James Crawford on A Kiss Before Dying
The true joy in rediscovering classical Hollywood cinema lies not in the masterpieces, but in those gems that lie just below the radar. The technical mastery and creative perfection that are the imprimaturs of canonical features after a while become somewhat stupefying; the viewing experiences that truly invigorate the critic are those unexpected gems. Aside from the obvious example of Hitchcock, Bud Boetticher and Samuel Fuller both made silk purses out of the proverbial sows’ ears, but, to my eyes, the undisputed paragon of a director making so much out of nominally so little is Anthony Mann. Until he moved into the gaudy Technicolor epics of his later career, Mann had an uncanny knack for taking rote B-grade flicks and transforming them into minor masterpieces, like 1951’s The Tall Target and 1949’s Reign of Terror. A contract director with MGM, he had little control over script, and so turned to cinematography to make little interventions on gender relations, power dynamics, morality, and even the nature of narrative discourse itself. Mann’s stark chiaroscuro compositions imbue his films—particularly those two films, among the handful of period noirs made—with a heft that surpasses his material. The same can be said of Gerd Oswald, an otherwise unremarkable director that remarkably found transcendence with 1956’s A Kiss Before Dying.
Based on the first novel by an as-yet unheralded Ira Levin, A Kiss Before Dying is pure potboiler: college student Bud (Robert Wagner), upon discovering that his girlfriend, Dory (Joanne Woodward), is pregnant out of wedlock, plots to kill her. After Woodward’s death, which Wagner stages as a suicide, Wagner becomes involved with Woodward’s sister Ellen (Virginia Leith), and as their impending marriage approaches, subtle clues make Leith become more and more convinced of her fiancé’s guilt. The remainder of the film chronicles how Wagner’s carefully orchestrated plot is unravelled by the increasingly incredulous and distraught Ellen. There’s little, narratively speaking, to suggest a work of weight and nuance, and yet Oswald accomplishes it, crafting a visually complex film. It all begins with the film’s second shot.
A college-aged blonde (Woodward), lies, front and frame left, on a bed in a room adorned with all the trappings of undergraduate life. A maroon pennant for “Stoddard U,” pinned to the wall, tilts downwards at a jaunty angle; a hefty textbook lies open on a battered desk; a purse, lipstick, and tissues are strewn across a reel-to-reel tape deck; framed newspaper clippings of a striking high-school student hang in various places. That man (Wagner), now advanced to Woodward’s age, sits on the bed at her hip, trying to comfort her, but Woodward is disconsolate: she is nearly two months pregnant, which will almost certainly anger her wealthy, hard-hearted father. Wagner lights a cigarette, circumnavigates the notion of marriage, a subject on which Woodward pounces, sensing the reluctance in his voice. Back-pedaling, Wagner accedes that marriage is the only possible recourse, and she wraps her arms around him. (Note that, in this moral universe, abortion is completely out of the question.) The next few exchanges alternate between Woodward’s despair at her father’s inevitable fury, which causes her to throw herself back down on the bed, and Wagner’s rather flat attempts at consolation as he pulls her more upright. Fearing his mother’s impending arrival, Wagner stands up and prepares to leave, stubbing out his cigarette toward the back of the room, and putting on his cardigan. Woodward sits up and clutches her belly, no doubt from the manifold stress she’s facing. Wagner makes mention of pills he can secure from a pharmacist friend to alleviate her physical discomfort, and Woodward breaks down again, prompting Wanger to flop back down on the bed. One last round of consolation, and Woodward finally gets up; as she makes to leave, Wagner reminds her, “Make sure you don’t leave anything around.” She moves forward and frame left, picks up her purse, and they both exit through the door in the back right corner of the room. Throughout the shot’s duration, the camera follows their movement—left, right, up, down—through this confined space. It’s essentially an establishing shot, but in a radically different context. The term connotes delimiting and initiating the space in which a drama will unfold (John Huston showing the San Francisco skyline in The Maltese Falcon; Laurence Olivier tracking across a model of Elizabethan England in Henry V). Here, no reference is made to location, but to the affective contours of the film that will follow. Put another way, the shot functions as a foreshadowing, an organizing principle, a statement of purpose. It’s not remarkable for what it reveals—it’s essentially exposition of narrative and character traits—but for its movement, length, and the way it approaches space, viewer identification, and power dynamics.
But more simply, I’m taken in by the shot’s length: three minutes, 26 seconds. By points of comparison, that puts it about 40 seconds longer than the shot that inaugurates De Palma’s Snake Eyes, 30 seconds longer than the beginning of Boogie Nights, and a hair’s breadth under the granddaddy of all tracking shots, the one that kicks off Touch of Evil—the most apropos comparison, given that it was released in 1958, only two years later. Note that every shot listed above is extraordinarily complicated, weaving through space, time, and abridging physical constraints, while in the establishing shot in A Kiss Before Dying, almost nothing transpires. It is the paragon of anti-sensationalism, denying kinetics and bombast. It follows the actors a split-second after they move instead of smoothly predicting their actions, suggesting that the film is open to the vagaries of chance; it establishes the contours of interactions over the parameters of space; it privileges performance and temporal continuum over the fraught fracturing of vision. By obliterating nearly every convention, Gerd Oswald declares that his film is unlike any B-feature you’ve seen.
