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A Kiss Before Dying is a 1953 novel written by Ira Levin. It won won the 1954 Edgar Award, for Best First Novel.

The book has been adapted twice for the cinema: first in 1956 and later in 1991.

Now a modern crime classic, Levin's story tells the shocking tale of a charming, intelligent man who will stop at nothing, even murder, to get where he wants to go. His problem is a pregnant woman who loves him. The solution involves desperate measures.

Plot

Bud Corliss is born into a working-class family and raised by his mother after his father walked out. As an adult, he uses an uncanny ability to adapt his personality to any given situation to chase his dreams of wealth and success — to be achieved by any means necessary.

An overachiever, he is a stellar student in high school and is drafted into the service, returning as a decorated hero. The most pivotal moment in his life occurs during the war, when he corners, shoots and kills a Japanese soldier, who is so terrified of an Americanmarker soldier with a gun that he wets his pants. Corliss is both elated by the total power he held over the soldier and disgusted by a display of terror he considers weak and unmanly. He makes up his mind then and there to never show any sign of vulnerability.

Upon returning to the U.S., he enrolls in college and meets Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon. Seeing an opportunity to attain the riches he has always craved, he becomes Dorothy's lover, but panics when she announces she is pregnant. He is sure that her stern, conservative father will disown her. Resolving to get rid of Dorothy, he tricks her into writing a letter that, to an unknowing observer, would look like a suicide note and then murders her. He runs no risk of getting caught, having urged Dorothy to keep their relationship a secret from her family and friends. He continues to live with his mother, who dotes on him and has no clue as to what he has done.

Corliss lies low for a few months until the press coverage of Dorothy's death has subsided. Then he pursues Dorothy's sister, Ellen. The romance is going according to plan — until Ellen begins to probe into Dorothy's death, convinced her sister did not kill herself. Ellen eventually confronts Corliss, who calmly confesses to the crime before murdering her as well.

Not to be discouraged, Corliss courts the last remaining Kingship daughter, Marion. This affair is the most successful; Corliss sweeps her off her feet, meets and charms her father, and eventually asks her to marry him, a proposal she gleefully accepts.

Detective Gordon Gant refuses to give up, however, breaking into Corliss' childhood home and stealing a written plan for meeting and seducing Marion to get her family's money, as well as news clippings about Dorothy's and Ellen's deaths. Days before the wedding, he shows up at the Kingship family home and presents Marion and her father with the evidence of Corliss' deception.

On a trip to one of the Kingship family's copper manufacturing plants, Marion, her father and Gant all corner Corliss while he is standing over a vat of molten copper and threaten to expose him. Corliss frantically pleads his innocence, but they are unmoved. Realizing his luck has finally run out and that he is facing the electric chair, Corliss at last loses his composure and wets his pants — just as the Japanese soldier, his symbol of pathetic cowardice, had done. Delirious with panic and shame, Corliss lets go and falls to his death into the vat below.

Characters

  • Bud Corliss
  • Dorothy Kingship
  • Mrs. Corliss
  • Ellen Kingship
  • Marion Kingship
  • Gordon Gant
  • Leo Kingship
  • Dwight Powell


Adaptations

The novel has been adapted twice into Hollywoodmarker films. The first, A Kiss Before Dying, was a 1956 film noir starring Robert Wagner as Bud Corliss, Virginia Leith as Ellen Kingship, Joanne Woodward as Dorothy ('Dorie') Kingship, and Mary Astor as Mrs. Corliss. The film was directed by Gerd Oswald and, except for eliminating the third sister, Marion, he followed the novel's plot fairly closely.

The second adaptation, A Kiss Before Dying, drastically changed the story, and was produced in 1991. It was filmed as a neo-noir starring Matt Dillon as Jonathan Corliss, Sean Young as twins Ellen and Dorothy Carlsson, Diane Ladd as Mrs. Corliss, and Max von Sydow as Thor Carlsson. The movie was directed by James Dearden.

Footnotes

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