Robert Wagner's finest hour?
, 19 Feb 2006
Gerd Oswald's excellent film was his first and perhaps his best, as well as arguably providing Robert Wagner's finest hour. Like Tony Curtis was to do a decade later in The Boston Strangler (1968), screen pretty-boy Wagner took the role of the cunning sociopath Bud Corliss partly in an attempt to prove he could act darker parts than his fans had been used to. Taken from a novel by Ira Lewin (whose work also inspired Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys From Brazil) the film is a well mounted, taut B-movie, albeit shot widescreen in Deluxe Color by no less a talent than Lucien Ballard, who later went on to do sterling work for such directors as Sam Peckinpah. His crisp cinematography reveals a land dressed in bright open colours, where American meritocracy is secure and, on the surface at least, all seems right. As such, it carries echoes of contemporaneous romantic fluff such as Pillow Talk as well as some of the late, luscious films by Douglas Sirk.
Watching A Kiss Before Dying however is a wholly different experience from Sirk's ironic stagings of smug Eisenhower society, this despite the presence of a clean-cut, pipe smoking Professor Grant (Jeffrey Hunter). His academic character, perhaps the least convincing in the film, is more of a straightforward stereotype than the German director would ever manage, but acts as a counterweight to Corliss' callous misuse of his own good looks and intelligence. Self-satisfied and entirely free of remorse, the student is thus a much more modern figure than the academic, and his presence undermines Grant's rather ineffectual 1950s' decency. Oswald's minor classic focuses on this cold heart - an individual whose ambition, and eventual downfall, might have found its roots in such earlier films as Ulmer's Ruthless (1948), as well as it anticipates some of Hitchcock's work.
Although it is only mentioned briefly, Corliss has obviously been affected by his experience in the war ('It's my side where I was wounded,' he says at one point, and one of the first things we see are military photographs.) The implication, typical of noir, is that the conflict has affected his mental state. Corliss is a promising student, who lives alone with his mother (Mary Astor). As the film begins he is learning of the unexpected pregnancy of his girlfriend Dorothy (Joanne Woodward). Despite his outward concerns and pledge to marry the woman, he secretly plots to dispose of her before moving on to her sister Ellen (Virginia Leith). At the same time Ellen suspects that her sister's eventual suicide was not entirely as it seemed and does some investigating with the help of the obliging Grant...
As others have noticed, there are certain intriguing similarities between A Kiss Before Dying and the plot of Psycho which came four years later: both films begin with furtive discussion of lovers discussing the implications of illicit sex, go on to feature the premature demise of a blonde and then, in a second half, the investigation of mystery by a determined female relative. There are echoes of Vertigo (1958) too in the dangerous heights of City Hall where Budd finally commits his heinous crime, and more than a taste of Hitchcock in some of the of the suspenseful machinations of the plot - most especially in the chemistry supply room scene where Corliss furtively steals his poisons, or during the tense roof scene. It's somehow apt that Mary Astor, who played the calculating Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), should be cast as Corliss' mother in the present film - although even she is much reduced and manipulated by him, facing a final humiliation on the doorstep of the Kingship residence. Her son is at heart a ruthless social climber, for whom the earlier 'problem' posed by Dorothy was just another obstacle to his inevitable rise to social success, just as his mother's dress sense is then another. As a schemer he leaves little to chance, as is evidenced by his careful arrangement of events in the first half of the film and detailed knowledge of the Kingship mining operation he casually reveals at the close. When he is undone, it is by misfortune rather than carelessness - a fact that makes his success all the more frightening as it is compromised by chain of chance more than anything else. As Corliss, Wagner is entirely convincing in a ruthless part that, at first sight, would have been ideal casting for Dennis Hopper. Beneath the familiar clean-cut image lies a calculating, black heart, and he suggests this by effective mannerisms, such as the throwaway, amoral shrug reflected in the jeweller's shop window at the end of his second meeting with Dorothy, or by holding his arms high and clear, as if in supplication to his own genius, as she makes her final descent. Years down the line, after the amiable dross of such later work as Hart To Hart (1980-5), it is a shock to see the actor create such an impact in what was a unique role for him.
Oswald's direction is frequently distinguished by the use of long takes: the first scene for instance, which contains a fair chunk of dialogue, consists just of a pan over some photographs and one other extended set up. Part of this can be put down to necessary economies of shooting. In some scenes, especially those alone between Corliss and Dorothy, the refusal to cut away acts as if to trap the participants in their own moral universe, while the unflinching lens demands that the viewer make judgement. (There are sly visual jokes contained within shots too, as when at the conclusion of Corliss' second meeting at the sports ground, after her 'trip' down the bleachers, he is framed under a 'speed kills' road sign, or when Corliss and Ellen later flirt and in the wrap up shot the camera reveals they have been chatting under a tombstone-shaped rock.) This is not altogether to the film's advantage; in the middle section of the film, when Corliss is largely absent, some scenes drag a little. Occasionally Oswald changes pace, such as when he uses a fast dolly-in on the suicide note. But one senses that here the exposition would have benefited from shorter cutting, as the earnest Ellen and nice-but-dull Grant are not a very dynamic couple when alone on screen. However this is a minor quibble in a film that relishes a broad mise-en-scène, typical of 1950s' melodrama.
George Macreedy, who plays Leo Kingship, gives excellent, grouchy support. It is his character that undergoes the only real metamorphosis in the film. His daughter of course learns that things are not really what they seem, as she discovers what Budd is really like under the tailored surface. Kingship Senior's education is far more profound, as he almost loses her through his over-protectiveness and intransigence. In one respect he is like Corliss: both have seen the nexus of family ties fray, leading to personality problems. At the end of the film, as he escorts his daughter away from the last encounter, Kingship does so more in sorrow than with the anger he would have earlier displayed. Here, as events take a final turn, the desolation of the mines provides a physical corollary for the stark moral drama being played out between the principals.
A Kiss Before Dying was remade by James Dearden in 1991, an unsatisfactorily production that entirely missed the period intensity and compulsiveness of the original. The DVD offers little other but a trailer, although the widescreen transfer is splendid
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