Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying is one of my favorite slightly-forgotten suspense novels–tight, perfectly paced, and masterfully plotted story. Its first film adaptation doesn’t capture it quite as well as the adaptations for Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, but it’s nonetheless effective.
A Kiss Before Dying is the story of an ambitious, personable young man played by Robert Wagner, who here looks like nothing quite so much as an excellently groomed Ken doll come to life. He’s used his looks and charm to catch and keep naive copper mine heiress Dorothy (Joanne Woodward); in private, he studies brochures on her family’s business. But the film opens with his plan being threatened–Dorothy is pregnant, and she doesn’t want an abortion. It doesn’t matter to her that her conservative, harsh father will most likely disinherit her for making a speedy marriage that all-too-quickly produces a child. Having always been rich, she’s confident that she can easily handle being poor, just so long as she has the man she loves at her side. Her pregnancy, and her unwillingness to back down from it, sets up a ticking clock–and a cascading series of schemes and improvisations.
The inward darkness of the story goes very well with the sunny, candy-colored fifties aesthetic of the film. Director Gerd Oswald has fun with bringing in an almost satirical sense of unease: one of the best setting details is an ominous SPEED KILLS sign in the background of a scene. The world of A Kiss Before Dying isn’t an innocent one, contaminated by Robert Wagner moving through it like a stray blood clot; his amorality is shaped and abetted by the era’s sexual politics and complacency. It’s a world where movies must be extraordinarily careful about even mentioning pregnancy–and, simultaneously, a world where even the guileless Dorothy suspects that her boyfriend may try to trick her into an unintended abortion. In the end, the film successfully captures that key part of Levin’s work: the sense of a shiny plastic surface cracking to show the ugly, frightening machinery beneath.