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Literature / A Kiss Before Dying

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A Kiss Before Dying is a 1953 novel written by Ira Levin. The book is about a young man named Bud Corliss who meets Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon. Once she finds out she's pregnant with his child, Bud kills Dorothy and makes it look like a suicide. He then hooks up with Dorothy's sister Ellen. When Ellen finds out that he murdered Dorothy, Bud kills Ellen. He then dates the last of the sisters, Marion. Bud's deception is eventually revealed and falls to his death into a vat of molten copper.

There have been two film adaptations. The first, made in 1956 and directed by Gerd Oswald, stars Robert Wagner as Bud, Virginia Leith as Ellen, and Joanne Woodward as Dorothy. This version eliminates the third sister Marion.

The second, made in 1991 and directed by James Dearden, is completely different, though it eliminates the third sister as well. Matt Dillon plays Jonathan Corliss, while Sean Young plays twins Ellen and Dorothy Carlsson. In this version, Dorothy is killed by Jonathan during the first few minutes of the film, and at the end, Jonathan is run over by a train after Ellen learns the truth.

Tropes in these works:

  • Adapted Out: The third sister Marion, in both films.
  • Bookends: The 1991 film begins with Jonathan as a boy staring out of his window at the Carlsson freight trains passing, obviously fueling his obsession with marrying into the family. It ends with him chasing Ellen on to those same tracks—and being hit by one of those trains.
  • Cartwright Curse: Thor Carlsson has a family version of this—he's outlived his wife, his son, and one of his daughters (two if you count the third sister in the book).
  • Conviction by Counterfactual Clue: Aside from the fact that she wasn't known to be suicidal, Ellen is convinced that Dorothy didn't kill herself because she had just bought a new outfit. Truth in Television—most people planning to kill themselves generally don't do something like this.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: In the 1991 film, Jonathan murders the driver who picks him up while hitchhiking and assumes his identity. It's never seen onscreen, but given (a) what the viewer already knows of Jonathan's murderous personality, and (b) that he's using the man's name and reciting the identical story that the man told him (that he has no relatives, having lost his parents in a plane crash), it's obvious what's happened.
  • Dead Star Walking: Subverted. Sean Young's character Dorrie gets murdered minutes into the film, but the actress returns as Dorrie's twin Ellen.
  • Death by Irony: In the 1956 film, Bud perishes when he falls into a copper pit during a visit to the plant while (a) trying to kill Ellen and (b) evade the cops. This was the original ending for the 1991 film, but test audiences hated it, so an ending was reshot that offered an Ironic Echo of the film's beginning—Jonathan is shown as a little boy watching the Carlsson trains going past his house, fueling his obsession with marrying into the family. At the end, in his desperate attempt to kill Ellen after she learns his secret, he chases her onto the train tracks—she's able to get out of the way, while he isn't.
  • Defiled Forever: Thor has a rather callous reaction to Dorothy's death upon discovering that she was pregnant out of wedlock. His, Dorothy's, and Jonathan's comments indicate that he would have disowned her.
  • Dramatic Drop: Along with Dramatic Shattering and Slow-Motion Drop. We get this when Ellen drops her coffee mug upon hearing that Patricia Farren's body has been found
  • Faking the Dead: Poor Jonathan's mother has spent the past several years assuming that her son killed himself after his car and clothes were found at the beach.
  • The Film of the Book: Two of them.
  • Finally Found the Body: In the 1991 film, when Patricia Farren's remains wash up a year after she went missing. Ellen realizes that this is one too many horrifying coincidences—everyone who could tell her who Dorothy was dating when she died has also ended up dead—and finally begins to seriously suspect Jonathan knows more than he's telling.
  • Gold Digger/Social Climber: Jonathan. To the point where he's willing to essentially murder his unborn child because he knows that Dorothy's father will disown her for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy and derail his plans to get his hands on the Carlsson money.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: In the novel, the POV is switched twice; the first third is from Bud's POV, the second from Ellen's, and the third from Marion's. It's especially effective if you haven't seen either film, because even though Bud is clearly the killer in the first part, his name isn't actually revealed until the end of the second.
  • He Knows Too Much: Or "they", rather. Jonathan kills everyone—Tommy, Patricia—who can tell Ellen that he's the one Dorothy was dating before she supposedly killed herself, and tries to kill Ellen when she finds out everything.
  • Imperiled in Pregnancy: Jonathan kills Dorothy specifically because she's pregnant, knowing that her father will disown her and deprive him of the chance to get his hands on her money.
  • Improbable Hairstyle: Ellen dyes her hair blonde and washes it out back to her natural brunette within a few hours.
  • Joggers Find Death: A woman walking her dog finds Patricia Faring's remains.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Or suicide, rather. How Jonathan kills Dorothy and her ex-boyfriend Tommy when the latter is about to reveal his identity to Ellen.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Jonathan, hands down. It's almost sad that he didn't use his penchant for hard work and genuine intelligence for good, rather than pure evil.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The film begins with Jonathan as a boy looking out the window, watching the Carlsson trains pass his house, already showing his obsession with the family.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: How Jonathan meets his demise in the 1991 film.
  • The Remake: The 1991 film.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Determined to marry into the Carlsson family, Jonathan decides one sister is as good as the other after killing Dorothy. Ellen and Dorothy being twins certainly helps.
  • Room Full of Crazy: After killing Dorothy, Jonathan goes home and takes out a scrapbook full of clippings on the Carlsson family, showing he's been obsessed with the family for years.