Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Thriller Watch: A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

Watched:  09/30/2019
Format:  TCM on DVR
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1950's

I tell you kids, sometimes mid-century cinematic gender roles are a real killer.
We've all heard of this movie, but I had never seen this one or the 90's-era remake.  And, my general rule is, I want to watch either the most famous version or the first version before latter-era remakes.  So!  I finally got around to watching this one.

It's tempting to call the film "noir", but given the visual aesthetics and nature of the primary character - not to mention an adherence to a linear storyline, you're basically left with a grim, tense movies from the 1950's, but that doesn't equal noir, exactly.  I dunno, your mileage may vary.

A Kiss Before Dying is told in essentially three parts, the first in which we meet Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner weaponizing his suave swagger), an ex-GI in school on the GI Bill who has met and wooed a co-ed (a very 1950's coiffed Joanne Woodward) whom, we learn immediately, that he's gotten pregnant.  The problem is:  Bud, we learn immediately, is a @#$%ing sociopath.  Despite the fact he's landed Joanne Woodward he's not all that interested in Joanne Woodward herself (a curious position, but ok).  Seems her semi-estranged daddy is a copper mining magnate, and Bud sees marriage and getting into daddy's good graces/ maybe inheriting part of this as a pretty good idea.  But, like I say - Woodward is semi-estranged, and that will be fully estranged if he Dear Old Dad finds out she's with child and hasn't even met Bud yet.

Rather than get saddled with Woodward (again, not a real problem), Bud decides he should probably kill her to cover his tracks so he can find a new angle.

What follows is some really fascinating stuff as the movie goes the Psycho route and you find yourself wondering how Bud will pull this off, maybe sliding into the role of protagonist in a weird way.  The movie occasionally slips almost into Looney Tunes tone as Bud plots and schemes, trying to figure out how to solve this problem and get away with it, a perverse bit of white knuckling, even as you can't sympathize but aren't necessarily cheering for Woodward, either, who thinks her boyfriend just has some nerves about their new positions.


Until Bud totally does kill her.  Which, honestly, I wasn't really expecting. 

From here, we find Woodward's sister, played by Virginia Leith, doesn't buy that her sister killed herself and aims to track down what really happened.  The third section, satisfied she's solved the case, we find Leith has met a bright young man, name of Bud Corliss, whom she introduces to Daddy.

Frankly - my biggest issues with the movie boil down to the intense color palette and flat lighting, seemingly filmed for television.  A movie that feels like it should fit into the world of shadows, using the desert setting to great effect, instead we get a garish technicolor blast (the original noir movement would dry up around 1957, and even late noir is too brightly lit). 

-And I would also rejigger the story, personally, to start with Leith's investigation of her sister's death and either have her uncover what happened or give us a long flashback, placing that first act as the second. But maybe that's a different film?  While Bud's machinations are stunning to watch in that first act, there's something plodding about moving between the three acts that feels out of whack, and it's not like noir hadn't played well with flashback since Double Indemnity

If I raised my eyebrows at the gender-roles, it's that unthinking adherence to those roles and the goals and expectations of both women in the movie are a large part of what sets them up for disaster.  "He may be a semi-abusive jerk, but he took me for a hamburger, so... I guess if he kills me, that's on me."  The women in the film (written and produced by men) define themselves so much by their roles as daughter and potential wife, and people-pleasing...   Even Bud's mom, who should know better, just sort of goes along with his nonsense. 

And if you really want a mind-bender, it's  really a major precursor to the movies Lifetime plays ad infinitum in the non-Christmas season.  There's a lot of this same "I trusted this guy and thought about sleeping with him, but he turned out to be a sociopath" stuff that made for many-a-mid-range thriller in the late 80's and 90's, and is soapy, familiar stuff at this point.  I got no answers for you on whether or how things have actually changed, but... anyway. 

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