Robert Wagner plays a psychopathic killer, Bud Corliss. Right off he’s in the hot seat, as his heiress girlfriend Dorie Kingship (Joanne Woodward, as a Kim Novak-like blonde) is pregnant. First stop, the drugstore, for Dorie’s stomach ache. She wants to get married, but he feels he isn’t good enough; he starts moaning how it ‘could have been.’ He has a sort of phony air in his demeanor.
Back home, his mom (Mary Astor) knows something’s up, but he isn’t confiding. Next day, he continues to feel sorry for himself “It’s always the girl’s fault” Dorie says, succumbing to ’50s mores. More than that, it’s already clear that he’s only thinking of himself. He implies that they’ll elope, but he doesn’t sound too hot about it. Sitting fairly high in the football field bleachers, she falls down to the bottom. She’s ok, but Bud may have pushed her.
In the library, he researches poisons. Then, he slinks into a campus pharmacy lab and pilfers some powdery stuff and pills; he splits. Anyway, that night, he says he’ll take her to a dance. Then he’s writing (typing) a letter to Dorie’s sister Ellen (Virginia Leith); hmm, looks like a forgery. He gives Dorie some of the pills he grabbed from the college pharmacy–probably not exactly for her ‘stomach.’
He tells her that he swung a deal for a cheap place for them to live. Back home, he tries to sell his mom on a lifestyle change; he’s going to quit school, get a job, etc. Bud fakes an injury flare-up in class (it seems he’s a Korean War vet). That gives him time to plot the elopement; they arrange to meet downtown. The marriage license bureau is closed, so he says they can kill time by sightseeing on the roof. Hmm, another accident opportunity.
She didn’t take the pills after all. “Don’t look down, you might get dizzy” he tells her nonchalantly, as she perches on the edge–he pushes her off. We’re just half through the movie…Her dad (George McReady), Ellen, and Gordon (Jeffrey Hunter) Dorie’s tutor and also the Police Chief’s nephew, confer. Ellen gets a doodad from Annabelle (Molly McCart) and a letter.
Gordon calls up Ellen, he’s got some dope on Dorie. Aha! the little item Dorie had borrowed would make up a part of a ‘something borrowed, something blue…’ that a bride would gather together. So, she convinces Gordon that Dorie was about to be married; they don’t even know about Bud, or his role, but they know that the building she fell from contained the Marriage Bureau. Also, they dig up a likely suspect from college class records. So she confronts Dwight (Robert Quincy), an old flame of Dorie’s.
Ellen quickly figures out that he’s not the culprit, in fact, he wants to help lead her onto Bud’s trail. Uho! Bud, lying in wait in Dwight’s dorm room, ambushes him. Cleverly, Bud has typed out a confession for Dwight to sign–on Dwight’s typewriter of course–and then kills him. An apparent guilt-induced suicide. What’s more amazing is that Ellen has begun hanging out with Bud; completely oblivious to his prior history. Man, this guy won’t give up insinuating himself into the family.
Bringing his mom to the Kingship mansion, the happy couple is about to announce their engagement. Soon enough, Gordon shows up to chat with Ellen. He has dope on Dwight–he was in Mexico the day Dorie died. So now they know “we have something else, two murders”. Gordon makes a call from a gas station to his uncle; Gordon thinks he’s seen Bud with Dorie–he did at the time of the bleacher ‘accident.’ In other words, Dorie and Bud were going together before Ellen met him.
Gordon goes to Ellen’s dad to fill him in. He’s incredulous, but Ellen blames her dad for believing Gordon, which he certainly doesn’t. Still, a touch of doubt in the air. His uncle calls back with the bad news about Bud and Dorie. At the spectacular family mine, she gets him to admit that he knew Dorie. She still isn’t quite sure if he’s ‘the guy’. But he slips up when he refers to her as Dorie, a nick-name which only family or a lover would know, instead of her given name Dorothy.
Great climax, as he tries to toss Ellen off a cliff. They wrestle, she breaks free just as a huge mining truck pins her against the escarpment, swerves to avoid her, and boosts Bud off the map.
A Kiss Before Dying is a very entertaining crime mystery/late film noir. The plot’s interesting for a couple of reasons. Bud seems to be on the verge of getting what he wants: marrying into a wealthy family. But, as time goes on, and his crimes pile up, he simultaneously gets closer to his doom. Ironically, both murders, and Ellen’s attempted murder, are attempts to cover up.
At first he wants to cover up Dorie’s pregnancy; that doesn’t work so he kills her. To cover his tracks from killing her, he has to kill Dwight; once Gordon makes Ellen suspicious, he tries to kill her. His relationship with Ellen is sort of the mirror image of what he had with her sister; only he doesn’t complicate things by getting her pregnant. It a brilliant piece of drama for a murderer to kill one sister and then became engaged to the other. It works logically, because, thanks to his Army service, he’s old enough to fit in with Dorie’s older sister.
It’s just a little too convenient, though. Obviously, he couldn’t have met Ellen until after Dorie has died. There’s no indication how much time has passed since then; but it has to be enough time for us to believe that Ellen and Bud could’ve gone from being strangers to being engaged. That’s a bit of a stretch.
Otherwise, though, everything’s of a piece. The performances match up well, the plot has enough time to play out, and doesn’t bog us down. The use of color, particularly with the interiors and cars, highlights that ’50s flair without becoming overwhelming.
Although I griped about the lack of the psychotic killer’s background in my earlier review of Hangover Square, another psychological murder mystery, in this movie it doesn’t seem important. Maybe because Wagner’s role is so linear, so determined (the murderer in Hangover Square was much more histrionic). A rewarding viewing experience, especially for those into ’50s crime dramas.
Farmermouse loved Dorie’s bronze-over-turquoise ’55 T-Bird, not to mention the tasty canapes at the engagement party. He gives this eight swanky off-campus nightspots.