Kiss Before Dying, A: (1956): Noir in Color, Starring Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, and Joanne Woodward

Gerd Oswald made his directorial debut with A Kiss Before Dying, a lavishly shot–in Tucson, Arizona–film noir in color, starring three upcoming stars, Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, and Joanne Woodward.

Grade: B- (** 1/2* out of *****)

A Kiss Before Dying
Kiss before dying poster 1956.jpg

theatrical release poster


The screenplay was written by Lawrence Roman, based on Ira Levin’s 1953 novel of the same name, which won the 1954 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Darryl F. Zanuck bought the book’s rights in August 1953, after a bidding war among the studios.

Wagner plays a handsome, charming, ultra-ambitious guy, who would stop at nothing to achieve upward mobility. His problem is a naïve pregnant girl–played by Joanne Woodward in one of her first films–who truly loves him.

The movie demonstrated a recurrent theme and character in film noir, the disruptive force of a psychotic maniac (usually a young seductive male), threatening the scared values of domesticity and family love.

Set in 1956, the tale centers on Bud Corliss (Wagner), a driven university student who is courting fellow student Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward) for her father’s mining fortune.

When he discovers that Dorothy is pregnant, he realizes she will be disinherited by her father, Leo Kingship (George Macready). She does not care about that, claiming she has freed herself of her father’s control–“I am no longer Dorothy; I’m Dory.”

Bud hesitates when Dory insists on getting married right away, and attempts to harm her, which Dory registers as an accident.

Bud then plans an elaborate scheme that would appear like her suicide.  In panic, when the plan fails, Bud purposely has Dory meet him at the municipal building during lunch, when offices are closed. Meeting on the roof, he pushes her down, but her death is considered a suicide because of a letter he had forged and mailed.

Meanwhile, Dory’s sister, Ellen (Virginia Leith), is dating Bud, and he’s trying to ingratiate himself with father Leo. Ellen has no idea of Bud’s previous affair with Dory, though she always had doubts about the death.

Trying to gather information, Ellen contacts Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter), who tutored Dorothy, and suspects that Dwight Powell (Robert Quarry) is the killer. Bud learns of the investigation and eliminates Powell, which, again, is taken to be a suicide.

Bud and Ellen become engaged, but Gordon shows up during the engagement party to tell her that he has discovered that Powell could not have committed the crime. On his way out, he is introduced to Bud; while driving home, he stops at a phone booth to call his uncle, chief of police, to reveal that he believes he had seen Bud with Dory at the university.

Ellen rejects the suspicion, and they drive to the Kingship mine to see how the family fortune is being made. Meanwhile, Gordon’s uncle confirms that Bud was Dorothy’s boyfriend.

Bud admits to Ellen that he knew her sister, and went out with her.  They argue and Bud stalks to the edge of the open mine pit.  It soon becomes obvious that he is guilty. Her father and Gordon arrive in time to witness Bud struggling to throw Ellen into the pit. Desperate to kill her, Bud shoves her in front of an oncoming truck, which swerves and instead hits him over the cliff.

A Kiss Before Dying was the second film Wagner made in 1956–after The Mountain with Spencer Tracy–in which he played against his clean-cut screen image.  If you look closely, the young Wagner looks like Warren Beatty, who would make a splashier debut five years later in Kazan’s Masterpiece, Splendor in the Grass.  The part that Beatty would play is similarly named: Bud.

Cast in the smaller part of Bud’s mother, this was the first film of Mary Astor (here in unfitting red hair) since Any Number Can Play, in 1949.

This was Joanne Woodward’s second film, after “Count Three and Pray,” the year before, which she considered to be her worst picture. In the following year, she would win the Best Actress Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve, which catapulted her to the major league.

Wagner, Joanne Woodward and Jeffrey Hunter were loaned to United Artists by Twentieth Century-Fox.

Production values are polished, especially the cinematography of Lucien Ballard.

The text’s use of the word “pregnant” caused controversy, and had to be cut out during previews in some cities like Chicago.  Moreover, United Artists was not allowed by the censors to use the word in any advertising.

The film represents dominant culture of the upper middle class of America in the mid-1950s, including the generation gap between parents and their children, refusing to be-controlled and rebelling against them. The movie was made around the time that rock-n-roll music exerted similar influence on Hollywood and American pop culture.

The movie was remade in 1991 under the same title, with Matt Dillon cast in the Wagner’s role.

Robert Wagner as Bud Corliss
Jeffrey Hunter as Gordon Grant
Virginia Leith as Ellen Kingship
Joanne Woodward as Dorothy Kingship
Mary Astor as Mrs. Corliss
George Macready as Leo Kingship
Robert Quarry as Dwight Powell
Howard Petrie as Howard Chesser, chief of police

Directed byGerd Oswald

Produced by Robert L. Jacks

Screenplay by Lawrence Roman, based on A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin
Music by Lionel Newman

Cinematography: Lucien Ballard

Edited by George A. Gittens
Production company: Crown Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release date: June 12, 1956
Running time: 94 minutes


I am grateful to TCM for showing this noir on October 27, 2019.