Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) has got a bright future and a lot of big plans for his life. However, he’s decided that the easiest way to make it big is to date Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward), whose father owns some major copper mines. But when he finds out Dorothy is pregnant, he’s horrified when she suggests getting married because he knows her father would never approve and any chance of getting a part of those copper mines would go out the window. Dorothy insists on getting married and Bud eventually reluctantly agrees. But then Bud hatches a murder scheme! Only Bud is kind of an idiot and doesn’t think his cunning plan all the way through first. He reads up on poisons, steals some poisons from the school’s chemistry lab, and makes them into capsules. Then he tricks Dorothy into writing a translation of something that could read like a suicide note. So he gives Dorothy the pills he made, telling her they were vitamins. Only he doesn’t actually watch her take them and he sends the suicide note to her sister Ellen before he knows for sure whether or not Dorothy is dead. So imagine his surprise when he shows up for class and sees Dorothy! He tries to stop the post office from sending his letter, but has no luck.
Now Bud’s got to kill Dorothy and fast. When Bud and Dorothy meet up to get their marriage license, Bud picks a time when the office will be closed for lunch. When Dorothy gets there and sees the office is closed, he suggests they go up to the roof to wait. When they get up to the roof, Dorothy admits to not taking the pills and Bud takes the opportunity to shove her off the roof. The police are confident it’s suicide and Dorothy’s family wants to avoid scandal so they don’t push for a bigger investigation.
But Bud is still determined to get his hand on the Kingship copper mines so he starts dating Dorothy’s sister Ellen (Virginia Leith). Dorothy’s family didn’t really know she was seeing Bud, she only wrote a few vague details about him and mentioned a nickname he had for her in letters to Ellen, so Ellen doesn’t know who he is. A few months after Dorothy’s death, one of Dorothy’s sorority sisters sends Ellen one of Dorothy’s belts. Ellen then realizes that Dorothy was wearing something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue when she died. She begins to suspect that Dorothy had been planning to get married and it wasn’t suicide, so she contacts Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter) to tell him her suspicions.
Gordon and Ellen start investigating on their own and manage to track down Dwight Powell, who Dorothy had briefly dated. When Ellen meets Dwight, she’s ready to confront him, but realizes he’s innocent when he doesn’t recognize the nickname that Dorothy had mentioned. But he does think he has the address to the guy she dated after him. They head back to his dorm to get it, but Bud follows them. When Dwight gets to his room, Bud shoots him and makes it look like he killed himself out of guilt for killing Dorothy. Ellen believes it at first, but then Gordon discovers that Dwight couldn’t possibly have killed Dorothy, he was in Mexico for a tennis tournament when she died. So if he didn’t kill Dorothy, there would be no reason for him to kill himself. Gordon was an assistant professor where Bud and Dorothy had gone to school and remembers seeing them together, so he starts investigating Bud further. But as far as Ellen knows, Bud’s never been to college, let alone known her sister. Ellen initially dismisses any idea of Bud having known her, but when she gets Bud alone during a trip to the copper mines, he slips and calls Dorothy the nickname she had mentioned in her letters. When she realizes the truth, Bud tries to throw Ellen off a cliff, but Bud is the one who ends up dead.
For the most part, A Kiss Before Dying was pretty good. The beginning is slightly on the campy side. Bud is such an incredibly bumbling murderer and when Dorothy and Bud are on the roof together, I couldn’t help but laugh at how Dorothy totally misses the sinister tone in Bud’s voice and proceeds to make a point of leaning way over the ledge. But once we get past Dorothy’s obliviousness, the movie starts turning into a pretty decent thriller. It’s just too bad that Joanne Woodward and Mary Astor, who had a small part as Bud’s mother, didn’t get more screen time. Joanne did very well with the time she did get, I think she gave a better performance in her small part than Virginia Leith did in her bigger role. And Robert Wagner definitely nailed being cold, calculating, and sinister. Overall, it’s an enjoyable movie. Just don’t be put off by the slightly campy first part.