A Kiss Before Dying Review
Reviewing A Kiss Before Dying was a prospect I was looking forward to: surely this film must mark an improvement on the truly appalling 1990 remake starring Sean Young; and director Gerd Oswald was responsible for the deliciously enjoyable Screaming Mimi, a personal favourite of mine.
Whilst certainly being a far superior work than the nineties effort (harldy a difficult achievement), sadly A Kiss Before Dying doesn't live up to Screaming Mimi's promise. Whereas that film struck a perfect balance between cod-Freudian film noir and overwrought melodrama, A Kiss Before Dying declines to be either despite all the right elements being in place...
Young college student lovers Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward find their romance takes a turn for the worse when she becomes pregnant and his inner-psycho gets let out. After failing with a touch of stair throwing, and later poison, Wagner succeeds with a faked suicide. However, he doesn't count on Woodward's sister (Virgina Leith) getting suspicious and so infiltrates his way into her life to prevent the truth from coming out.
As the teenage psychopath Robert Wagner is a revelation. Resembling Matt Damon's Talented Mr. Ripley with his suit and insouciant manner, he is coolness personified. Just witness the way in which he proclaims "I love you, I really do" before throwing Woodward of a rooftop - the complete antithesis of Richard Widmark's maniac in Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death, yet perfectly capable of the same kind of barbarism.
The rest of the cast come off slightly less well; both Woodward and Jeffrey Hunter (playing the cop/maths teacher(!) who aids Virgina Leith in her investigation to find the killer) seemingly present only to serve as props to further the plot rather than characters in their own right. Hunter especially stuggles with the material, looking uneasy behind a pipe and spectacles. It would appear that Wagner is the part of the jigsaw holding all the other pieces in place.
The majority of blame for the film's failure must lie with director Gerd Oswald. When he does find inspiration he's wonderful, though these moments are few and far between. For the best example, take a look at Woodward's rooftop murder. Utilising the 'scope frame extremely well, the scene builds slowly with only three camera set-ups: a traditional two-shot of the couple; a low angle showing the pair perched directly on the edge of said roof; and a third, overhead shot revealing just how high up the duo are.
Using mainly the latter two angles, Oswald cuts slowly throughout the scene, allowing the tension to build. Then comes the punchline: Wagner pushes Woodward from the low-angle shot into the overhead as we see her fall to the ground. The effect is truly stunning, and has the same effect as much of Screaming Mimi. Of course, as noted above, this inspiration comes only rarely and one wishes than Douglas Sirk, say, or even the John Waters of Polyester had taken the reins. Instead the film rests solely on Wagner's shoulders, his sheer charisma aiding our interest.
Picture and Sound
One of the true pleasures of DVD is the ability to watch Cinemascope films as they were intended, rather than some pan and scan television screening on a Saturday afternoon (witness the majority of Fox's Marilyn Monroe boxset for the perfect examples). Happily, the 2.35:1 ratio is preserved here though it is greatly let down by some very noticeable artifacting, so much in fact it often proves to be overly distracting.
Audio on the other hand is generally fine; utilising the original mono (though spread over the left and right speakers) intermittent crackling is present, though for the most part they are no problems.
Only the original theatrical trailer is available, though this proves to be a fascinating time capsule. Using an overbearing voice-over ("This young man...is a human question mark", "Why has he no conscience?"), the trailer plays up its shock quotient and manages to make the film look for more enjoyable that it actually is.
A disappointment. Whilst Robert Wagner is excellent, sadly little else is. For those seeking late-fifties thrills, check out Douglas Sirk's films of the era or that other pairing of Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter, Nicholas Ray's The True Story of Jesse James.