sense, the comparison is not too far off base. For one, we have the return of both Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. The former is a sickly thug in gray, who doesn’t go anywhere without his inhaler, while still burning with that typical sadism. Borgnine, for his part, has a rather twee role as the patriarch of an Amish family. It’s true the crucial element of the plot revolves around these three criminals convening in the hotel to case the local bank and lay out their plans to break in.

However, there’s also this sprawling, rather unnerving gravitas to the whole scenario. The story introduces a number of key figures throughout the town, and it does a fine job of building out the world from there to make it feel alive and expansive beyond just a handful of main players.

Bespectacled Mr. Reeves at the bank (Tommy Noonan) holds down a reliable job. Like much of the local male population, Nurse Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith) has his heart all aflutter. It doesn’t matter much what she’s doing. Sylvia Sidney is a librarian who has fallen on hard times with the bank threatening her with punitive action.

Victor Mature is a family man who helps run the copper mines alongside the company manager (Richard Egan), who has a troubled marriage. He spends more time with a bottle than with his wife. She in turn can be found on the golf course with a dashing gigolo (Brad Dexter). It seems ridiculously easy for such a patchwork to feel convoluted and yet it rarely loses itself.

Because the pieces always feel attached and deeply entwined in the town’s buried indiscretions. And I’m not just speaking of the clandestine heist. You have the moment when a thief and a peeping tom out walking his dog meet on the street late at night outing one another.

In another scene, the local siren and the equally alluring wife have it out over the man who now lies in sleepy inebriation on the couch of his gorgeous mansion. These mini-conflicts aren’t the point of the movie in so many terms, but they leave an impression adding up to a kind of tableau that’s ripe with all sorts of sordid bits of drama. It’s a world where children get into fights in the streets and small-town love feels tainted.

In one of its most sublime moments it takes a drugstore, that beacon of Middle America you often see represented in pictures like The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life. They’re a local watering hole of sorts and in this film, it serves to tie all the movie’s various strands together in one moment of choreographed synthesis.

From thenceforward we see it all unfold. The tension is a bit like watching all the plates spinning and not wanting them to fall while at the same time realizing a bank robbery is about to take place. The moment arrives and it gives off all the alarms. However, there are other moments built into it. Take how one of the bank robbers — the bookish one — hands a feisty kid a piece of candy, and it quiets him down. He performed the same act on a train with a group of Amish. These are the types of touches allowing you to recognize the humanity and something beyond the mere cookie-cutter objectives of a movie script.

It’s a horrible thing to realize lives we’ve come to understand if not totally appreciate are not sacred. They too can be snuffed out like any of us. Nor does it desist with the violence. In its day, it was probably deemed graphic. Whether or not that remains entirely true now, Violent Saturday is another one of the old movies that actually lives up to its name as much as can be expected.

Victor Mature and the meek Amish patriarch played by Borgnine must hold their own against the three bank robbers after being locked away in a barn silo. In a different time and place, they might throw out the key that the bandits needed and then they would go their separate ways. However, the very sinews of the characters whether its their religious sentiments or moral fibers, make it imperative that they stand up against this evil even if it’s not the devil himself and only a group of man overtaken by avarice and human corruption. In some small way, they redeem or at least preserve the American ideal. They are projected as heroes to the awe of the neighborhood kids.

The only perceivable letdown with the picture might be the way it wraps up. In some sense, it gives us more than we need in terms of denouement. In others, it leaves us guessing, but even in this, there’s something apropos about the movie sinking back into this status quo of post-war America. It gives the illusion of everything being patched back together like all those folks in the hospital, but you never know what future threats will present themselves. Until then, some men get to live as heroes and others have to grieve irreplaceable losses. It doesn’t seem fair.

4/5 Stars