July 24, 2009

KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (1948)


With such an evocative title, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands stood out like a beacon on my list of film noirs yet to be seen. With A-listers like Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine involved, I assumed it was locked up for legal reasons and would never be available for viewing. Thanks to the magic of bootlegs I’ve now seen it, and although the title turned out to be a bit of a reach in the hardboiled department, the movie isn’t. My DVD copy (quite good) is a recording from American Movie Classics, circa 1990 — you know, back when it was a real network. It must have aired during prime time, because the recording included Bob Dorian’s introduction, as well as fifteen minutes of network promos at the end of the picture, before launching into the first few moments of “The Flame and the Arrow” with Burt and Virginia Mayo. Those were the days. I recall the days when TCM took a backseat to AMC, and many cable providers didn’t offer TCM as part of their basic package. Being that I didn’t have access to Turner in those days, I was a slave to AMC and its two popular hosts: Bob Dorian and Nick Clooney. All of the promos, long since forgotten, came back to me in a rush. The biggest shame of the commercialization of AMC has been the lack of access to their classic movies, though recent chatter has it that TCM has finally secured access to the Paramount stuff. We’ll see.


In Dorian’s introduction to Kiss the Blood Off My Hands he mentions that the film was made by Norma Productions, formed in 1948 by Burt and his agent, Harold Hecht, because the star was nervous about being typecast in the beefcake parts he was becoming known for. Norma’s first film was Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, and in order to make it Burt turned down the lead in a new Elia Kazan production that both the young director and Tennessee Williams thought he was the ideal actor for: A Streetcar Named Desire. With Lancaster not available, the part went to newcomer Marlon Brando. There are a million stories out there where an actor or actress famously turns down a landmark role (half of them seem to involve a Brando picture), but this one resonates with me — what a picture Streetcar would have been with Burt in angst on his knees under that streetlamp. While it’s fun to play what-if, things for Burt, just like for Rod Steiger who turned down the role of Vito Corleone, would turn out just fine. Norma productions would account for only five pictures, though that small number includes The Sweet Smell of Success, The Bachelor Party, and Birdman of Alcatraz.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands turned out to be a pleasant surprise. After reading the capsule in the Maltin Classic Film Guide (this is yet another instance where I’m not certain anyone associated with that book has actually seen the picture), and considering that the film in set in London and that the female lead is Joan Fontaine, I was skeptical as to whether it would live up to its salacious title. It’s not that Joan Fontaine wasn’t gifted, but Kiss the Blood Off My Hands? The film screams noir from the opening moments, as Burt, having accidentally killed a bartender in a scuffle, leads the Bobbies on a ten-minute foot chase through the shadowy London waterfront. He only escapes by climbing through an open window and forcibly shushing the woman he finds inside — a mousy blonde (Fontaine) startled from a restless sleep. The sequence plays without much dialog, and Russell Metty’s cinematography establishes the mood. Close-ups of a sweaty, terrified Lancaster abound. As do handhelds, chiaroscuro lighting, high angles, low angles, and seedy waterfront topography. The film’s noir motif is so strongly established that is brings to mind Jules Dassin’s later London masterpiece Night and the City

The opening sequence alone isn’t enough to establish this as a bona fide make a film noir, but Kiss the Blood Off My Hands still rates. Though dappled with shadows and light, it never quite recaptures the visual fireworks of its first ten minutes — maybe with the exception of a great scene in the rain where Burt dukes it out with some London riff-raff, and another where he mugs an elderly pubcrawler. Instead, its primary noir statement is made through the charaterization of Lancaster’s Bill Saunders. Having endured much of the war in a Nazi POW camp, and with no family to return to in the wake of his experiences, Saunders wanders aimlessly through a rebuilding London — it shouldn’t be lost on viewers that the movie opens with him hunched over a pint, half-drunk in a seedy waterfront gin joint. Saunders is more than just alienated, he is truly a man apart, and precariously close to coming unglued. Though the death of the bartender is accidental, and Saunders didn’t start the fight, he bears some responsibility for the man’s death. What’s telling isn’t the ferocity with which Saunders fights, but how he reacts when things don’t go his way. Time and again throughout the picture, when confronted with a difficult choice Bill chooses to put his head down, flail until he’s the last man standing, then cut and run. A heated exchange with Jane in the final reel cements the film’s noir credibility: 
“You mean you can say it was self-defense and get it off. But if I go back I won’t get off — I’ll be sticking my head in a rope……listen, nobody gives anybody a break, not me anyway. It’s been run, run, run all the time — run from my old man, run from the kid I hurt in school. That’s why I didn’t mind the army — when you hit you didn’t have to run. Everybody’s against you, everybody!”
No actor of the classic noir period could project a sense of impending doom like Burt Lancaster, and no actress wore empathy on her face like Joan Fontaine. It’s this damaged quality that draws Fontaine’s Jane Wharton to Saunders, and what keeps her coming back after she sees him run roughshod over those that have it coming and even a few that don’t. Her enduring affection, coupled with the need to save someone, eventually pulls Saunders away from the abyss — especially when he finds her waiting for him after he does a six-month stretch for punching a police officer.


