The Death Kiss (1932)
“Movie star MURDERED! KILLER on the loose!”
Director: Edwin L. Marin
Cast: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Adrienne Ames
Synopsis: A Hollywood studio manager and writer join the plot of an actor shot dead on the set.
The Death Kiss is a B-movie from KBS Productions which, in case you weren’t aware, was a production company so impoverished that it didn’t even have a studio, so it rented space from Poverty Row studio Tiffany on which to film. To reduce costs even further, the story of The Death Kiss takes place mostly in a film studio, which meant there was no need for location shooting and director Edward L. Marin, whose first effort at directing this was, was able to take advantage of the Tiffany back-lot to provide at least a pinch of authenticity to this otherwise ordinary story.
The film opens with the murder of leading man Myles Brent (Edmund Burns — The Birth of a Nation, Male and Female), who is shot on set while filming his new movie. The murderer, despite killing his victim in front of dozens of witnesses, escapes unnoticed because the scene Brent was shooting was of the gunning down of his character. But instead of using a prop the killer was clearly packing a real gun. Once the crew realise Brent’s unusually realistic performance isn’t an act, the studio is sealed off and the police called. As usual with a cheaply-made 1930s B-movie, the police here provide the so-called comic relief, and Detective Lieutenant Sheehan (John Wray — All Quiet on the Western Front, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) and Sergeant Hilliker (Wade Boteler — Riffraff, The Roaring Twenties) are so incompetent that you have to wonder how they made it as far up the ranks as they have. The flimsiest of evidence prompts this dim-witted duo to jump to irrational conclusions, and they throw accusations about like confetti before finally concluding that Marcia Lane (Adrienne Ames), Brent’s leading lady, is the guilty party. Now all they have to do is somehow force the evidence to agree with their conclusion.
To be honest, anyone on the set could have been Brent’s killer because nobody seemed to like him, and he definitely won’t be missed by anyone other than studio head Leon A. Grossmith (Alexander Carr), who is deeply concerned about the amount of money Brent’s death will cost him. Other suspects, who don’t figure on Sheehan and Hilliker’s radar but on whom screenwriter Franklin Drew (David Manners) is keeping a close eye, include director Tom Avery (Edward van Sloan), Joseph Steiner (Bela Lugosi — Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Devil Bat), the studio manager, and former gaffer Chalmers (Alan Roscoe), whom Brent recently had fired. Drew’s interest stems not from some burning desire to apprehend the killer, but from the major hots he has for Marcia who, it soon becomes clear, somebody is trying to frame for the murders.
Perhaps knowing their little movie didn’t have a lot going for it, KBS hit on the idea of reuniting three actors (David Manners, Bela Lugosi, and Edward van Sloan) from the previous year’s horror hit Dracula. Bela Lugosi was given star billing, even though he has only a small supporting role and the title The Death Kiss, is more suggestive of a similar kind of horror movie to Dracula than a modest murder mystery. Clearly, given the fact that his status must still have been relatively good so soon after appearing in Dracula, Bela Lugosi’s propensity for appearing in anything that was offered to him — no matter how poor — was already in evidence and would, of course, quickly lead to a fatal decline in the quality of the pictures offered to him.
To be fair to The Death Kiss, it’s a reasonably entertaining murder flick with some neat touches — for example, the real killer attempts to frame Marcia Lane for a second killing by draining the battery fluid from her car and adding it to their alcoholic victim’s bottle of booze — and also provides a fascinating insight into life behind the scenes at a 1930s Poverty Row studio, which possesses all the glamour of an iron foundry. David Manners eventually manages to overcome the smart-arse nature of his character in the early scenes to deliver a likeable performance, and is supported in his sleuthing by notorious real-life prankster Vince Barnett (All Quiet on the Western Front, Riffraff), whose victims included Winston Churchill, Henry Ford and Clark Gable, and who serves essentially as a channel through which Manners’ character informs the audience just what exactly is going on. The film’s brief running time also works in its favour, and a surprise ending ensures that it retains its audience’s interest through to the final credits.
(Reviewed 10th February 2014)