The Kiss Before the Mirror
1933 / 1.33:1 / 69 min.
Starring Nancy Carroll, Frank Morgan, Gloria Stuart
Cinematography by Karl Freund
Directed by James Whale
James Whale’s The Kiss Before the Mirror opens on familiar terrain for the director of Frankenstein—a moon-lit backroad littered with crooked trees and clutching branches. A figure tip-toes out of the darkness toward her destination—not a mad scientist’s castle but a swanky post-modern bungalow where her lover waits. The woman catches the moonlight quite well, thank you—she’s played by an incandescent Gloria Stuart and she has just escaped her husband for a rendezvous with a self-impressed roué played by the blankly handsome Walter Pidgeon (he’s introduced while primping in a mirror, the first sign that the reflected image will be a key player in the film). The two engage in pre-sex small talk that is so coy, so ear-grating, that it’s clear Whale is preparing them (and the audience) for some awful comeuppance.
Produced in 1933, The Kiss Before the Mirror is a pre-code film which means that when Stuart retreats to the bedroom to disrobe, she lets down her slip to allow the audience a leisurely look at her naked back, a startling bit of titillation that comes with instant retribution when her husband, waiting just outside the window, smashes the glass and fires three shots into her. Like Janet Leigh’s death in Psycho, the effect is both brutal and disorienting—our leading lady has been stolen from us right out of the gate. Though there is no Norman Bates to add to the mystery there is a distinctly schizophrenic bent to most of the players along with the potential for more bloodshed. Paul Lukas plays Stuart’s anguished widower and Frank Morgan is Paul Held, his best friend and now lawyer. Lukas’ confession plants the seed of doubt in the counselor about his own wife and that anxiety begins to consume him—in keeping with Whale’s mirror metaphor, Morgan sees a reflection of himself and his own marriage in Lukas’ tragic tale.
The wide-eyed Nancy Carrol plays Morgan’s equally unfaithful wife Maria and this short film, only 69 minutes long, becomes wound ever more tightly as her near-mad spouse plots the perfect murder—the suspense lies in not who is the murderer but if there will be one. William McGuire’s screenplay only nibbles at the surface of a mind in mid-breakdown but Morgan’s passionate performance fills in a few of the blanks making John Held’s fate more compelling than it has a right to be.
Morgan, whose honeyed delivery gave The Wizard of Oz so much of its sentimental staying power, is the broken heart of this stilted but forceful melodrama and it is more than a little disturbing to see the kindly con-man from Kansas flashing his eyes as well as a gun—a weapon pointed straight at his wife during a shattering courtroom scene in which he defends a wife-killer while prosecuting his own bride. Whale directs Morgan’s soul-baring soliloquy with a take-no-prisoners bravado and he is helped immeasurably by editor Ted Kent who avoids the halting rhythms that occasionally tripped up Frankenstein (Kent kept similarly talky horror films like 1934’s The Black Cat on their toes).
McGuire’s screenplay was based on a play by Ladislas Fodor who had his own notable career in Hollywood and Germany, penning artful takes on fantastical thrillers including Charlie Chan in the City of Darkness, The Return of Doctor Mabuse, and Harald Reini’s epic retelling of Die Nibelungen released in 1966. The sets, by Charles D. Hall, are limited to the lush deco interiors of the well-heeled protagonists, the bland contours of the courtroom and, most tellingly, the arching stone walls of a gothic-style dungeon—a reminder of Colin Clive’s towering laboratories in Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein (a kissing cousin to Kiss Before the Mirror with its own quartet of star-crossed lovers). The decor is a nice visual distillation of Whale’s uneasy world view, dreaming of a luxury suite while keeping one eye on the prison cell.
It could be said that both Kino Lorber and cinematographer Karl Freund are the stars of this particular film and its Blu ray release. Kino has worked a small miracle on Freund’s imagery—which is a fitting forerunner to his Mad Love in both theme and lighting—to produce one of the most beautiful black and white Blu ray presentations of the pre-code era.
The disc comes with a commentary from film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and a selection of original theatrical trailers.