A Kiss Before Dying (1956) DVD Review: Just Skip the Kiss and Kill Me Already

Some things simply look better on paper. Like that time I was a kid when my friend and I worked out how to cryogenically freeze a frog and later re-animate it. It all made perfect sense in our heads, and played out quite well on the board. The reality of the situation, however – involving a Ziploc bag full of water, the upper freezer half of an old brown Frigidaire refrigerator, and the open ends of a severed electrical cord from an even older lamp – only succeeded in a bit of a mess and a story that would regularly get a considerable number of people to shake their head. But hey, kids are like that.

Several decades before my lamentable childhood attempt at playing God, the folks at United Artists decided adapting Ira Levin’s recent 1953 thriller A Kiss Before Dying into a big-screen CinemaScope production would be a huge hit. And indeed, I think this is one of the movies that probably looked better on paper. But from the get-go, as the credits display themselves over images of kissing lips on a black background set to music that seems entirely too lighthearted, you get the feeling that you’re not entirely sure if this is supposed to be a serious movie or not.

Sadly, it takes a while for a relatively new television director by the name of Gerd Oswald to drill it into our heads that lead actor Robert Wagner is a real psychopath. Granted, we don’t usually suspect people to be psychopaths in real life, either, but this is a movie. Wagner himself seems uncertain of this, having apparently played too many regular romantic roles prior to nail down the part of a cold-blooded killer convincingly. Instead, he just seems annoyed and depressed, snapping at his girlfriend and mother (Mary Astor) like most people under pressure would. It could be that the film’s pacing is so slow that he just didn’t give a damn.

In any case, Wagner goes from being a college student whose dreams of marrying into a resident student’s rich mining family are shattered when the naive co-ed (a relatively new Joanne Woodward, who later commented this was her worst film) reveals she’s pregnant. This is bad because her cold, callous business tycoon of a father (George Macready) will instantly disinherit her over such a revelation. So, Wagner does what any man in a similar situation would do: he plots to kill her. And again, we’re not sure if this is supposed to be a comedy or not until he finally succeeds, which he makes look like a suicide.

And once that’s done and over with, it’s a matter of wooing the remaining sister in the wealthy family’s remaining kin, who is represented here by actress Virginia Leith. But Virginia isn’t entirely convinced her sister offed herself, so she starts to play detective, starting with one of her late sibling’s ex-boyfriends (a very young Robert Quarry) before joining forces with a kindly college professor (Jeffrey Hunter, donning thick rimmed black glasses, a sports coat and garnishing a pipe – how do you think these stereotypes get started?) who really, in all probability, is just hoping to get closer to the pretty lady.

Sadly, once A Kiss Before Dying really looks like it’s going to start rolling, it is at the very tail end of the movie. And then it ends. While the novel the film was based on won an Edgar Award and was well-received around the globe, the initial film adaptation ultimately failed to capture any of the thrills the source material had. A 1991 dud of a remake with Matt Dillon also did not succeed in anyone shouting “Yes, yes, thisis art!” in the audience – even after its makers drastically re-wrote the story in order to keep things fresh to anyone who may have seen the original film.

But that 1956 original isn’t a complete bust. Sure, it’s a pretty tepid thriller all the way around, but to the average cult movie and TV lovers, there are a number of iconic (by those standards) stars cast here in early roles. Doomed actor Jeffrey Hunter would be Gene Roddenberry’s first choice of captain (Pike) on Star Trek, but who would also turn down the chance to repeat the character for a second (successful) pilot. Virginia Leith’s career was cut short by Fox (who didn’t renew her contract), and would achieve fame (well, infamy) as the doomed fiancee of cult actor Jason Evers whose whole figure was cut short in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

George Macready, a character actor who appeared in grand films and cheapo productions alike, ranged from portraying demented military figures (see Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory) to crazy scientists (also see The Human Duplicators, if you’re brave enough, that is). Interestingly, two of his final film appearances were in the short-lived AIP Count Yorga, Vampire series, which officially launched actor Robert Quarry to B-movie stardom as the eponymous bloodsucker. Quarry’s career basically consisted of low-budget movies from thereon in, though it kept him much busier than in his days as a major studio contract player.

Lastly, we have director Gerd Oswald. A mere greenhorn behind the camera when A Kiss Before Dying, Oswald would later direct over a dozen of the best episodes to be shown on The Outer Limits when that cult classic TV series originally aired in the ’60s. It is safe to say, however, that he hadn’t found his instrument yet here, as A Kiss Before Dying is pretty darn uninteresting. And that’s coming from a guy who recognized each and every B movie actor in the entire picture. To say nothing of the fact that I once tried to reanimate a frozen amphibian with an open-ended, cloth-covered power cord.

I guess in the end, A Kiss Before Dying is about what it isn’t rather than what it is. It’s fun to see its cast doing something “big” for a change, as opposed to the numerous lower-budget films and television shows I have seen them in. Sadly, it’s hard to determine just how big this CinemaScope production really was (read: I think this one was a bit rushed). Previously released on DVD by MGM in 2002, the out-of-print disc is available once again via the MGM Limited Edition Collection (which is now distributed by Fox Cinema Archives, just in case you missed that announcement).

The single-sided re-issue wisely omits the pan-and-scan version of the movie, instead keeping only the anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen presentation. The print is the same as that of the original DVD, meaning that those scenes where the color timing keep shifting are still there. Audio and subtitle options are available in English, French, and Spanish, and the movie’s theatrical trailer – which gives away far too many plot points, including the first shocking murder – are included, and the menu is the same as the 2002 DVD.

In the long run, there’s really nothing new here. That goes doubly so for the feature film in question. A Kiss Before Dying has only a few minor bits and pieces going for it, and while it’s much better than the notoriously panned 1991 remake, I would advise you pick up the original Ira Levin book and give that a read instead.

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Luigi Bastardo

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