This movie grabbed my attention mostly for the involvement of James Whale. He is known best for directing Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. The Kiss Before the Mirror was a movie he directed between the latter two films, and later remade as Wives Under Suspicion. This is the second non-horror movie directed by Whale I've seen. The first was Waterloo Bridge, featuring a young Bette Davis and pre-Frankenstein Mae Clark.
Being single has its points – at least no-one will ever murder me.
Walter finds his wife undressing in her paramour's bedroom and shoots her dead through the window. He pumps a few more bullets into her for good measure. He immediately calls the police and gives himself up.
He recounts the events to his best friend, Paul, who is also the attorney defending him. The 'kiss before the mirror' was the one he gave her when he showed up unexpectedly, as she was getting dolled up to meet her lover. She got irritated because his sloppy kiss messed her hairdress, and he was not feeling the love. He followed her and discovered her infidelity, but was so traumatized, he couldn't recall how he did the deed to his lawyer.
When the attorney goes home and sees his wife, Maria, exhibit the exact same behaviors before the mirror, he gets suspicious. He decides to test the theory by grabbing her and forcing a brutish kiss on her, and when she reacts with displeasure, he suspects her.
She goes to meet her lover and attempts to call off the relationship, as the murder of her unfaithful friend has got her unnerved, but he convinces her to say goodbye up in his apartment. Paul has been hiding in the bushes and discovers the truth, allowing him to understand how his friend killed his wife. His plan is to use his understanding to get his buddy acquitted, setting a precedent to get him likewise absolved when he kills his own wife.
At the trial, after an impassioned argument, Paul pulls a revolver from his pocket and points it at his wife, causing her to scream and faint. He then argues that any guy could go nuts just by thinking of being betrayed by a woman. His stunt is successful and the jury finds Walter not guilty.
Paul confronts his wife and uses the revolver in the end.
If you want a more detailed account of the ending, it is included in my thoughts below.
Paul: He was stunned by her betrayal of him. Momentary insanity induced by jealousy. On that defense, would you acquit him?
Hilda: I don't know. As a woman, I would instinctively find him guilty. One shouldn't encourage men to commit murder, although, it's a great compliment to us when, under the circumstances, men might even murder us.
Paul: What was she doing?
Walter: The most important thing in a woman's life–she was admiring herself.
Maria: You're a funny creature. What are you? A lawyer or a new kind of woman?
Hilda: By day I'm a lawyer, at night...well, you might be surprised.
Maria: Why don't you get married?
Hilda: Well, being single has it's points–at least no-one will ever murder me.
Paul: Tell me how do you think the case looks.
Hilda: Not too good. So many wife murderers have been acquitted on the same defense I fear the reaction. The jury is liable to doubt the existence of enough lovers to go around.
Paul: No, you're wrong, Hilda. No matter how low a woman may fall, there's always a man waiting for her.
Hilda: Then there's still hope for me.
Paul: For faith is the greatest element in love. And exclusiveness of possession is all that makes marriage worthwhile.
Paul: The greater the love, the greater the hate. The bitterer the illusion, the more serious the wound. The shrewder the woman, the more lustful the revenge. The more we love, the more we want to destroy the woman we've loved. Did the defendant love his wife so much that the murder can be explained by such love?
Hilda: Is it an acquittal?
Paul: What do you think, Hilda?
Hilda: As a lawyer, I congratulate you–you've probably won. As a woman, I didn't believe a word of your argument.
One thing I like about James Whale is that his movies inspire reflection. I did not particularly enjoy this movie or most of the characters in it, but it does leave a lasting impression. The casual way that the men talk about killing their wives is disturbing, and the point is to question whether an insanely jealous husband who murders his wife is culpable or not. Maria tells Paul that her friend Lucy didn't deserve to be "shot down like a mad dog" and he suggests it's a "matter of taste." How chilling.
Maria and Lucy are portrayed as vain, selfish women who enjoy the security of husband and home while indulging in affairs on the side. It's interesting to note that both are childless in an era when having children was the expectation, suggesting they're either using contraception to prevent any confusion of paternity, or that they're too self-absorbed to devote themselves to motherhood. Their negative portrayal seems an attempt to lead the audience to feel they deserve their fate.
Hilda is an interesting character offered up as contrast. She is an intelligent and independent woman working as a lawyer. When Maria asks if she's a "new kind of woman," meaning sexually liberated, Hilda gives a vague response that confirms she may be spending her evenings having dalliances. While it may be an exaggeration to suggest that no-one will murder her if she stays single, it is true that her chances of being murdered by a spouse are greater than being killed by a stranger.
Especially disturbing is the underlying theme that the most intense feelings of love can inspire one to murder. Paul says, "The more we love, the more we want to destroy the woman we've loved." Hilda states that it's a compliment that men are willing to murder women, suggesting that it was due to their devotion. Maria tells Walter she's glad he was acquitted, despite the fact that he murdered her best friend, because of this belief that he loved her enough to kill her. Murder is not an expression of love, people. That is some twisted thinking.
Maria claims Paul does not love her as much as Walter loved Lucy, which may be why he was unable to kill her. In the end, Paul throws his revolver at the mirror, smashing the symbol of vanity, just as Maria appears in the room. They look longingly at each other and embrace, with Maria sobbing and Paul calling her name as the film closes. It appears to be a happy ending, but doesn't feel like one. I expect I'll continue to refine my thoughts on this film. It is unsettling.