Midcentury Modern Tucson, Arizona in “A Kiss Before Dying.”
Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward run around in the 1956 thriller, “A Kiss Before Dying,” but the real star is midcentury Modern Tucson, Arizona, presented in supersaturated technicolor and Cinemascope.
Downtown Tucson stands in as Lufton dominated by its towering “City Hall,” in reality the Valley National Bank Building, tallest in Tucson when the movie was filmed.
Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) takes his pregnant would-be bride, Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward) -daughter of the richest man in town- down to “City Hall” to get married. But wait, Bud’s a cad and chuck’s her off the roof instead after a great Cinemascope panorama from the top of the Valley National Bank Building.
The Tucson-bordering Santa Catalina Mountains backdrop the far shots in “A Kiss Before Dying,” which includes a nighttime stop at the neon-draped Broadway Village Drug store. Bud walks Dory over to the low-walled side of the Valley National Bank Building roof to “see the campus” before sending his pregnant problem to the sidewalk.
Cinemascope movies played like travelogues with the plot showcasing local landmarks all over town. It was expected -if not required- for movies shot in famous places like San Francisco, New York, Paris and Rome, but Tucson gets the same treatment in “A Kiss Before Dying” despite its identity being subsumed under the fictious name “Lufton.” The spectacular Pima County Courthouse as does a fountain at the Southern Pacific Depot, the Carnegie Free Library, and the University of Arizona Main Gate where Bud mails Dory’s phony suicide letter.
Bud realizes getting mining magnate Leo Kingship’s daughter pregnant and then killing her is no way to get to the old man’s millions, so he goes to Plan B and starts dating Dory’s sister, Ellen. Only this time, he keeps it in his pants and makes it all the way to the Kingship compound as the beloved future son in-law. The Kingship home is actually the El Dorado Lodge a dude ranch for wealthy Jews from Chicago and Los Angeles who after being excluded from the average run-of-the-mill Arizona dude ranches decided to build their own, a better one, one with a sunken Italian garden.
Visual highlights in “A Kiss Before Dying” include cool, neon-drenched bars like the Esquire Club, the Brown Jug (formerly at 431 E. Grant Road), and especially Pago Pago tiki lounge, heavily remodeled but still standing in Tucson’s Miracle Mile Historic District at 2201 N. Oracle Road.
Created by husband-and-wife tiki lounge designers Clif and Lou Sawyer, Tucson’s Pago Pago opened in 1947. Phil Kessler ran the Pago Pago before moving on to other Tucson nightclubs like the Twin Flames and El Tanque. Ach Bleakley (left), transplant from Pennsylvania, owned the Pago Pago and its parrot and monkey cages when “A Kiss Before Dying” was filmed there in 1956.