Drama, Thriller

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

Comments Off on A Kiss Before Dying (1956) 21 February 2016

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Studio: MGM

Theatrical Release: June 12, 1956

DVD Release: December 16, 2014

Rating: Not Rated

Directed by Gerd Oswald

Review by Tim Bodzioney

 

Given the talent involved and its reputation, A Kiss Before Dying is a disappointment.  Based on Ira Levin’s (No Time For Sergeants, Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil) 1953 debut novel and winner of the 1954 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.  The script was adapted by Lawrence Roman (Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Paper Lion, Red Sun, McQ).  It was the first feature by director Gerd Oswald and was shot by the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard.

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It’s the story of a young, handsome Army vet from the wrong side of the tracks whose ambitions exceed his talents and whose sociopathic drive for success leads to multiple murders.  The material is pregnant with themes ranging from American materialism, Oedipal complexes, and classism.  It’s as if Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy had been written by Cornel Woolrich and the film version directed by Douglas Sirk.

Robert Wagner, shedding his bland male ingénue persona (Halls of Montezuma, What Price, Glory?, Titanic) convincingly plays serial killer Bud Corliss.  He sets his eyes on worming his way into Leo Kingship’s copper mining fortune by seducing Kingship’s daughter Dorothy (Joanne Woodward — in her second feature film).  Not everything goes as planned for Bud as Dorothy gets knocked up and there’s only one solution to unwanted pregnancies for a psycho — murder.

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It’s interesting that Wagner’s career didn’t move in this darker direction.  In television Wagner is always cast as suave, urbane, and debonair (It Takes a Thief, Hart to Hart).  The thought of him playing son to Fred Astaire (the real deal) in It Takes a Thief makes my head hurt.  When asked to convey these qualities Wagner comes off as smarmy and insincere.  That very insincerity makes his Bud believable.  Wagner is always best playing spoiled, shallow, fraternity- boy-like playboys or cads (The Pink Panther, Harper, The Towering Inferno).

The novel’s deliriously over the top plot intentionally veers into black comedy.  The tone of the movie is more restrained with the plot compressed and whitewashed for 1950’s movie audiences.  Censorship does away with themes ranging from abortion to military training breeding murderers.  Perhaps it was too soon after World War ll to depict vets as programed killing machines.  Six years later, The Manchurian Candidate would demolish this taboo.  And a mere fifteen years later it seemed that every man who served in Vietnam was a ticking time bomb on prime time television!  The novel also employs a clever device involving Bud’s identity that may be impossible to film.

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Before being promoted to director, Gerd Oswald learned his craft working as assistant director for Billy Wilder (A Foreign Affair, Sunset Blvd.), Joseph Mankiewicz (Five Fingers), and most interestingly for George Stevens on his adaptation of An American Tragedy, A Place in the Sun.  As a director Oswald directed some interesting projects, like the late-career Barbara Stanwyck melodrama Crime of Passion, Anita Ekberg in Screaming Mimi, and Claire Bloom and Curd Jurgens in Brainwashed.  Missteps include Bob Hope’s Paris Holiday.  But that may be just Oswald’s misfortune of catching a major talent on the downswing because no director is able to save Hope’s later vehicles (and I’m an unapologetic Hope fan) including Frank Tashlin.  Soon after Oswald gets lost in the sausage grinder of television, a medium that prizes performer over director, churning out superior episodes of Perry Mason, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek.

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While generally well directed with a couple of excellently constructed set pieces the movie doesn’t seem particularly well observed.  Perhaps the darkly satirical American class conscious material of A Kiss Before Dying eluded the German-born Oswald.  This material is more suitable to someone like Alfred Hitchcock — as in Psycho.

Actors I like are either miscast, the elegant and slightly effete George Macready playing a role better suited for the bombastic Broderick Crawford, or wasted, Jeffrey Hunter, playing an impossible-to-believe role, there only to advance the plot.  Mary Astor’s role of Mrs. Corliss is watered down thereby losing some of the novel’s most biting social commentary.  This is unfortunate because Astor playing similarly unglamorously roles in movies like An Act of Violence delivers the goods.  Then there is the sanitized climax, again obviously due to censorship where unpunished (even if justified) murder is switched to an accident.

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Cinematographer Lucien Ballard (The Killing, Ride The High County, The Wild Bunch) cannot shoot a bad looking movie.  This is no exception.  The movie looks great, but the transfer is another matter.  I’m guessing it is an older transfer with colors on the dull side and there is a problem with the blues in certain scenes – perhaps damage to the original elements?  They seem to take on a life of their own.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it before and I’m curious to see if the upcoming Blu-Ray corrects these artifacts.

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And finally, I’d be remiss not to mention the film’s leading lady, Virginia Leith.  It looks like Leith was being groomed for stardom at Fox (Black Widow, Violent Saturday), where this film originated before ending up with Fox boss Darryl Zanuck’s son-in-law, producer Robert L. Jacks at United Artists.  Leith is fine, if inexperienced, but it looks like the Gods of Movie Stardom were not on her side as only a few years later she would end her movie career appearing, well, at least her head appears in the trashy classic, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

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Rating: ★★½☆☆

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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