Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

Some titles are just irresistible, catching the eye and positively insisting that you watch them. And if ever a movie title seemed to encapsulate the absolute essence of film noir, then it surely has to be 1948’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. In terms of expectations, it sets the bar pretty high and I wonder if anything could actually live up to the promise.

The film gets off to a flying start with a dangerous and moody looking customer reacting violently to a barman’s attentions. It leads to a scuffle, a fatal punch and then a desperate flight through a grimy studio recreation of post-war London. Bill Saunders (Burt Lancaster) is the fugitive, a former serviceman with psychological scars left by his years as a POW and no place to go. Still, he finds himself running and the only refuge he discovers is the home of Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine), a nurse who’s suffered her own losses in the recent conflict. Out of this reluctant encounter, an inauspicious beginning if ever there were one, grows a fragile romance, the kind one couldn’t envisage outside of times of immense social upheaval. However, the world of noir is rarely concerned with handing anyone an easy time so it’s not long before Bill’s hair-trigger temper and an ill-starred blend of blackmail and black marketeers threaten to sour the relationship.

Director Norman Foster’s biggest credit is probably Journey into Fear, but his work on the Mr Moto and Charlie Chan series is well worth checking out. That low budget background arguably serves him well here as there is a briskness to the movie that’s very welcome. Of course there’s plenty of high quality assistance behind the camera to help things along with cameraman Russell Metty keeping everything shrouded in shadows, while Miklós Rózsa provides the score. I suppose some may complain about the use of sets as opposed to real locations but I’m generally happy to see a nicely designed mock-up  (cult director Nathan Juran’s name is listed in the art direction credits, by the way) as I think this is now something of a lost art and it adds a lot to vintage studio productions. For all that, and as I hinted at in the introduction, the film doesn’t quite attain the heights you might be expecting. This is not to say it’s a bad or poor movie, let me be clear about that. Yet there is a certain weakness in the writing, and I don’t know if that derives from the script or the source novel of the same name, but the build up and visuals suggest a far darker experience than that which is ultimately delivered. Even so, this does not amount to a massive flaw and the film, taken as a whole package, is both entertaining and satisfying.

The action revolves around Lancaster and Fontaine for much of the time, the latter working well and playing to her strengths as she gets the timidity and vulnerability of her character across most effectively. Lancaster is fine but, once again, I feel the writing does him a bit of a disservice by failing to explore as fully as possible the complexity of his role. That said, he makes the most of the material he’s given. The other major part is played by Robert Newton, a man who one always fears may use broader brush strokes than are needed. I don’t believe that’s the case here though and he conveys the oily menace of his part quite credibly.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was a film I wanted to see for many years – as I said above, the title alone sold it to me – and it was always a matter of frustration that it never seemed to be available or to turn up on TV. Fortunately, there is now a DVD on the market as part of the Universal MOD range. Also, the film has been released in Italy in what I suspect will be a port of the US transfer. The picture quality is sound as far as I can tell, maybe not startlingly good but not seriously compromised in any way either. Overall, I’m delighted to have been able to finally see the film and check another film  noir off the list. So, even if it doesn’t quite make the top tier, it’s easily worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time.

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12 thoughts on “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

  1. Interesting review Colin. I’ve never seen this and I have been hoping that it will surface on blu-ray somewhere soon. (Of course, all that’s got to happen for a BD announcement to appear is me ordering the DVD!) The title is certainly memorable…if slightly disgusting to be honest! 🙂
    But overall, Burt Lancaster in a film noir is a great prospect. One to look forward to even if it isn’t a classic.

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    • Indeed, Dafydd. You never know what titles may appear on BD these days as there are announcements all the time, and some quite unexpected films are becoming available.
      And yes, any noir with Lancaster is something to look forward to & of course some are stronger than others. I Walk Alone is still in need of a proper clean up and release, although there are (weak) copies on the market now.

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  2. Really good to see you give this film some love Colin. Saw this in my teens once (in Italian, so will definitely be getting that DVD). I like Foster’s work a great deal and love his WOMAN ON THE RUN especially. This was, as I recall, one of three films Lancaster made that year in which, perversely given his physical presence, he is portrayed as a psychological weakling usually under the thumb of powerful women. Great write up mate 😀

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    • Thanks, Sergio, and good to hear from you. Yes, Lancaster’s noir roles generally played on the fact he was a big, physically powerful man struggling with inner weaknesses. I think it’s a huge compliment to Lancaster that he was able to channel that emotional vulnerability so successfully, and very early in his career too.
      I think you’ll enjoy the disc if/when you get it as it looks pretty good and there’s much to appreciate in the film. OK, maybe it’s not on the same level as The Killers or Criss Cross but it’s probably as good as, say, Sorry, Wrong Number.

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  3. This film is very high in my ‘to watch’ pile. I purposely skipped over the paragraphs about the plotline in case of spoilers, Colin, but your review makes me want to grab it NOW and watch.
    Lancaster was a powerful actor and, I think, a brave one quite often throughout his career.
    Robert Newton is an interesting actor who could go wàaaaaaay over the top on occasion yet on others could be quite mesmerising in his restraint and underplaying. A real enigma!

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  4. I appreciated your thoughts on this film. I saw it for the first time last autumn and wrote about it for a Joan Fontaine blogathon. I wasn’t satisfied by the ending, but that was the first viewing. I suspect that knowing what to expect I can watch it again with a different perspective. There are too many excellent aspects of the movie to dismiss it entirely.

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    • Yes indeed. I had a similar feeling and then consciously told myself that that was a poor way to form an opinion about any film – this in one (and there are a good many noir pictures one could say this for, if we’re going to be honest) where subsequent viewings, once the plot details are known and essentially out of the way, are sure to highlight even more positive aspects.

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    • The title alone ought to hook most, and then the film itself has enough strengths to be satisfying. Visually, it’s splendid, the lead performances are all fine and the story probably scores something like a 7 out of 10 – a pretty solid report card all round.

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    • Until very recently, I was in exactly the same position, Mike. Of course there have been so many great and unexpected releases that I can’t be anything other than pleased.

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