Dorie Kingship (Joanne Woodward) is an heiress to her wealthy father’s copper mining business, or she would be if she hadn’t just fallen pregnant with the baby of her boyfriend (Robert Wagner), a fact both of them are convinced is very bad news for their future together. As she sits in his bedroom in tears, he seeks to reassure her that there is a way out of their situation, and maybe it really isn’t so bad; the solution is that they get married and have the baby, and if Dorie’s father (George Macready) disowns her, so be it, they can get by somehow. Maybe he will have to get a job and forget about his academic pursuits, but they will have each other, and isn’t that what’s important?
No, this wasn’t a social issue drama about unplanned motherhood, it was actually a thriller based on the first novel published by Ira Levin, he of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives fame, which thanks to its ingenious structure was not only a bestseller back then, but remains very well thought of by mystery and suspense fans to this day. A lot of that was down to the twist, which as Stephen King pointed out was quite superb since it foiled the bane of the novelist’s life, the reader who will skip to the last few pages to find out how the book ends before reading the rest of it. Those shenanigans will not apply to the Levin source, for there’s no way of discovering what is going on unless you read the whole thing in its proper order.
Of course, that was all very well on the page, but Levin’s twist relied very much on it being set in a book and not being seen in a movie, so how could the filmmakers get around that? The answer was that they couldn’t, but they managed a not bad approximation of it that didn’t feel like a cheat, and this was less reliant on the mystery come the middle of the story when the focus changed from Dorie to her sister Ellen, played by Virginia Leith. If you wanted a study in contrasts about how the right role can transform a career, Woodward would go on to be one of the most respected film and stage actresses of her generation, while Leith, no slouch when it came to acting herself, ended her big screen career shortly after as a living, severed head in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.
That film is more of a cult effort than A Kiss Before Dying, but director Gerd Oswald, who mostly worked in television thereafter though did craft another cult favourite thriller in Screaming Mimi a couple of years later, proved himself skilled with an examination of the kind of criminal mind that would be very fashionable in decades to come: the psychopath. There would be villains of that stripe in numerous films for decades, and indeed that continues to this day as simple shorthand for how a character can live with themselves after committing terrible acts, some more convincing psychologically than others, but here the director was careful to delineate the killer’s motivations not with a doctor giving us a lecture at a crucial moment to describe the mind of a bad guy, but by having us perceive it through his actions.
Robert Wagner, usually a clean cut good guy, was cast against type as the handsome, capable and personable psychopath, a clever bit of fitting the actor to the role as he could convincingly play the decent young man that everyone believes him to be, which makes his subterfuge all the more vivid when his evil plans begin to bear fruit. We watch him smoothly negotiate the other characters and he seems to have the potential to get away with whatever he wants, so when push comes to shove (literally) he has the ability to cover himself and move on to his next stage. Woodward offered a reading of Dorie that would illustrate why her boyfriend would now find her clingy demeanour an obstacle, yet remained sympathetic, with emphasis on the “pathetic”, while Leith impressed as the smartest person in the film, yet not as brave as she would like to be. Also present were Jeffrey Hunter, future Captain of the Starship Enterprise, a gig that didn’t work out sadly for him, as the college academic who offers vital information to the case, and Mary Astor as the mother, suggesting the root of the villain’s hidden maladjustment, rounding out a very good cast for a satisfying, often subtly off-kilter film. Music by Lionel Newman.