In the noir tradition, Foster employs setting to visually reinforce his players’ emotional states. In an important scene early in their relationship, Bill and Jane meet at the zoo, where the caged lions and gorillas only serve to remind him of his imprisoned past, as well as his potential for future incarceration. Lancaster plays it well, at first joining in with the school children who “ape the apes,” before realizing how much more shared experience he has with those creatures on the other side of the bars. Another interesting moment happens when Bill goes to prison. In addition to hard labor, the judge also demands a flogging — yes, a flogging — eighteen lashes with a cat ‘o nine tails! The scene is brings to mind the inquisition, or something from Billy Budd, as Lancaster, bound by hands, feet, and neck to a torture device, is whipped mercilessly, while a bureaucrat at a desk ticks off strokes.

Another strong element is the presence of Robert Newton in a featured supporting role. Newton should be familiar to most film fans as either Bill Sykes in David Lean’s exquisite Oliver Twist, or as Long John Silver in Walt Disney’s Treasure Island. Here he plays a sleazy confidence man who witnesses Bill’s accidental killing at the beginning of the film, and holds it over him for the duration. His character at first appears to be nothing more than an amiable trickster — the kind of rascal who does nothing worse than claiming goods that have “fallen off the back of a lorry.” Yet when the stakes are at their highest at the end of the picture, he’s transformed into a grotesque, desperate ogre, and his welcomed fate foreshadows that of Anthony Dawson in Dial M for Murder.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a fine noir — beautifully photographed, well acted, and assembled with great skill. With everything it has going for it I hope it becomes available on DVD in the United States soon. I can’t imagine that most noir fans wouldn’t join the queue to purchase a disc, and maybe even a tin of biscuits.





Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)
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Director: Norman Foster
Cinematographer: Russell Metty
Writers: Bercovici (story), Bernstein (adaptation), Butler (novel), Gray (dialog), and Maddow (adaptation). (Yikes!)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Joan Fontaine, and Robert Newton.
Released by Universal Pictures
Running time: 80 minutes

5 comments:

  1. Fortuitous posting! Just yesterday someone came into the video store where I work and told me about this movie. I had never heard of it before - stellar title indeed! Thanks for the review.

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  2. I have never seen KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS. Never had access to it! I actually remember it coming on WGN or WTBS back in the day (early to mid 80's, when they were the beacons of classic film, albeit with commercials)but never caught it. Ah the golden days of AMC! What memories, my how far they have fallen in my classic film mind. I still have many flicks on VHS that I taped from those "good old days" complete with Dorian and Clooney and MOST of them are from the very elusive Paramount. Thanks for the great post and allowing me to rant a little about what a shame that AMC has gone in the direction it has. I hope you're right about Turner acquiring the Paramount/Universal/MCA collection.

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  3. Mark: Hah! Gotcha! I have seen this one! I got into a real Lancaster phase some time ago and secured a copy, I forget where. I agree with your post - very solid noir. Lancaster's career covered so many genre's (I love his 70s westerns) that it's sometimes easy forget his untouchable noir resume. Great post!

    I see you have spiffed the place up since my last visit - new banner, etc. I like, I like -- Mykal

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  4. just watched this great film on youtube. but can you tell me mark, although set in london, was this filmed in the usa or england?

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  5. I'm not sure, but my guess is that this was shot entirely in the USA. If anyone knows different, chime in!

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