The Charming Psychopath: A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

kiss before dyingIn Gerd Oswald’s A Kiss Before Dying (1956) Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) is a psychopath with one singular desire: He wants to become rich by marrying the daughter of a man who owns a copper mine. Bud’s actions reveal how when a man loves money more than people, people become objects to be used and manipulated.

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist lists 20 common traits of psychopaths. Bud possesses nearly all of these traits including “superficial charm”, “pathological lying”, “cunning and manipulativeness”, “lack of remorse or guilt”, “criminal versatility”, and a “parasitic lifestyle.”1 Although psychopaths commit actions that are unthinkable to normal people, they are not insane: “a mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.”2 A 2012 study of 269 psychopaths concluded that “psychopaths are not mentally ill and should be held entirely responsible for their violent and manipulative actions.”3 Psychopaths are not restrained by a typical person’s sense of right and wrong. Lacking the conviction of guilt for what they do, they harm innocent people without remorse.

Psychopaths often wear a mask to make them appear normal. When Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward) is in tears due to her unexpected pregnancy, Bud is soft-spoken and tender with her, soothing her with his calm manner, gentle touch, and reassurance of his love. Dorothy is in love with Bud because of the power of his romantic charm. Dorothy’s sister, Ellen (Virginia Leith), also falls in love with him, telling him that he holds a “diabolic spell” over her. Bud’s mask of romantic charm blinds the Kingship sisters to who and what he is.

When Bud is alone, he removes his mask, revealing to the viewer his cunning and manipulative nature. After a failed attempt to murder Dorothy with poison pills, he takes her to the top of a high building and pushes her to her death. Killing Dorothy is deliberate and intentional—a carefully thought-out plan. His body becomes tense for a brief moment, but he sheds no tears and shows no sign of guilt. Similarly, when he kills Dwight Powell (Robert Quarry), it is not because of a violent, uncontrollable impulse. The murder is planned, premeditated, and carried out in a calm emotional state.

Bud has complete control over his actions. In one scene, he listens to a University professor who is critical of the philosophy of determinism: “the belief that all events are caused by things that happened before them and that people have no real ability to make choices or control what happens.”4 Bud’s choices are the direct result of his desire for wealth and fortune. This desire can be traced to his childhood when he saw that his father was a failure.

Bud’s desire to become rich severed his conscience, making it easy for him to kill without the restraining conviction of guilt. In the end, he is destroyed by his love of money. In his failed attempt to murder Ellen, he is struck by a mining truck and falls into the open pit of the mine. His death serves as a warning to the viewer: We must be careful what we set our heart’s desire on. Whatever we love the most will determine who and what we are.


  1. Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, s.v. “Hare Psycopathy Checklist,” accessed September 13, 2014,
  2. The Free Dictionary, s.v. “Insanity,” accessed September 13, 2014,
  3. Sherry Noik, “Psychopaths not mentally ill, say Canadian researchers,” Toronto Sun, August 28, 2014.
  4. Merriam Webster, s.v. “Determinism,” accessed September 13, 2014,

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The Self-Made Psychopath: Cape Fear (1962)

Cape-FearIn J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962), Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is not who he appears to be. Outwardly he is an alpha male—calm, confident, and in control. However, beneath his charming exterior, he is a man of violence who feels no remorse for his crimes. Max’s character fits the psychological profile of a psychopath.

Hervey Cleckley’s book, The Mask of Sanity, outlines 16 major traits of psychopaths. Max possesses nearly all of these traits including “absence of nervousness”, “incapacity for love”, “sex life impersonal”, “lack of remorse and shame”, “absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking”, “good intelligence”, “failure to follow any life plan”, and “superficial charm.”1

Max’s charming personality makes him appear normal. He often smiles, has a sense of humor, and is outgoing and friendly. His charm also appeals to certain women. When he spots Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase) in a bar, he stares at her, and flirts with her. Max spends the night in jail, but when he sees Diane again, she will succumb to his charms.

Max’s superficial charm is a mask he wears to conceal his violent nature. It is ironic that Diane is attracted to him, yet she knows he is a bad man. In his car, she looks at him with sexual desire and says, “You’re just an animal: coarse, lustful, barbaric.” Later, Max proves her words are true by giving her a severe beating.

When Max believes someone has wronged him, he uses violence as a means of punishment. To punish Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) for testifying against him, he threatens to kill his daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). Max also punished his wife, who divorced him while he was in prison. Shortly after his release, he forced her to take a trip with him and “occupied her time for three days.” In other words, he raped her repeatedly. Max’s anger has made him unimaginably cruel.

Anger, if left unchecked, can turn to hate, and hatred can lead to violence. Max tells Sam that while he was in prison, “All I could think about was busting out and killing somebody.” The hatred in Max’s heart sparked a desire for violence. Instead of taking responsibility for his crimes, he blames other people. His hatred of those he blames made him inhuman.

Max is frequently described in non-human terms. Peggy Bowden (Polly Bergen) calls him “a beast”; Sam tells him he is a “shocking degenerate”; and Charlie Sievers (Telly Savalas) refers to him as “an animal.” When Max is at the Cape Fear River, he crawls on his stomach like a snake.

Although he is portrayed as half-human, half-animal, Max is not insane: “a mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.”2 Max suffers no hallucinations or delusions. He is completely rational, planning his every move with careful calculation.

Neither is Max controlled by violent impulses. When Sam takes a swing at him, he does not fight back. Instead, he says with a smile, “I’ll make my stroke later.” Sam, in contrast, often acts on impulse—in one scene taking a gun from his desk with the intention to murder Max. While Sam often loses control, Max is in complete control. The evil that he does is of his own free will.

Max is a psychopath, and psychopaths are responsible for what they do. The tragedy of Max’s life is that his own thoughts and actions made him what he is. He felt no guilt or remorse for his crimes because his anger and hatred blunted his conscience. Consumed by a desire to punish his enemies, he became a human monster.


  1. Hervey M. Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity (New York: New American Library, 1982), 204.
  2. The Free Dictionary, s.v. “Insanity,” accessed January 26, 2014,

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