Saturday, July 9, 2011

Murder On The Backlot!

The Death Kiss(1932)
Director: Edwin L. Marin
Cast: David Manners, Adrienne Ames, Bela Lugosi, John Wray

Fascinating curio-piece for vintage horror buffs that features three of the stars of Dracula(1931) in a mystery about murder on the backlot of a studio! Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan and David Manners all appear in The Death Kiss, a fairly underrated and fun thriller from the golden age.Despite, it's wide availability in the public domain, this is still a relatively unknown little mystery film. I discovered this years ago on vhs and was astounded by the title and the top-billed Lugosi. The cover suggested a very different type of film, presumably a Lugosi horror vehicle, which this is not at all. That may have to do with the film's relative obscurity, considering the same advertisement ploy was utilized upon the film's release as well!

The film is a comic mystery that begins with a mock scene meant to lure viewers into believing they are watching a crime film, with a gangster getting "bumped" off by some hoods in a car, after recieving a kiss from a femme fatale, film actress, Marcia Lane(Adrienne Ames). The scene ends and the camera pans back to reveal that the club scene is a set and that this is a movie studio, where Dr. Van Helsing himself, Edward Van Sloan, is directing the production. The man who was shot was a movie star, Myles Brent, and he turns out to be really shot, causing all manner of panic among the company. The apathetic studio heads are turned off because they have invested so much money in publicity for the actor and everyone seems to have hated Brent. The police arrive, led by detective John Wray and are typical of the genre, inempt. A screenwriter, Franklyn Drew(David Manners) who is dating Marcia, finds out that she is the prime suspect, beinh Brent's ex-wife and he decides to solve the case himself. The police don't want his help even after producing the slug and the gun used to cause the murder(!) and attempt to arrest him. His only other ally is silly studio guard Vince Barnett, most famous as Paul Muni's "social secretary" in Scarface(1932). The killer cleverly knocks off a few suspects and only Drew can seem to see through it all, eventually finding the killer through some stray doodles left on a pad in a producer's office! Who is the killer? It would be unfair to give that away in a whodunnit, but i'll say this much, it's not Bela Lugosi, because the producers weren't as stupid as the ones in the movie when making this picture. By the way, Lugosi is plays one of the producers! Trust me, the killer's identity will be a surprise.

The Death Kiss is a fun oddity that serves as decent mystery, a hoot for classic horror buffs and a rare treat to be able to look behind the scenes at a movie studio in the 1930s. Back in the day, maybe this wasn't as big of a deal, but it adds a special quality for today's audiences who are curious to see how a movie studio operated back in the day. It's cool to see how the studio functions and witness the politics of how one was run. Notice the casting of ethnic types as the producers, portrayed by Lugosi and Alexander Carr, reflecting and satirizing many of the real studio heads of the times who were from european backgrounds.

David Manners, who was practically insufferable in horror classics like Dracula(1931), The Mummy(1932) and The Black Cat(1934) is actually quite likeable here, proving capable of playing a romantic, comedic hero, that he barely displayed in his better known horror films. His junior detective is pretty engaging and serves as an audience identification character that is both intelligent and pretty cool. Adrienne Ames is a decent leading lady as Marcia Lane and comes across as alot more approachable and sincere than what hollywood actresses were usually depicted as and gains sympathy, though we seem to know from the get-go that she couldn't have committed any crimes. Barnett and Carr have the best comic bits and help lessen the seriousness of the film, providing ample bits of relief, along with Manner's wisecracking. Wray has the thankless role of the detective on the case and plays it as best as he can, trying to use the hard-boiled schtick for all it's worth. Van Sloan is typically commanding and fun to watch as the director, obviously taking his direct approaches and professionalism off of several real directors he must have known. And than there is Bela Lugosi. Man, is this a weird performance of his. Sometimes, he appears almost naturalistic and really seeming in control of his part as studio producer, Joseph Steiner. Other times, he tries some truly bizarre attempts at scene stealing creating a whole gallery of inappropiate facial reactions and in genreral, strange gestures, that make this one of the more peculiar Lugosi performances, and that's saying something!

A disapointment, perhaps for those expecting a more full-blooded horror film in the Universal vein, this will prove exciting for film fans looking for a decent light mystery and a chance to see the Dracula stars at it again, though in a very different sort of film! It's probably no classic, but an entertaining enough B-film that should be more examined because it's a real fun time for those willing to give it a glance.

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