The principal male stars of Tod Browning’s DRACULA reunite shortly after that groundbreaking classic for the “poverty row whodunit” THE DEATH KISS, now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber’s “Kino Classics” arm.
During the filming of a production called “The Death Kiss” at the fictitious, financially-struggling Tonart Studios, popular movie star Myles Brent (Edmund Burns) is killed by a real bullet in a scene where his character is supposed to be shot by mobsters. A police detective (John Wray, DOCTOR X) arrives at the studio for an investigation, and when the late actor's ex-wife, actress Marcia Lane (Adrienne Ames, GEORGE WHITE’S SCANDALS) is implicated, her current beau, studio screenwriter Franklyn Drew (David Manners, THE MUMMY) gallantly sets out to clear her name. Always steps ahead of the police, Drew finds the bullet that killed the actor in a wall and continues to play amateur sleuth, sometimes with the help of a bumbling comedic sidekick in studio security officer Gulliver (Vince Barnett, SCARFACE). A second murder occurs when battery acid is snuck into a drunkard’s liquor, and there’s a number of possible suspects and red herrings for both killings, including film director Tom Avery (Edward Van Sloan, FRANKENSTEIN), studio manager Joseph Steiner (Bela Lugosi, THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN) and the penny-pinching studio president Leon Grossmith (CHRISTMAS IN JULY).
Not only does THE DEATH KISS benefit from the re-teaming of DRACULA stars Manners, Van Sloan and Lugosi, it’s a fun little murder mystery set up within the confines of an actual movie studio, in this case Sunset Boulevard’s Tiffany Studios substituting as Tonart Studios, making this one of the earliest pictures to use the “film-within-a-film” motif and giving a very enticing glimpse at what a modest studio in the early days of cinema was like. It's doubtless that one of the main reasons (and possibly singular reason) why this rather cheaply produced (but costly-looking) non-horror effort is still in the public’s eye is the presence of Lugosi, and even though his character is rather secondary and his screen time is limited, his presence is definitely felt within the plot. Even though most past home video releases bill Lugosi prominently, Ames and Manners were actually top billed when this played theatrically. Although the actress doesn’t really have much here in the way of a character, Manners actually has more to do here than he does in his famous Universal horror films, and he's cheerfully convincing in the lead role. With Barnett (who also starred in the Lugosi Monogram pictures THE CORPSE VANISHES and BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT) as the sidekick, this almost put the sleuths into “buddy film” territory, years before this was a common trend. It’s always great to see Van Sloan and Lugosi together, and Grossmith’s Eastern European accented studio head looks to be a spoof of several bigwigs from the Golden Age of Hollywood. This was the first film of Edwin L. Marin, who would go on to direct Universal’s INVISIBLE AGENT as well as MGM’s excellent 1938 American take on the Dickens tale, A CHRISTMAS CAROL.
As THE DEATH KISS is a public domain title, numerous budget labels have released it on VHS and DVD in the past. Kino’s transfer has been mastered in HD from archival black & white 35mm elements preserved by the Library of Congress. Presented in the original Academy ratio (1:33:1) and in 1080p, the 80-plus year old film looks quite nice on Blu-ray. For the most part, the source elements boast solid whites, deep blacks and a nice level of detail carrying filmic grain. Some bits were taken from inferior print sources, so you’ll get an occasional drop in quality or in the audio level, and naturally some light lines and other debris attributed to the age of the 35mm prints utilized are witnessed. The transfer also has a handful of hand tinted color sequences (shades of yellow and orange on a specific part of the image frame) which were done on a number of prints by artist Gustav Brock, and those have been preserved here. Tinted items include a screening room sconce light, a projector light, film burning while running through a projector (as well as the smoke from it), flashlight and gunfire. Aside from the few mentioned problems, the English audio mostly has clear dialogue with some occasional pops and hiss and a few slight jump cuts.
Extras include an audio commentary track by film historian Richard Harland Smith, who is full of information about the cast (and all the background actors), the crew and screenwriters, behind-the-scenes stuff (including that the budget was only $50,000) as well accounts of other real-life deaths which occurred on movie sets, making for a great listen to accompany the film. The other extra is a trailer for WHITE ZOMBIE, which is also available on Blu-ray from Kino. (George R. Reis)
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