Edited by Dan Hodges on 1/11/2016, 12:40 pm
Director: Gerd Oswald. Screenplay: Lawrence Roman based on the novel A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin. Producer: Robert L. Jacks (Crown Productions). Director of Photography: Lucian Ballard. Music: Lionel Newman. Art Director: Addison Hehr. Editor: George Gittens [George A. Gittens]. Cast: Robert Wagner (Bud Corliss), Jeffrey Hunter (Gordon Grant), Virginia Leith (Ellen Kingship), Joanne Woodward (Dorothy [‘Dorie’] Kingship), Mary Astor (Mrs. Corliss), George Macready (Leo Kingship), Robert Quarry (Dwight Powell), Howard Petrie (Howard Chesser, Chief of Police), Bill Walker (Bill, the Butler), Molly McCart (Annabelle Koch), Marlene Felton (Medical Student). Locations: Downtown, Tucson, Arizona, USA, Inspiration Consolidated Copper Company, Miami, Arizona, USA, Tucson Mountain Park, Arizona, USA, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA, Valley National Bank Building, Tucson, Arizona, USA (Lufton municipal building). Completed: ?. Released: United Artists, June 12, 1956. 94 minutes.
Bud and Dorie are having a secret affair. With a legitimate marriage, he’ll fulfill his dream of becoming wealthy at her father’s copper mining company. However, she gets pregnant and doesn’t care that her father will disown her. Bud asks her to meet him at the marriage license bureau. He takes her to the building’s rooftop and pushes her off. He makes her death look like suicide. Next he gets engaged to Ellen, Dorie’s sister. Ellen figures out Dorie thought she was going to marry someone, and he killed her. She tracks down Dwight, an ex-boyfriend of Dorie’s, and accuses him of the murder. He denies it. Dwight goes to his dorm room to get the address of Dorie’s next boyfriend. Bud, who’s been following Ellen, is waiting there. He shoots Dwight, making it look like Dwight committed suicide in remorse for killing Dorie. Gordon, the police chief’s nephew and once Dorie’s tutor, discovers Dwight couldn’t have killed Dorie, so he had no reason kill himself. Evidence against Bud mounts. Desperate to avoid arrest, he tries to murder Ellen, but he’s accidentally killed instead. Gordon’s longed for Ellen since they met, but it’s unclear what their future holds in store.
Although A KISS BEFORE DYING recalls A PLACE IN THE SUN, a significant difference is that in A PLACE IN THE SUN there’s no question that men love women (as mothers, girlfriends, wives, or daughters), whereas in A KISS BEFORE DYING a key question is whether Bud or Leo is capable of sincere affection for women.
Unlike George Eastman, Bud doesn’t have a benevolent rich uncle to help him get ahead. He only has will power, signified each time he hunches his shoulders (he’ll do whatever it takes, including murder) and by a framed newspaper article that says in school he was voted the most ambitious and the most likely to succeed. In the opening scene the camera pans through his bedroom until it’s above Bud, who’s looking down at the back of Dorie’s head. She’s not important enough to be seen; she’s only a means for him to get a place in the Kingship copper company. (But her name is significant since it suggests what Bud wants: ore.)
Bud’s working class mother embarrasses him. He recoils at her tastelessness in clothes and unsophisticated conversation. Although A KISS BEFORE DYING brims with bright colors – especially orange, yellow and light blue – Dorie’s sports car, his mother’s hair and Ellen’s poolside telephone are the color of copper. Since this color associates the women with Bud’s goal, it objectifies them, reinforcing that they serve to help him realize his ambition.
Because Dorie is a means to an end, if Bud has to get rid of her, he’ll use Ellen instead. If Bud has to murder Ellen, too, then he’ll advance himself without marrying any of Leo’s daughters. (In Ira Levin’s novel, Bud murders two sisters and tries to kill a third.) Just before Bud attacks Ellen, he tells her, “Your father and I will grieve together. We’ll have that to share between us.” However, Bud not only fails to kill Ellen, but also at the conclusion of the film he and Leo no longer share having a clump of ore where there should be a heart.
Bud may not change during the movie, but the transformation of Leo from a heartless to a sensitive father is central to the second half of the film. Dorie and Ellen disdain him because he divorced their mother, “sick and all,” after she’d made “one little slip.” Since the police believe Dorie committed suicide, Leo accepts Gordon’s advice not to look for the man she’d been dating, to avoid stimulating “talk” about her death. Adding insult to injury in Ellen’s view, Leo refuses to take with him the “valuables” found in Dorie’s purse. He tells the police chief, “Dispose of them as you see fit. I’d consider it a personal favor.” Leaving the police station, he reaches to touch Ellen, but she moves away.
When Ellen gives reasons Dorie didn’t kill herself, Leo thinks she’s “distorting the facts,” and Gordon says her ideas are “far-fetched.” So she hunts the killer on her own.
The night scene Ellen confronts Dwight shows the most noir style in the film. She’s shot high overhead as she walks toward a bar and then crosses a wet street to an alley. There she’s framed close up against a brick wall -- her head’s shadow looms behind her and another shadow angles across her chest.
Presumably, the imagery presages her death because, if Dwight killed Dorie and he sees Ellen, he’ll kill her, too. Dwight does see her and chases her to the end of the alley, where a huge diagonal shadow runs down the wall and over her entire body.
Dwight grabs her arms, as Bud later does when he tries to kill her. The noir style misleadingly suggests Ellen’s in peril because, in fact, she fights back, shouting, “Let me go! Take your hands off me!”
Ellen’s resistance to Dwight is as strong as her insistence to Leo and Gordon that Dorie was murdered. When Ellen comes home, there’s a volte-face in Leo’s behavior toward her. Although she won’t let him touch her, he shares her relief that Dorie didn’t commit suicide. “If you’re better, I’m fine,” he smiles.
After Ellen survives Bud’s attack, Leo approaches her but doesn’t touch her. She bumps into him as she walks past him. Neither says a word. They turn and face each other. Ellen puts her hand on Leo’s arm.
Completing their rapprochement, Leo gently holds hers. The finale isn’t about Ellen and Bud or Ellen and Gordon. The conclusion of A KISS BEFORE DYING is that Leo at last has a heart and Ellen knows it.