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The obscure K.B.S. productions must have finished filming their murder mystery The Death Kiss before deciding to promote it as a Bela Lugosi starring vehicle -- he has third billing and only figures in about ten minutes of film footage. The film is an okay whodunnit in a backstage Hollywood setting, and will certainly be worth a gander by Lugosi's legion of fans. Just don't expect a horror movie or even a particularly exciting mystery. If you're interested by the fact that Bela's Dracula co-stars David Manners and Edward Van Sloan have big roles, then nobody will have to talk you into a purchase.
The Death Kiss is a competent but not particularly memorable show that we're told was a reasonable hit in January of 1933. Although it lands in the pre-Code era, the strongest content is a dialogue line from a bumbling security man, who says that he makes his own liquor at home. Un-acclaimed director Edwin L. Marin gets in a lot of competently crafted coverage for a talkie with a tiny budget. He opens with a fairly elaborate trucking shot ... which is the last such shot we'll see for more than a reel.
The story is a stock murder mystery with one corpse and an infinite number of suspects. A star that nobody likes is gunned down right in the middle of a film take (with a machine gun, yet) and nobody notices where the shots came from or who fired them. Tonart Studios owner Leon A Grossmith (Alexander Carr) worries about his profits and sets his studio manager Joe Steiner (Bela Lugosi) to set things right. The detectives suspect everybody on the lot, especially the victim's ex-wife, star Marcia Lane (Adrienne Ames). But studio mystery writer Franklyn Dew (David Manners) joins the investigation as a lark, finding evidence, drawing conclusions before the cops can, and arguing that Ms. Lane can't possibly be guilty. More victims are discovered before the culprit shows his hand.
Adrienne Ames' Marcia Lane is the key suspect, and she even bestows the 'death kiss' in the first scene, as film director Tom Avery (Edward Van Sloan) looks on. But Ames has little to do in the rest of the picture but react to others. The show is really a vehicle for David Manners, who was probably the most handsome leading man in Hollywood not to become a major star. Horror fans know Manners for his high billing in Dracula, The Mummy and The Black Cat, but he was better known as the star of the impressive The Last Flight opposite Richard Barthelmess. Affable and smooth, Manners' movie scribe turned amateur detective jokes about the murder victim and kids the cops in such a way that he'd be arrested for interfering with an investigation. The script follows everything from his point of view and always assumes that he's in the right.
That only leaves us the whodunnit details (which are barely worth mentioning) and third-billed, top advertised Bela Lugosi to talk about. Bela must have been frustrated to be hired like a day player, only to see his name and face used to propel films to decent box office takes -- even some of his later Monogram and P.R.C. titles. Sadly, he was never a good manager of his own career. Unfortunately, we can see why the star who made women swoon in Dracula was a poor fit for conventional films. No matter what excuses we make, a 50ish actor with a thick Hungarian accent and (sometimes) halting delivery wasn't going to be hired to play leading men. In the Hollywood system, a man with those qualifications was normally tapped for smaller character roles. Lugosi's one niche was to play commanding horror parts -- monsters or mad mountebanks and scientists -- where he was bona fide star.
Bela does very well in The Death Kiss and gives his suspicious character some nice shading. I would think that audiences would feel cheated to discover that the film is not a horror picture, but then might enjoy seeing Lugosi in a 'straight' role. Although it isn't all that memorable, the show's whodunnit plot points were probably satisfactory to Depression-Era audiences, that might enjoy the relative novelty of the backstage settings. As with every other show with a movie studio background, the producers must have liked the idea of not having to build special sets. The Death Kiss also provides a record of what the Tiffany Studio looked like in 1932.
The Kino Lorber Classics Blu-ray of The Death Kiss is a transfer of a good-quality but worn print reportedly found in the Library of Congress. Scratches run through the whole thing, making it look as though B.K.S. Productions submitted a reamed circuit print when it came time to secure copyright. Besides the dupes that pop up for dissolves and wiptes, we see a couple of spliced-in dupe sections. The image is stable, however, with only a couple of missing frames here and there. The scratches are occasionally heavy, yet do not interfere with the viewing experience.
On the plus side, either the audio was already perfect or Kino's engineers cleaned it up beautifully. Hiss is minimized and most of the track is pleasingly clear.
The print on view has seveeral shots that use the silent movie technique of hand tinting. The key piece of film from the set is projected to see if it yields a clue to the killer, but a fire in the projection booth makes the projected image burst into a yellow-red flash of light. It's a surprising effect. Even more surprising is that the shot projected has completely different action than the one seen live on the set in the first scene. The show needs another detective to figure out that mystery.
Kino has lined up genre expert Richard Harland Smith for a commentary. With no lofty themes or an exalted place in film history to discuss, R.H.S. packs the picture with information that could only be gleaned from hours of research. We learn the story of every player on screen, where they came from and what happened to them. We even learn about the principals behind "B.K.S. Productions". Smith dispels some rumors (he doesn't believe that Wallace Beery killed Ted Healey) but also takes pains not to give out personal opinions as fact. He even finds an inoffensive way to ID some actors as gay, when appropriate. Smith can do everything but give us a compelling reason to regard The Death Kiss as more than a curiosity. As he was on the Kino disc of , Smith knows what's relevant to horror and fantasy fans -- when he mentions electric gadget whiz Kenneth Strickfaden, he pauses to acknowledge that viewers listening to a commentary on a Bela Lugosi movie surely don't need to be told who Strickfaden is.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Death Kiss Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.