REVIEW by GUEST CONTRIBUTOR STEVE BLISSIra Levin was an immensely successful author whose novels include Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and The Stepford Wives (all adapted as successful motion pictures), and whose play Deathtrap is one of the longest-running in Broadway history. His works usually portray evil lurking beneath a well-ordered facade of civilization. In this regard his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, is no exception. It was published in 1953 and honored with an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America for Best First Novel. The book’s central character is Bud Corliss, WWII hero and All-American Boy, who also just happens to be murderous sociopath.
A Kiss Before Dying was adapted as a motion picture in 1956 and again in 1991. The latter film is unremarkable, but the original film has some interesting things going for it. Director Gerd Oswald and screenwriter Lawrence Roman both had successful but nondescript careers, mostly in television. The story is transposed from somber East coast and Midwest locales to sunny California, and photographed by the superb Lucien Ballard, who is known for his collaborations with the great Budd Boetticher and later with Boetticher protégé Sam Peckinpah.
It is the cast which makes A Kiss Before Dying worth watching. The film eschews the inner dialogue of the book, making Robert Wagner’s bland good looks an adequate choice for the role of Bud, in which he does a competent job. Joanne Woodward, a year away from her Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve, raises the bar as Dorie, Bud’s unsuspecting fiancée/victim. Jeffrey Hunter acquits himself well in the same year he would enter into cinema immortality in John Ford’s The Searchers.
However, the supporting cast also offers some familiar faces. Noir darling Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) has little to do onscreen as Bud’s mother. The role of Ellen, Dorie’s sister and Bud’s second would-be victim, is played by Virginia Leith, well-known to z-grade horror fans as the disembodied yet talking head in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Finally, a small but significant role is played by Robert Quarry, hero to legions of fans as Count Yorga in the 70’s cult hits Count Yorga, Vampire and The Return of Count Yorga.