Norman Foster, 1948
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Burt Lancaster, Robert Newton
“Everybody’s against you, everybody!”
One night a former American soldier and prisoner of war, Bill, accidentally kills a man in a bar in England during a minor dispute. He runs from the scene and takes refuge in an open window, which happens to be the apartment of Jane, a nurse. Though at first afraid and suspicious, Bill begins to trust her and explains that the man’s death was accidental. Eventually, the two begin to strike up a relationship, though this is put on hold when Bill is arrested for another violent incident. Jane waits for him during the six months he’s in jail, and then gets him a job as a medical supply driver. Things are beginning to go well for them when Harry, a charming underworld thug, attempts to blackmail Bill.
Despite its incredibly lurid title and the presence of stars Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine, Kiss the Blood off My Hands had largely been ignored by contemporary film noir fans, due to the fact that it isn’t available on DVD and is somewhat difficult to find for home viewing. That’s a real shame, because though this might not be a top-tier genre classic, it’s a doom-laden, worthwhile entry in the noir canon and takes a particularly interesting look at the aftereffects of the war. The shadow of war haunts the film, which is interestingly set in crumbling post-war London, in the process of being rebuilt, and is focused on a character trying to rebuild his life after years in a Nazi POW camp. The stereotypical noir protagonist, Bill is an antihero, an isolated man adrift in a hostile world stifled by feelings of guilt.
There are some wonderful scenes that crystalize Bill’s contrasting persona. He is physically and sexually attractive, but also tormented and menacing. Lancaster’s physicality works perfectly for the role – he was a circus performer before turning to acting – and his normally overwrought acting style fits with Bill’s unstable personality and sense of arrested development. Bill sums up the noir protagonist in the sense that he can best be described as the place where good intentions, bad luck, unfortunate decisions, and violence meet. He’s not inherently a bad guy, but fate seems to be ever working against him. This is easily one of Burt Lancaster’s best roles, where his ultimate angst and scenery chewing don’t feel too over the top. The film makes a lot of sense in hindsight, as his violent behavior, seeming blackouts, and lack of control fits within the realm of post-traumatic stress disorder.
He is largely a source of physical and sexual appeal and it’s easy to see why attracts the lonely, repressed Jane (Joan Fontaine of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion). It’s difficult to accept that after Bill breaks into Jane’s home and holds her captive there during the night, a romance somehow develops between the two of them. But Kiss the Blood off My Hands – as the title may suggest – is steeped in a subtle sense of sadomasochism. In addition to their first meeting, where Bill breaks into her apartment, Bill and Jane’s first date essentially comes about because he stalks her through the city. They meet at the zoo where the sight of caged predators gives Bill a panic attack. Later, there is a scene in prison where Bill is relentlessly whipped with a cat o’nine tails. This sense of menacing sexual is enhanced by a scene in a train car, where man comes on to Jane and Bill later beats him. Finally, it culminates in Harry’s attempted rape of Jane, but she in turn penetrates him with a pair of scissors.
Speaking of Harry, British actor Robert Newton (Treasure Island) shines as the affable trickster trying to edge Bill into the underworld, who soon transforms into a convincingly malevolent force of evil. In many ways, Harry represents the state of the post-war world Bill and Jane inhabit. At first, he seems to be sympathetic, understanding, and helpful. His attempts to coerce Bill into crime are subtle and seem like rational acts – for how else will Bill find employment and make his way into the world? But this benign exterior is soon peeled away to reveal a force of violence, evil, and corruption. Harry engages in blackmail, prepares to steal medicine from sick children and, most surprisingly of all, attempts to rape Jane.
Kiss the Blood off My Hands comes highly recommended. Director Norman Foster delivers what is undoubtedly his masterpiece. Though he was also co-director of Orson Welles’s Journey into Fear, he primarily helmed action films like entries in the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series, Davey Crockett and the River Pirate, The Mask of Zorro, and more. Welles’ occasional cinematography Russell Metty gives the film its menacing, shadowy visuals that are certainly one of the film’s high points. Last, but not least, is the wonderful score from Miklós Rózsa, which, as all his noir works (Double Indemnity, Spellbound, The Killers), is wonderful.