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A Kiss Before Dying

Posted by martinteller on November 9, 2012

“You’re insane.  Can’t you see that?”

Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) is a college student dating Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward), the daughter of a wealthy mining magnate (George Macready).  No one knows yet that they’re seeing each other, but his plan is to work his way into the family and their fortune.  Then “Dory” gets knocked up.  She wants to get hitched, even though the pregnancy will likely get her disowned and disinherited.  What’s a poor college boy to do?  Bump her off, make it look like a suicide, and start working on her sister Ellen (Virginia Leith), of course!  But Ellen becomes convinced that Dorothy’s death was no suicide, and with the help of her sister’s tutor (Jeffrey Hunter), begins to investigate.

When this movie started up, I was worried.  It wasn’t so much the widescreen Technicolor — that can be a red flag, but there are wonderful color noirs like Niagara and Leave Her to Heaven — as it was the jaunty opening theme and gaudy titles.  It felt like I was in for some kind of goofy romcom, like Frank Tashlin with a dash of murder.  After a few minutes, though, Wagner’s menace becomes clear and it settles into a Hitchcockian thriller.  I don’t use “Hitchcockian” lightly here, either.  Several reviews liken the film to Psycho, made a few years later.  There are some surface similarities: the blonde who seems to be the main character gets killed in the first act, her sister and another man try to solve the crime.  But it’s more along the lines of something like Dial M for Murder or Rope, where a killing is meticulously planned and then we watch it unravel.  There’s tension on both sides, a lot of well-crafted scenes that build suspense and release it.

Wagner is quite good, you can see Bud Corliss struggling to keep his sociopathic tendencies pushed down.  He’s not an intimidating presence, but the careful, cold calculation of the character makes him menacing.  Macready does his usual callous authority thing very well, too.  Leith is okay, but Hunter and Woodward are duds.  I’d even say Woodward is downright bad (she once called it her worst film, but whether that refers to the material or her performance, I’m not sure).  Her delivery is dull and lifeless.

The color photography is nicely done, bright without being garish.  It’s not the type of story that requires dark shadows and dramatic angles to help sell the tension; the scenes build suspense through a focus on crucial objects and detached, clinical distance from the characters.  I also really liked Lionel Newman’s music… not exactly Herrmann-esque, but it evokes similar feelings to his Hitchcock scores.

The film could use a little more bite and some better dialogue, but it works quite well as a gripping, clever thriller.  Remade in 1991 with Matt Dillon, for whatever that’s worth.  Rating: Very Good (82)


2 Responses to “A Kiss Before Dying”

  1. I agree with your analysis. Woodward’s acting is the weak link in the film for sure, but she does successfully portray a woman who is naive and innocent. She seems almost mentally challenged actually. I wrote a short essay on the film called “The Charming Psychopath.” Here is the link if you would like to read it:

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