B&W, 1933, 68 mins. 19 secs.
Directed by James Whale
Nancy Carroll, Frank Morgan, Paul Lukas, Gloria Stuart, Jean Dixon, Walter Pidgeon, Donald Cook
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Elephant Films (Blu-ray) (France R0 HD), Universal (DVD-R) (US R0 NTSC)
One of the finest Hollywood filmmakers of the early sound era, James Whale remains best known for 1931's Frankenstein and its legendary 1935 sequel but also showed proficiency with more traditional prestige Pre-Code films like Waterloo Bridge and By Candlelight. Sandwiched in between Whale's two other essential horror classics, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, 1933's The Kiss Before the Mirror is a visually opulent melodrama highlighted by Karl Freund's striking camerawork and a savvy adaptation of Ladislas Fodor's 1932 source play. (Whale would remake it with less panache in 1938 as Wives Under Suspicion.)
In a very evocative, candelight-filled opening sequence, well-to-do Vienna socialite Lucy Bernsdorf (Stuart) enjoys a music and flower-filled tryst with her lover (a very young Walter Pidgeon) and claims her husband, Walter (Lukas), has no idea about their romance. She's soon proven wrong when Walter skulks through the nearby woods and shoots her dead through a window. Walter's friend Paul (The Wizard of Oz's Morgan) becomes his defense attorney and becomes alarmed when his own wife, Maria (Carroll), displays telltale signs of infidelity herself. As the trial progresses, Paul begins to contemplate how taking a similar action might play out.
Fans of Whale's genre films will get a particular kick out of this one with its use of sets and lighting carried over from Frankenstein, including some client jail conversations worthy of any Universal horror title. The story's subject matter is still disturbing and open to interpretation, either as a sort of misogynist fantasy or (more likely given Whale's personality) a savage satire of marital norms. The actors all do fine work here, though the film's most audacious narrative flourish -- killing off star and Universal contract player Stuart (also in The Old Dark House and famously in James Cameron's Titanic) -- isn't the same shocker it is today. At the time it was a gambit that preceded the later early dispatching of marquee names in films like The Night of the Hunter and Psycho, but even without the shock value, it's one heck of a curtain raiser. Then there's the whole trial finale, which really has to be seen to be believed...
Not a particular financial success at the time, The Kiss Before the Mirror was mostly brought up in subsequent decades within the context of Whale's career but remained difficult to see for several decades. In 2017, Universal released a DVD-R as part of its Universal Vault Series through Amazon, followed by a French Blu-ray in 2018 from Elephant. In 2020, Kino Lorber issued the film on U.S. Blu-ray featuring an improved 2K scan, a trailer, and an audio commentary by Joseph McBride. In 2023, Indicator released an expanded special edition on U.K. Blu-ray from the same source, which still looks and sounds quite solid (including an LPCM 1.0 English mono track) and up to par with other '30s Universal catalog titles. This time you get a new commentary by Nora "The Nitrate Diva" Fiore, who ably covers the various cast members, arbitrary censorship snips around the U.S., the other projects by the participants around the same time, and background on the source play. Jonathan Bygraves' "A Shattered Reflection" (11m10s) charts out the various differences between the two versions made by Whale, with the '38 one obviously given a major overhaul to conform to the Production Code including entirely different character professions and character arcs. Also included are an image gallery and 1942's Classification of Enlisted Men (11m57s), a War Department short by Whale dramatizing how four young men join the Army and go through the initial process of becoming soldiers. The package also comes with a 40-page booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp, a Whale profile, an interview with Whale protege Curtis Harrington, a new essay on the military short, and sample critical reactions.
Reviewed on June 1, 2023