The Kiss Before the Mirror – Blu-ray Review

The Kiss Before the Mirror was made by James Whale when he was Universal’s premiere director, between The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. Of course, Whale is remembered most for his two out-and-out masterworks: Frankenstein and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. Much like the first two Godfather films, it’s very hard to pick which one of those is the better film. Sadly, by the end of the ’30s Whale had a string of unsuccessful films, and it’s suggested that the fact he was openly gay (then was almost unheard of) also contributed to his career essentially coming to an end by the early ’40s. He would later commit suicide in 1957.

In The Kiss Before the Mirror, Whale directs a courtroom drama with a slightly campy sensibility. It’s not quite as camp as Bride of Frankenstein, but it’s there if you want to see it. The film is about Dr. Walter Bernsdorf (Paul Lukas), who kills his unfaithful wife in a ruthless rampage, and his best friend, attorney Paul Held (Frank Morgan), who is suspects his own wife of having an affair. It’s very much a pre-Hays code film, and given the subject matter and the fact that the Hays code came into place just one year later, Whale got a fast one over on the censors.

The film has a nice gothic atmosphere, and if you look closely, you will realise that it was shot on mostly the same sets as Frankenstein. It sets the stage for much of film noir to come in the ’40s and beyond, similar to Howard Hawks’s The Criminal Code a few years previously. But as was typical with Whale, there is also real wit and plenty of jokes about men killing their wives, which skates a thin line between misogyny and satire on the inherent misogyny of upper-class men. The most memorable line is probably “For some strange reason, women don’t like being killed.” Jean Dixon also plays Paul Held’s assistant, who is very obviously depicted as a lesbian.

Karl Freund, who shot Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Tod Browning’s Dracula, gives it a expressionist shine, which Whale was already more than comfortable with after doing Frankenstein. The film runs at 67 minutes, and packs a whole lot in for such a short run time. The climatic court room scene has to be seen to believed. Whale would actually do a remake a mere five years later under the title Wives Under Suspicion.

The disc from Indicator includes a video essay comparing The Kiss Before the Mirror to Wives Under Suspicion (it would’ve been nice to have the remake on the disc too); the short wartime documentary Classification of Enlisted Men, also directed by Whale, and a stills gallery. The booklet contains a new essay on the film by Philip Kemp, a contemporary profile of director James Whale, an interview with filmmaker Curtis Harrington on Whale, an overview of contemporary critical responses and new writing on Classification of Enlisted Men.


Ian Schultz

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