|A Kiss Before Dying (1991)
|James Dearden. Based on the novel by Ira Levin
|Matt Dillon, Sean Young, James Russo, Diane Ladd and Max Von Sydow
“I’m sorry Dory. You only have yourself to blame” – Jonathan Corliss
Jonathan Corliss (Matt Dillon) is a super ambitious young man who comes from a working-class family in Philadelphia. He’s dating Dorothy Carlsson (Sean Young), one of the heirs to the Carlsson copper empire, but keeps their relationship a secret. Once she gets pregnant, she is convinced her father, Thor (Max Von Sydow), will disown her and he can’t live with that. Corliss dispatches of Dorothy (in brutal fashion) and soon gets involved with her twin sister Ellen (Young again) under an alias (as Jay Faraday; a hapless drifter whom Corliss crosses paths with).
Ellen and Jay marry, Jay gets on well with Thor and becomes an employee for the Carlsson empire. But keeping his past a secret involves a few killings and escalating tensions between him and Ellen but one thing’s for sure; nothing will stand in the way of Jonathan’s ambitions.
I’m not going to suggest that “A Kiss Before Dying” is some forgotten masterpiece but this little studio title has become somewhat of a cult item and it’s a film that I keep revisiting at regular intervals. The end product shows obvious signs of post production tinkering; the engrossing story leaves a number of interesting avenues unexplored and it’s overly rushed.
But problems aside; “A Kiss Before Dying” is a fairly gripping thriller with some genuinely disturbing scenes of cruelty and violence. Director James Dearden is obviously a Hitchcock aficionado and many scenes look like a direct tribute to the old master of suspense and they’re well handled both stylistically and music score-wise. But the ace in the hole is a supremely effective villain in the form of Jonathan Corliss and he’s wonderfully played by Matt Dillon. Corliss’s real nature is evident from the start as he murders his girlfriend because she got pregnant. There’s a little glimpse into his uneventful middle class existence and soon he abandons his former life to pursue Ellen and squeeze his way into the Carlsson family.
It’s a positive attribute to set your sights on a specific goal and let nothing prevent you from achieving your dream. But “A Kiss Before Dying” shows a dark side to such ambition and Corliss’s drive for success is heartache and pain for those who care for him and gruesome executions for those who stand in his way. While his motivations are at best half explained Dillon manages to create a memorable sociopath who’s a master manipulator and a clever planner.
While the ending is mostly satisfactory it’s abundantly clear that it was rushed. Due to poor test screenings the original ending was scrapped and a new one reshot. It also looks a bit choppy in editing and quite likely a number of scenes were cut too short for pacing reasons. The casting of Sean Young in the dual role of Dorothy and Ellen was maybe not the best choice as the actress has always been extremely limited with some very questionable line delivery throughout her career. That said; as I revisit the film again and again her performance becomes a little less distracting…so that’s a good thing.
“A Kiss Before Dying” is a remake of a 1956 film of the same name starring Robert Wagner in the Dillon part. The novel upon which these films are based was Ira Levin’s first novel (published in 1953) but everything in this version has been updated. Reports claim that the original ending followed the novel quite closely but the revised one attempts to give a little more meaning to Jonathan’s obsession with the Carlsson empire.
With warts and all; “A Kiss Before Dying” is a noteworthy throwback thriller that has some gruesome and disturbing scenes, a fantastic performance by the erratic Matt Dillon, a lot of visual flair that pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock and an engrossing story with a memorable villain.