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A Kiss BEFORE Dying

A Kiss Before Dying
MGM Home Entertainment
1956 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 + flat pan scan / 95 min. / Street Date December 3, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, Virginia Leith, Joanne Woodward, Mary Astor, George Macready, Robert Quarry
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Addison Hehr
Film Editor George A. Gittens
Original Music Lionel Newman
Written by Lawrence Roman from a novel by Ira Levin
Produced by Robert L. Jacks
Directed by Gerd Oswald

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Only passable as a thriller, this efficient potboiler has some good characterizations, okay acting, and a truly ruthless attitude unusual for 1955 screen fare. In what might be his best role, a very young Robert Wagner has a field day as a diabolical killer with a way around every obstacle on his path to riches.


In college on the GI bill, Korean War medalist Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) has laid deep plans to marry his way into the rich Kingships, a mining family. Because she seems permanently estranged from her domineering father, Leo Kingship (George Macready), he's about to give up on blonde student Dorothy (Joanne Woodward), when she announces her pregnancy. Conniving Bud isn't about to see his rise to wealth threatened, and realizes that his Dorie is just in the way ...

The trailer for A Kiss Before Dying actually compares the show to A Place in the Sun, the famous story of a young man who lets the American dream run away with his soul. Bud Corliss is a completely cynical version of the same character, a man who will do anything it takes to get what he wants, including committing two ghastly killings. And pretty-boy Wagner leaves us with no doubt that he's capable of such deeds - he broods and schemes in between condescending scenes with his sweet mother. She's played by Mary Astor, who of course was one of the screen's most famous femme fatales in The Maltese Falcon 16 years earlier.

This was either Joanne Woodward's first or second film, and she's so obviously set up to be murdered in the first part of the story, that we identify strongly with her. She handles the role of an inconveniently pregnant woman with a lot of dignity, needing support but never whining. The structure of the movie eerily predates Psycho, except of course, there a leading star was involved.

Capable Virginia Leith has her reasonable share of talent, but even though she gets the bulk of this show to herself, her career didn't take off like Joanne's. After a few reasonable parts, she wound up in The Brain that Wouldn't Die, a career killer if there ever was one - even though she was excellent in it.

(spoiler next paragraph)

Interesting director Gerd Oswald, later known as one of the better contributors to the Outer Limits TV series, uses the CinemaScope screen well, and directs with a sure and economical hand. The plotting is a tad pat, but it lets everyone act in a reasonably intelligent way. Leith conducts her own Vera Miles-like investigation into her sister's death. Only a rather wooden Jeffrey Hunter is left hanging around the periphery, to finally step in with some bad news near the end. George Macready has an atypical role as a cold father who turns out to be fairly nice. A Kiss Before Dying is a conservative's reworking of A Place in the Sun - this time, nothing at all is wrong with society: all fault lies with a socially ambitious demon/killer.

Coming through well in a small part is a very young Robert Quarry, who would later find his own little corner of A.I.P. fame in a pair of Count Yorga vampire movies. His manner and appearance are a bit reminiscent of young Christopher Lee.

MGM's DVD of A Kiss Before Dying is mostly spotless. A few exterior scenes in the middle have a strange pulsing of blue that bleeds through some of the blacks, that's a bit distracting for a minute or so. I'm not sure where the film was shot - Phoenix? - but it's a big desert city with palm trees and a stately college.  1 Cameraman Lucien Ballard makes good use of the 'Scope frame in the exteriors, but his garish night lighting is even better. Many setups look like the glossy, trashy covers of '50s crime novels. The sound is clear on this one, but appears to dip in volume at the midpoint of the picture - I had to boost the level a couple of times during the show. Nelson Riddle's jazzy orchestrations sound great, even though a title tune makes what's obvious in the show, even more obvious.

The trailer has a nonstop narration hyping the movie, and ends by giving away the key shock scene, so don't watch it before the feature!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Kiss Before Dying rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 25, 2002


1. An Email, 11.26.02: "Hi Glenn, This film was shot right here in Tucson, home of the University of Arizona. The building from which Robert Wagner tosses poor Joanne Woodward is now the Bank One building, on the corner of Congress and Stone streets. I love your website!" - Richard McQuillan

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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