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1956 was the year Robert Wagner decided to risk alienating his bobby-soxer fans and do something about his boyish, clean-scrubbed screen image. First, he played the bad seed brother of Spencer Tracy in The Mountain. (In one scene, he discovers a recently crashed plane and proceeds to loot the bodies of the victims.) Then, he went a step further and played a cold-blooded psychopathic killer in A Kiss Before Dying. This is the one where he lures his pregnant girlfriend to a lonely rooftop under the guise of a quickie wedding ceremony and then he...Well, you get the idea. He's just not a very nice boy.
In addition to Wagner's unconventional casting as Mr. Evil Incarnate, A Kiss Before Dying generated some controversy over the use of the word "pregnant." Remember, this was the Eisenhower era. Hollywood's self-censorship organization, the Breen Office, would not allow the studio to use the word in advertisements. At a Chicago preview of the film, they actually excised the word from the soundtrack.
On the positive side, A Kiss Before Dying was a trouble-free production and featured a solid supporting cast that included Mary Astor, Joanne Woodward, Jeffrey Hunter, George Macready, and Virginia Leith. Astor, in particular, is memorable as the psychopath's mother. It was her first film role since Any Number Can Play in 1949 and in her autobiography, A Life on Film, she reported that an unnamed co-star in the film actually said to her at their introduction, "Mary Astor! I thought you were dead!"
Joanne Woodward, who has the smaller, more unfortunate role of the unwitting victim in the film, was at the beginning of her screen career. A Kiss Before Dying was her second movie and she wasn't at all happy about it. In fact, she once referred to it as her "worst picture." Woodward was very outspoken about her dislike of Hollywood and its emphasis on glamour but she did agree to appear at a New York promotion for A Kiss Before Dying where she struck pin-up poses in a sexy, tight-fitting sleeveless dress.
Although you might be more familiar with the 1991 remake of A Kiss Before Dying starring Matt Dillon, the original is still the best version and works well as a cautionary tale about strangers, particularly men who are to all appearances - charming, handsome, and considerate. In a way, you could say Robert Wagner's role became a prototype for all the devilishly handsome killer roles that followed, from Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell in Compulsion (1958) to Christian Bale in American Psycho (1999).
Director: Gerd Oswald
Producer: Robert L. Jacks
Screenplay: Lawrence Roman, based on the novel by Ira Levin
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Editor: George A. Gittens
Art Direction: Addison Hehr
Music: Lionel Newman
Cast: Robert Wagner (Bud Corliss), Jeffrey Hunter (Gordon Grant), Virginia Leith (Ellen Kingship), Joanne Woodward (Dorothy Kingship), Mary Astor (Mrs. Corliss).
by Jeff Stafford