A movie within a movie. An actor is shot as required by the script of the movie being made, The Death Kiss. But he really is shot dead. Bela Lugosi is a studio manager, Leo Grossmith (Alexander Carr) is the movie company president, while Tom Avery (Edward Van Sloan) is Death Kiss’s director. Checking relentlessly into the crime is Police Detective Lieutenant Sheehan (John Wray).
One of the writers, Frankyln Drew (David Manners) and his girlfriend Marcia Lane, the Death Kiss co-star, get involved, a bit too deeply, as it happens. She’s a suspect mostly because the victim was her ex-husband Brent, and, of course, she was also on the set when it happened. If that weren’t damning enough, she and Brent had been disputing a life insurance policy. Another guy on the Death Kiss set, Chalmers (Harold Minjir), seems questionable.
Because of the unique premise, there’s film of the actual murder scene. The projectionist is mugged just as the film gets to the murder; obviously, someone tried to prevent the police, etc., from seeing the evidence. Plus the film negatives have been destroyed. Drew tries to recreate the scene, poking around the set. He strikes gold, as he finds a pistol hidden in one of the cameras. Then he gets mugged, the gun goes missing.
The studio cop Gully (Vince Barnett) fingers Chalmers, as the victim had gotten him fired from a previous job. Plus, Chalmers is one of the few guys there having the technical skills to set up the gun and fire it. But then Chalmers turns up dead, a possible suicide. Gully and Drew figure out that Chalmers was murdered. Missing battery acid indicates the means of murder; unfortunately for Marcia, the juice was out of her car. Big deal, just fill up her battery and no one’s going to know which battery was pilfered…
Anyway, Grossman calls on Marcia with a rather pathetic come-on. She quickly deflects him. He makes a vague threat, which stupidly leaves open the possibility that he had a role in Brent’s murder. Marcia’s getting grilled by Sheehan in Steiner’s office, they’re ‘taking her downtown.’ Drew’s still sleuthing around. He gets the straight dope from a desk clerk at a hotel up the coast that Brent and a lady friend (not Marcia) stayed the night before Brent’s murder.
There was a scuffle there between Brent and another guy–the mystery woman’s husband. He’s the killer. In Grossman’s office Drew finds a bit of doodling similar to one found in the hotel’s phone booth. Back at the movie set, the filmmakers shoot a new scene for of Death Kiss, with a new actor taking Brent’s role. Drew explains his findings to Sheehan, who’s interested, but still skeptical.
The clincher though, is a new tidbit that Brent’s murder weapon, due to a snafu, was a different caliber than the others. Sheehan bites on this. Unbeknownst to them, someone in the studio can hear everything they say, thanks to an open mic at one end, and headphones at the other. The killer kills the lights. A film-noirish denouement, with a dark cat-and-mouse chase scene and shoot-out, rapidly plays out, the murderer plunging to his death–Avery. It was his wife that Brent was with.
The Death Kiss was quite a bit better than I thought it would be. The clever interplay between the movie being filmed parallel with the movie we see deepens the plot as well as providing props and clues derived from the practice of filmmaking. Sort of a reality show about the making of a reality show.
As the protagonist, Drew’s character is well-thought-out. He has a natural interest in solving the crime because he’s a mystery writer, and, more importantly, he wants to clear his girl Marcia. Sheehan’s role as a wide-cracking cop is nicely done as well. Lugosi maybe should’ve had Van Sloan’s pivotal role. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast, other than Barnett, isn’t very memorable.
This is a suspenseful mystery that doesn’t really have any big holes in it. With some stronger performances, it could’ve really lit up the box office. Farmermouse liked that old time ice-box access door; he gives The Death Kiss seven notepads with those squiggly lines. 7/10.