United Artists, 94m 47s
The American economic boom that followed World War II allowed many to prosper while others felt left behind. Beneath the surface layer of shiny new cars and suburban homes lurked the frustration of those who did not feel a sense of belonging. The most thematically valuable film noirs commonly reflect social problems associated with class separation. There is evidence of this dynamic from the classic noir era of the mid-to-late 1940s into the 1950s.
By the 1950s, the noir film was notable for its sociopathic and psychopathic characters. Where that type of presence usually was relegated to a supporting role in the 1940s, by the 1950s the menace to society was featured in a prominent role, often the lead protagonist. Consider the armed robber Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in GUN CRAZY (1950), the edgy cop Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) from ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), the sharpshooter Edward Miller (Arthur Franz) who terrorizes the urban scene in THE SNIPER (1952), the deceptive Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) who marries money in SUDDEN FEAR (1952), anarchic Emmett Myers (William Talman) who is THE HITCH-HIKER (1953) and Leon Poole (Wendell Corey), the bullied person turned bully in THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956). That is quite a lineup of characters who pose significant danger to decent men and women. Each malcontent in his or her own way feels disconnected from society and its norms of behavior. Another individual who belongs in this group is Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner), the scheming lead protagonist of director Gerd Oswald's A KISS BEFORE DYING. Handsome but deadly, Corliss is one of the genre's most pernicious homme fatales, one of the worst men a good woman could meet. He adorns a cloak of benevolence but is motivated only by materialism.
As the narrative opens, Corliss learns his girlfriend Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward) is in month two of an unplanned pregnancy. She wishes only to marry the father of her child, despite the fact such an arrangement would put her at odds with her wealthy industrialist father Leo Kingship (George Macready), who might disinherit her. She makes it clear Corliss means more to her than her father's money, while Corliss remains focused on the fact her father is a copper mining magnate. Now the marriage he once viewed as a stairway to upper class empowerment looks like a dead end. When a tumble down a set of bleachers does not induce a miscarriage, Corliss looks into a toxicological solution! That plan fails too, leaving Corliss looking bug-eyed at his impregnated problem. Eventually his determination wins out, which leaves Dorothy's sister Ellen Kingship (Virginia Leith) as an alternate path to the Kingship family fortune.
Like so many film noir permutations, A KISS BEFORE DYING questions the viability of the American family. Corliss is the son of an ordinary woman (Mary Astor). His father is not in the picture. Corliss looks down on his well-meaning mother and the simple life she represents, an idea well established when he scolds her for wearing a cheap blouse to the lavish Kingship estate. Also of note is the Kingship family patriarch's resistance to the notion that a scoundrel is about to marry into his family. The crazed Corliss contributes nothing of value to his own family, and certainly constitutes a step in the wrong direction for either Kingship daughter. Interestingly, the thoughtless gesture that brings about the comeuppance of Corliss has nothing to do with his skilled hand at crafting suicide notes, but everything to do with his flawed personality. Buried in that minor transgression that leads to his undoing is an appropriate life lesson: one cannot lead a consistently disrespectful existence and think nobody will take notice.
Lawrence Roman's screenplay was based upon Ira Levin's best-selling 1953 novel of the same title. Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck purchased the film rights as a vehicle for his young star Robert Wagner. In 1955 Zanuck farmed out the project to Crown Productions and his son-in-law, producer Robert L. Jacks. Distribution was handled by United Artists. A KISS BEFORE DYING marks the directorial debut of Gerd Oswald, whose first feature film is noteworthy for its escalating discomfort in mood, especially for a film released in 1956. He would go on to helm the film noirs CRIME OF PASSION (1956) and SCREAMING MIMI (1958). Cinematographer Lucien Ballard shot in CinemaScope and made effective use of locations in Tucson, Arizona. Ballard was no stranger to the noir form, with contributions and credits that include MOONTIDE (1942), LAURA (1944), BERLIN EXPRESS (1948), THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951), THE KILLER IS LOOSE (another Crown Productions feature), THE KILLING (1956) and CITY OF FEAR (1959).
One of the few color film noirs, A KISS BEFORE DYING is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, or be prepared next time it airs on Turner Classic Movies. It would make an excellent double feature with LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), the color film noir that probably has inspired the most critical assessment. Another good co-feature prospect would be director Edward Dmytryk's THE MOUNTAIN (1956), in which Wagner again plays against type. A KISS BEFORE DYING was remade in 1991, with Matt Dillon in the role as Corliss.