Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

Director: Gerd Oswald                                      Writer: Ira Levin
Film Score: Lionel Newman                              Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Robert Wagner, Joanne Woodward, Jeffrey Hunter and Virginia Leith

While the late Ira Levin wrote some terrific stage plays--Deathtrap being the most well known--he is actually far more famous for his suspense novels which have become iconic in their film versions. These include The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and this one, his first, A Kiss Before Dying. Though it seems a fairly straightforward tale of a psychopath, it is told in such an interesting way that it maintains interest throughout. Though it’s certainly not the same story, there are very definite similarities between Levin’s novel and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. There’s also a connection in the plot with elements of Leave Her to Heaven, while prefiguring part of Psycho. Director Gerd Owen was a German director who spent the majority of his career in television, and one can see why. This was his first Hollywood feature and it has a noticeable lack of close-ups. He does manage to work well within the wide-screen format, setting up shots with characters on the opposite sides of the screen. It’s a testament to the strength of the original story that, even with the changes necessary to adapt the screenplay it still plays well, even to the present day.

The film begins with Robert Wagner learning that his girlfriend, Joanne Woodward, is pregnant. They are both college students from single-parent families. Wagner’s father has died, but Woodward’s wealthy father divorced her mother and left them with nothing. Though he claims to love her, it’s very clear that Wagner is not enthused about the prospect of getting married and puts Woodward off for a few days. Meanwhile he does some research in the library and steals some poison from the chemistry lab in the school of pharmacy. But when she doesn’t take the pills he has to think fast, and when they meet at the court building to get the marriage license, he throws her off the twelve story building. It’s an absolutely chilling sequence in which Wagner’s character displays a complete lack of emotion as he kills Woodward. But he’s not through yet. Jeffrey Hunter is a police detective who worked on campus as a tutor, with Woodward as one of his subjects. And while he’s ready to write off the death as a suicide--something that Wagner put in place--her sister, Virginia Leith isn’t convinced and begins a one-woman campaign to find the killer. This leads to yet another murder as Wagner tries to cover his tracks but brings even more suspicion to the case.

Robert Wagner is an interesting screen presence. He adopts a moody persona similar to the late James Dean, but the lack of close-ups by director Gerd Oswald doesn’t allow it to really translate as such on the screen. While this was relatively early in his career, he had already made a name for himself in films like Prince Valiant and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. For Joanne Woodward, this was only her second film and she always hated her performance in it. One can see why. It’s a callow performance that has none of the depth she would bring to later roles. Jeffrey Hunter has one of those thankless roles as the third wheel, a good-looking guy who is forced to wear Clark Kent glasses and never gets the girl. One of the other stars in the film is Mary Astor who plays Wagner’s mother. Best known for her role in The Maltese Falcon, she hadn’t been in a film for over seven years, though she did a lot of television work between. George Macready plays the father of Joanne Woodward and Virginia Leith. A former model, she acquits herself well, though she was never a riveting onscreen presence. Though released by United Artists, the film was really a 20th Century Fox production put together by Darryl Zanuck but filmed independently. Though not the best film of its kind, A Kiss Before Dying is an effective noir story that remains part of a long tradition of crime dramas about psychotic killers who murder for money.

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