Friday, August 07, 2020

Life is Sweet, Until There's Murder

What can a young man do when faced with the inconvenience of an unexpectedly pregnant girlfriend? Robert Wagner opts for murder in 1956's A Kiss Before Dying, a cheesy but entertaining effort from first time director Gerd Oswald. The best part of the film is the gorgeous cinematography by Lucien Ballard.

How clean everything looked in the '50s. There's a great quantity of location shots in this movie. I really like how it doesn't seem like everything's been pissed on. The general absence of graffiti reminds me a lot of Japan. David Lynch has talked about how much he hates graffiti. I've never much thought about it but I'm starting to agree. You can say maybe it's self-expression, etc etc, except 90% it's indecipherable and even the stuff you can read tends to blur together into one uniform pattern, not doing much to make itself distinctive, doing more to make the architecture it mars indistinct.

I was also reminded of Japan because of all the check. People love to wear check in Japan. Also in this movie.

The blouse worn by Ellen (Virginia Leith) stands out from the couch by being pink check instead of beige check. Later she swaps the pink for powder blue check for a desert outing with Bud (Robert Wagner).

Ellen is the sister of Dorothy (Joanne Woodward), the girl Bud impregnates and murders. The fact that he kills her without even broaching the topic of abortion says something about '50s American taboo. That may have been part of the point, though. There's an anti-establishment subtext to the film, like many '50s youth dramas. Ellen and Dorothy's last name is "Kingship" and their wealthy father, whose disapproval for Dorothy's pregnancy Bud fears will lead to the loss of her inheritance, is played by George Macready, an actor known for playing villains.

The film loses much chance at subtlety, though, with Bud's ridiculously obvious machinations to murder Dorothy and her almost complete failure to get the hint. After he asks her to return a photo of him, after he repeatedly tells her not to tell anyone of their relationship, after he asks her to translate from Spanish, in her own handwriting, something the looks a lot like a suicide note . . .

The second half of the film features Ellen trying to discover the identity of Dorothy's killer with a little help from Jeffrey Hunter. The same year he played the kid in The Searchers he's shown here a learned upperclassman. He's always, always, holding a pipe.

Ellen proves a little smarter than her sister, thankfully, and I quite liked Leith's performance. It doesn't hurt that she's a knockout. Wagner is nice and sinister as the killer pretending to be a good boyfriend (whether his character in real life happened to inform such a performance I won't speculate). Mary Astor is interesting in a small role as Bud's mother.

A Kiss Before Dying Is available on Amazon Prime.

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