Based on Ira Levin's 1953 novel, Gerd Oswald's A Kiss Before Dying (1956) casts one of the 1950s most congenial heartthrobs, Robert Wagner, as a psychotic murderer; his good looks sheathing more than killer charm. Levin's novel won the Edgar Allen Poe Writer's Award and it is to Oswald's credit that the movie retains a goodly amount of the novel's dark and sinister atmosphere - even if the book's more salacious aspects are implied in this lush Cinemascope production. The screenplay by Lawrence Roman jettisons the first act of Levin's novel - the back story or 'making of' a psychopath cut out to jump right into the present day. Bud Corliss (Wagner) is a working class guy, doted on by his mother (Mary Astor). Enrolled in college Bud is hot and heavy for Dorothy 'Dorie' Kingship (Joanne Woodward), an impressionable young woman of wellborn pedigree who becomes pregnant. Dorie is one of two heirs to a copper mining fortune. But her father, Leo (George Macready) is something of a tyrant. Actually, he just wants Dorie to straighten up and fly right. Getting knocked up is not part of his future plans.
Knowing that Leo will likely disinherit Dorie if he finds out about the baby Budd plots to get rid of his girlfriend by poisoning her with pills stolen from the chemistry lab at the university. Pitched to Dorie as vitamins to keep both her and the unborn baby healthy, Budd's plot goes awry when Dorie decides not to take the drugs. Budd's next move is to devise a clever suicide. He gets Dorie to 'transcribe' her own suicide letter into English from a Spanish text, then tells Dorie they are going to get married by a justice of the peace the next afternoon.
Deliberately arriving during the lunch hour Budd suggests to Dorie that they go to the roof to wait for the office to reopen. He tells Dorie she will never know how much he loves her; then tosses her over the side to her death. Budd mails Dorie's 'suicide note' to Leo. It all seems so perfect. But murder never is, and as time passes neither Professor Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter) nor Dorie's devoted sister, Ellen (Virginia Leith) believes her death was an accident.
Leo urges Ellen to put the whole nightmarish affair behind them. She agrees but does exactly the opposite. Learning from Gordon that her sister was involved with someone on campus, Ellen accidentally comes to suspect Dwight Powell (Richard Quarry); a tennis pro in his senior year. In a dangerous game of cat and mouse Ellen tricks Powell into meeting her at a local watering hole but quickly realizes she has made a mistake. Unhappy chance that Powell remembers Dorie's boyfriend and even believes he has his name and address back at the dorm.
Powell takes Ellen to his residence but has her wait in the lobby while he goes upstairs. Unfortunately, Budd is already waiting to ambush Powell and shoot him dead. Making off with Powell's phone book, Budd lays low for several months, gradually ingratiating his way into Ellen's life. The two become involved and later engaged. Meanwhile, Gordon connects the dots between Dorie and Budd and confronts Ellen and Leo with the news that Budd was Dorie's lover. Leo believes Gordon, but Ellen defies them both and decides to take Budd on a tour of her father's copper mines to clear the air.
Despite her belief in Budd's innocence Ellen's conscience will not rest until she knows the truth. She goads Budd into revealing certain intimate aspects about her sister's life that only a lover would know. On a narrow stretch of road overlooking the Kingship mines Budd confesses to Ellen that he was Dorie's cold-blooded killer. Budd tries to kill Ellen too by throwing her in front of an oncoming truck but this attempt backfires. Ellen is hurled to the ground and the driver of the truck, swerving to avoid her, runs over Budd instead.
Levin's book is far more gruesome than the film. In fact, in the novel Budd murders Ellen too and pursues a relationship with Marion, the youngest daughter of the Kingship clan (a character entirely omitted from the film). In the novel's climactic confrontation between Marion and Budd has her tossing him into a molten hot vat of copper where he is boiled alive. Despite the sanitization of this rather lurid and pulpy material Oswald gets a lot of economy out of Lucien Ballard's evocative noir-ish cinematography and Lawrence Roman's masterful condensing of the finer plot points that move the story along at a breakneck pace while keeping the suspense taut and tantalizing.
Robert Wagner is particularly engaging as the corrosive lover with murder in his heart. Joanne Woodward is equally engaging as the young innocent. In fact, the only member of the cast that gets short shrift is Jeffrey Hunter - relegated to the backdrop with only a handful of lines to involve his character in the story. In 1991 A Kiss Before Dying was disastrously remade with predictably abysmal results, co-starring the charm free Matt Dillon and equally lugubrious Sean Young in the lead roles.
MGM Home Video provides a fairly impressive DVD transfer on this catalogue title. A Kiss Before Dying was a Crown release through 20th Century-Fox. Regrettably, in remastering the film for home video, MGM has lopped off the Fox Cinemascope opening credits and replaced them with the MGM logo. One hopes that if this film ever makes it to Blu-ray the original logos will be restored. Otherwise, MGM has done an outstanding job with this transfer. Colors are vibrant. Contrast levels are superb. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are pristine. Flesh tones are quite natural. The middle reel of the film exhibits slight 'breathing' of the image with an occasional soft flicker that is not terribly distracting but obvious nevertheless. Grain is present but rather natural looking. Fine detail is evident throughout. The audio is stereo surround and adequate for this presentation. The only extra is a well-worn theatrical trailer. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)