Friday, July 12, 2019

Robert Wagner’s Killer Charm: ‘A Kiss Before Dying’ 1956

Joanne Woodward falls for Robert Wagner in a BIG way in 'A Kiss Before Dying!'

Ira Levin’s first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, boldly had a charismatic but killer sociopath as its protagonist. Levin, author of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, got Kiss published in 1953, a year and half before The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s classic charming villain. Boyishly handsome, clever, devious, and desperate in his desire to join ranks of the rich, Levin’s Bud Corliss and Highsmith’s Tom Ripley are practically twins.
Mom had A Kiss Before Dying recorded and we watched out of curiosity, because as a teen, she worked at Manistique’s Oak Theater when this 1956 version came out. This was the first time for me, plus I never saw the ’91 remake.
*A slew of spoilers ahead, needed to write about Kiss’ story and characters.
Love how Wagner's Bud comforts Woodward's pregnant Dorie with cigarettes!

Kiss gets right down to it: Wagner’s Bud consoles girl friend ‘Dorie,’ Dorothy Kingsmith, who just found out she’s pregnant. Bud seems solicitous, but unduly concerned as to who knows. The situation of the upwardly mobile boy and the hapless, pregnant girl is reminiscent of A Place in the Sun, which came out five years prior to Kiss. The difference here is that the girl is not poor, but from a wealthy family. Bud wants to marry into money, but knows that her stern father is all about propriety. Bud wants his entrée into the Kingsmith clan to be smooth.
Bud's reaction when he sees Dorie walk into class the next day, after giving her special 'vitamins' to take!

So, instead of offering to pay for an abortion, Bud decides to kill Dorie. First, Bud decides to poison her and goes to great lengths to procure the chemicals, and tries to pass it off as vitamins for the mother-to-be. Then, after tricking her into writing what could pass as a suicide note, he mails it—but Dorie decides not to take Bud’s little helper. Since he’s already sent the letter—he then proposes to her—when he sees that the municipal building is very tall, with a handy roof. Inspiration from desperation! Bud deliberately times their trip during the lunch hour, and then suggests they check out the view while they wait…
Bud wants Dorie to do her imitation of 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof!" 

After Bud dispatches with Dorie, he moves on to her sister, Ellen. From here, the movie loses momentum, as it becomes a matter of Bud constantly trying to cover his tracks. Also, Joanne Woodward gives the film’s only performance as someone who resembles a real person. Otherwise, the film is a cast of cardboard cutouts: Jeffrey Hunter, as an assistant college professor who just happens to work part time for his chief of police uncle. You can tell that Hunter’s character is smart because he wears thick glasses and smokes a pipe! With his dark, slicked back hair and black horn rims, Hunter’s Gordon Grant reminds me of Clark Kent. And Hunter works the horn rims and pipe like a community theater newcomer clinging to his props. Fox starlet Virginia Leith gives a robotic ‘50s starlet performance as the second sister.
Doesn't Jeffrey Hunter look smart with his horn rims and pipe, solving murder mysteries?

George Macready, who will always be Gilda’s suavely sinister husband, has little to do except offer rote reactions. The same goes for Mary Astor as Bud’s working class, doting mother. Mary and Joanne’s characters sport two-fer poodle cuts, a trend Joan Crawford once noted only looked good on teenage girls and real poodles, but Mary’s hair has been dyed Lucy Ricardo red, to boot!
Mary Astor, as Robert Wagner's mother, refuses to open her eyes until her hair grows out!

The redeeming character is Dorie, played by Joanne Woodward. If you can get past her hideous curls, Joanne’s rich girl is gentle and almost child-like. Dorie seems far too trusting of Bud’s line of bull, but Woodward’s character is empathetic and likeable. Still, Dorie almost seems like a cartoon doormat, with Bud tricking her into all kinds of traps that seem obvious. One that he doesn’t plan is when she takes a header down the sports bleachers and comes up smiling! Joanne’s natural, modern acting style is a sign of cinema things to come, compared to Virginia Leith’s studio charm school of acting.
Joanne Woodward as Dorie, pregnant and with a poodle cut!

Joanne kept reminding me of "Christina Crawford!"

It’s also fascinating to watch Robert Wagner at his heartthrob peak, melding his smooth, slightly smarmy style with the play-acting psycho, Bud Corliss. Robert Wagner was one of those ‘50s actors who really didn’t progress beyond his heart throb build up. By the ‘60s, the feature film parts became few and far between. Like fellow film lightweights George Hamilton and Roger Moore, television saved the day, with TV series or appearances that allowed the former pretty boys to maintain their maturely handsome looks, while lightly spoofing their image. For Wagner, it was first with It Takes a Thief, and later Hart to Hart.
Joanne Woodward as the slightly air-headed heiress and Robert Wagner as the cool killer.

As Bud Corliss, Wagner’s shortcomings as an actor actually work in favor of his character. Bud oozes charm and always has a corny line for the woman in his life. Wagner’s cultivated voice always sounded slightly phony, mocked hilariously by RJ’s own mini-me, Rob Lowe, in the Austin Powers movies. RJ’s studio-taught mannerisms all make his sociopath pretender especially believable. While Kiss is a far-fetched noir drama, but compare Wagner’s Bud to Monty Clift’s climber in A Place in the Sun, and the difference in the talent level is obvious. Wagner was not an accomplished dramatic actor, but a studio star that got by on good looks and charm, for awhile—just like Bud Corliss. Lucky for Wagner that TV success was down the road.
Here's a candid of very young and handsome Robert Wagner, without the greasy kid's stuff.

Though Bud’s military service is noted, it’s a shame that the film version of A Kiss Before Dying doesn’t recreate the novel’s defining incident with a Japanese soldier, which shows Bud’s thrill of power over someone. This explained how Bud became a ruthless killer.
A Kiss Before Dying is truly a mixed bag of treats. On the goodies side, the use of Cinemascope, Lucien Ballard’s imaginative camera work, lots of Arizona location shooting, and an evocative look at mid-50s USA, all makes Kiss look like the perfect postcard of the past.
Robert Wagner's horseback riding apparel--love it or hate it?
Robert Wagner goes side saddle with the film's other sister, played lethally by Virginia Leith.

On the yucky Kiss side is the strange opening credits, with lots of illustrated magenta lips and baby blue font, accompanied by a peppy theme song. All fit for a romantic romp, but not a suspense flick about a cold-blooded murderer! The song is later played on the restaurant jukebox, and Wagner even hums the cheesy tune to himself several times. Plus, there are a number of amusingly odd moments: when Bud pitches Dorie off the business building roof and holds his arms out in a maestro pose just a bit too long; whenever Bud offers pregnant Dorie a puff of his cigarette when she doesn’t feel good; or RJ’s hipster horseback riding outfit and girly poses; and most especially, when a matronly woman in a see-through blouse and white bra saunters past Bud, and plops down in a chair, during an especially dramatic moment.
This nasty little film noir, in eye-popping color and Cinemascope, is worth a watch, especially since A Kiss Before Dying came out in the wholesome ‘50s.
Robert Wagner "photo-bombing" co-star Jeffery Hunter!

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