There are so many aspects of A Kiss Before Dying that are, to my knowledge, sui generis for a film of its ilk, but the most remarkable is that it possesses no close-ups of actors’ faces. Objects, particularly those that are essential for Bud’s murder plot, receive close scrutiny, but the camera always maintains a discreet distance from the actors. In the film’s second shot (hereafter also known as its establishing shot), the camera is set back, taking in the entire length of Bud’s bed, and Oswald refuses to cut into the space, even as it reaches some fairly tremulous moments. The prevailing aesthetic of detached, medium-length two-shots, as constructed by cinematographer Lucien Ballard, is a concession to his use of widescreen Cinemascope—a medium that, as Fritz Lang famously put it, is more suitable for shooting snakes and coffins.
From a mundane, material consideration of the medium, the wide expanse of horizontal space for a Scope camera means that close photography of an actor’s face involves more dead space on the screen than is traditionally acceptable. The aesthetic is also reflective of the film’s overall project to thwart the traditional tenets of viewer identification and emotional involvement with the narrative. One can imagine the ripe, melodramatic issue of young premarital pregnancy (and its attendant concerns with premarital sex) rendered with extreme close-ups of the anguished mother-to-be, the furrowed, sweaty brow of the presumptive father, etc. The film is also rife with other potentially grandiose moments: a tortured sister’s fathomless grief, a father’s steely indifference, a detective’s final “eureka” moment, but here the action is always filmed at a remove, and thus A Kiss Before Dying’s nominal melodrama has the legs kicked out from underneath it. Even Dory’s murder, when Bud pushes her off an office rooftop, is rendered dispassionately in a three-shot sequence: a medium two-shot of the couple kissing, viewed from outside the terrace; a brief, high-angle shot of Dory’s descent towards the pavement; and a full shot of Bud, arms akimbo and arrayed against the cityscape, shot from inside the terrace. Oswald’s temperament is geared towards allusion and suggestion over explicit statement.
In this pinnacle, as with other scenes, we get very little identification with Joanne Woodward’s character, who is burdened with such grand torment. Even from the film’s second shot, she’s subordinated to secondary status. A director deploys the two-shot to illuminate the mutual importance of two characters, but Oswald’s mise-en-scène instead creates a power gradient. Dory lies on the bed, facing away from the camera, and pushed to the far left-hand edge of the frame. Her physical disposition reflects her character’s fragile state, but it also shifts the locus of identification from Dory to Bud, whose face is plainly evident throughout the entire shot (a face whose concern is fairly nonexistent). Dory’s first extended frontal exposure to the film occurs at the precise moment that Bud gets up off the bed, and vacates to the back of the room, suggesting that her true private, intimate moments can only come in the absence of her boyfriend. Allowed to move from the bed while Dory is not (she’s given permission to stand up only at Bud’s suggestion), Bud is physically more robust and able than his girlfriend, towering over her, and filling the screen’s vertical space, and is therefore much more compelling. Throughout the remainder of A Kiss Before Dying, the film remains similarly more interested in Bud’s machinations than on the effects they have on the people surrounding him. I must confess to being rather more intrigued by Bud’s ability to elude the police—faked suicide notes, delicately orchestrated murders of potential meddlers, etc.—than on Woodward’s mopey teenager in distress, who is congenitally unable to decipher his obviously malevolent intentions. With the series of murders committed through A Kiss Before Dying, Wagner’s character serves as the film’s nominal villain—at least, his demise becomes its emotional release—yet paradoxically, he also occupies the film’s active and emotional center. Accordingly, the film is shot through with a kind of tremulousness, a hope that this character, so singularly good at being evil, will evade the police. And Ballard’s aesthetic makes this anxiety palpable.
Ballard is attuned to the expansiveness of horizontal space afforded by Cinemascope (he would later serve as DP for several westerns, including three by Sam Peckinpah), but his use of depth is equally expressive. Deploying a medium wide-angle lens allows Lucien Ballard to focus on both the foreground characters as well as the background décor, but not in a way that makes the world distended and surreal. Two doors in the room’s back wall open up onto the bathroom and living room, respectively from left to right, creating a palpable sense of open, dangerous space that will inform the remainder of the film. The direct sightline to the living room is a reminder that Wagner’s mother could come home at any minute and discover them, just as later in the film, background bystanders threaten to unravel Wagner’s carefully orchestrated plot. As he darts furtively into a chemistry storeroom to steal poison, or enters an apartment to off a stranger who’s come dangerously close to the truth, Wagner is continually examining the long axes of hallways, scanning the background and peripheries of the frame for potential witnesses.
Suffice it to say I am unreasonably, inescapably smitten with Gerd Oswald’s A Kiss Before Dying, but then again, I am also particularly drawn to films that proudly trumpet their own alterity. It is one of those rare films that is able to overcome the organizational or studio fetters that seem destined to bog so many films down in the mires of B-grade obscurity, and demonstrate genuine intelligence. And it’s a film that I almost did not get to see. Were it not for a late, drunken post-party channel-surf to Turner Classic Movies—were it not for some cable television programmer squirreled away from the light of day, this urbane, quietly reactionary film would have escaped my notice. A Kiss Before Dying is one of those little idiosyncratic treasures that serve as smelling salts to the often stupefying experience of being a critic.