Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Directed by James Dearden. Written by Dearden from a novel by Ira Levin. Photography, Mike Southon. Editing, Michael Bradsell. Production Design, Jim Clay. Music, Howard Shore. Cast: Matt Dillon (Jonathan) Sean Young (Dorothy and Ellen), Max Von Sydow (Copper Baron Carlsson), Diane Ladd (Jonathan's mother),et al. A Universal release. 93 min. Rated R (violence, adult situations).
Ira ("Rosemary's Baby" ) Levin's thriller "A Kiss Before Dying" was filmed in 1956 with Robert Wagner, Joanne Woodward, Virginia Leith, Jeffrey Hunter , Mary Astor, and George Macready. In the 1991 remake their counterparts are Matt Dillon, Sean Young, Sean Young again, nobody, Diane Ladd and Max Von Sydow.

Jonathan is a psychotic, fortune-hunting student at the University of Pennsylvania; Dorothy is a co-ed (remember that term?) the daughter of a mining tycoon. She is also Ellen, her identical twin sister who is alienated from Dad, Carlsson the Copper Baron. Jonathan's mother is an abandoned woman.

Jonathan grows up on the wrong side of the tracks and only feet away from them, dreaming of the Carlsson fortune as the copper company's cars roll by. Later, in college, he becomes Dorothy's ultra-secret lover, conniving marriage with the heiress. Finding out that he has made her pregnant -- therefore sure to be disinherited by her intolerant father-- he throws her from the top of the Philadelphia City Hall, making it look like suicide. All this in one of the fastest starts in thriller history.

Sister Ellen suspects murder but no one will listen. When she sleuths on her own, Jonathan strangles Dorothy's previous boyfriend, staging it like a suicide and making this new victim appear like the girl's killer.

Months later Jonathan is in New York , as "Jay " and as Ellen's lover and co-worker in an agency for street people. When they marry he gets his coveted position with Carlsson . Slowly though Ellen gets suspicious of her husband, Jonathan suspects her suspicions , and the tension mounts...

The book had holes, the 1956 movie had craters the size of the tycoon's copper mines. The remake too plays fast and loose with credibility. The difference is that Dillon and Young are better than their predecessors , hold your attention and distract you somewhat from the plot's illogicalities. But they still can't make all the gaps go away.

Britisher James Dearden is the writer-director of a little gem, "Diversion," which won Best Short Drama at the 1980 Chicago Film Festival. Later he expanded that subject in the scenario of director Adrian Lyne's "Fatal Attraction," a 1987 feature which is flawed, blatant, not uninteresting however, yet cannot hold a candle to "Diversion." Dearden is the first to agree, as he did in private as well as responding to a question at a Cannes Festival press conference.

[You might wish to read my review of "Fatal Attraction." It also details "Diversion"]

Next Dearden made "Pascali's Island," in 1988, scripting from someone else's novel. This is an excellent, colorful, unusual work, but sadly, it failed because of poor and limited distribution .

"Kiss" is obviously a much more commercial venture, and it does have problems of verissimilitude. Yet it is good film-making, with good pacing , characterizations, production values and with clever touches. ( Curiously, its U.S.A. was recreated inside British studios.)

If there's less than meets the eye in the coincidences and gaps, there is more to "Kiss" than one notices at first sight. Dearden belongs to a film-conscious generation, and what's more, his father was a famous movie-maker. Adroitly, Dearden Junior blends the style of 1940s and 1950's films noirs with several homages to Alfred Hitchcock , some devious, others obvious, like Ellen watching "Vertigo" on TV; or like references to "Psycho," notably in a steamy sex scene inside a steamy shower, and a close-up of the drain .

Dearden improves on the 1956 in many ways. Among them, by making Dorothy and Ellen twins, which reinforces Ellen's feelings of foul play , since twins are said to have mysterious affinities. Or by eliminating the ludicrous Jeffrey Hunter character, the weakest point of the earlier movie.

There is some gore in Dearden's version but by contemporay standards the graphic violence is restrained, as when a dismemberment is only implied by a suitcase with a grizzly cargo.

Dearden's other bag --of tricks this time -- finds him stressing Hitchcockianly suspense over surprise in a plot where the menacing details keep your attention well, less through zapping effects than in observing Jonathan and Ellen. And even then, the best part of the movie is not so much Jonathan's fiendishness or Ellen's detection, but the gradual rise and fall of Ellen's attitude toward her husband.

The 1956 film was and still is overrated . The new version is vastly superior to the original and stands nicely on its own feet, even if they wobble.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel