Kiss the Blood off My Hands (1948)

Two years in a Nazi prison camp and Bill Saunders  ― played by Burt Lancaster ― doesn’t like to be caged up one little bit. 

First it drives him to drink ―  anything  to try and forget. 

Then there's his uncontrolled violence down the pub. 

Finally, a trip to the zoo, can be entirely triggering for him.

Bill Saunders should never have come to London. It's certainly not the world's film noir capital either.

But here he is with Joan Fontaine, in a fascinating, compelling, melodramatic and slightly strange concoction called Kiss the Blood off My Hands

The story of the post-war male is a film noir staple. The rescuing female belongs to a much older tradition ― but even knowing that he’s a killer, doesn’t stop Joan Fontaine from a heart breaking attempt at rescue.

Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948) is one of those great film noirs in which the entirely story is told in the title. The hero is a murderer ― he has blood on his hands. The female lead is going to rescue him ― with love ― as symbolised in a kiss.

The aim thereafter is redemption. Can she wash away his sins with her love? And is World War 2 excuse enough for a man when it comes to drunken violence?

Find out the answers in Kiss The Blood Off My Hands.

Bill Saunders, played by Burt Lancaster, is a disturbed ex-soldier, who kills a man in a post-war London pub brawl. It isn’t even much of a brawl, so much as a call for last orders that breaks Burt Lancaster’s drunken dream and causes him to lash out.

Fleeing the crime and its consequences, he hides out in the apartment of nurse Jane Wharton, played by Joan Fontaine. The script declares Jane Wharton as ‘lonely’ several times, and so perhaps for this reason, and despite misgivings about his clearly violent nature, Jane becomes involved with Bill, who resolves to reform.

The fleeing criminal comes to love her too, and when it comes to the crunch, here is where the noir chops begin to ring their loudest. Finally he needs to chose between her and his own life, as supreme dilemma as could be concocted in the film noir universe.

It is of course an impossible choice, but when faced by such a flawed character, the suspense becomes tangible, real and cinematically vital. The simple fact of this film noir, is that it manages to express the idea that there is everything at stake, and this keeps Kiss the Blood off My Hands as a fast moving and mercurially gripping film noir.

Joan Fontaine's good nurse character gets him a job driving a medical supplies truck. But racketeer Harry Carter, who witnessed the killing, wants to use Bill's talents for crime. Bill isn’t all sweetness either, and beats up a stranger on the train after attempting to card shark him. Joan Fontaine’s character points out his cowardice, but he responds with that vital male weakness ― he has fallen for her and is now obsessed. She is not even the femme fatale.

“Why can’t you be like everybody else?” she says. “You’re nothing but a vicious, cheap bully.”

Curiously enough, when Bill gets to British prison after the violent incident on the train and the unprovoked assault on a police officer, he is also sentenced to receive 18 strokes form the cat o’ nine tails ― obviously still a punitive option in Britain in 1948. Even though the entirety of the production was made and shot in Hollywood, London is still very well and lovingly recreated.

"Furthermore, although these appear to be first offenses, in view of the brutal nature of the assault, I have no alternative but to direct that you receive eighteen lashes of the cat-o'-nine-tails."

Film terror techniques improved to a great degree in the 1940s. While a quite time for horror, other techniques were evolving, including the awesome use of Robert Newton's face. 

The black and white pedigree of both film noir and horror are perfect here, and such drama proved problematic to top when the flicks went Technicolor.

Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948) is a kind of film noir soup. The title does indicate plenty, certainly regarding melodrama and redemption. The casting in fact could barely be better, because who but Burt Lancaster can do that absolute desperation, a most handsome kind of desperation when it comes down to it.

The title in fact is perfect with its dual themes of sex and murder competing for space in a matter of a few words.

The same should be said of Joan Fontaine who acts in this like it's the Old Vic, and the material is sacred. That is exactly the kind of dedication that melodrama requires, and it works a treat. She is passionate and believable, and this feels so generous of her when the state of the material she's working with is not of the first water.

Of all the film noir outings that kicked off Burt Lancaster’s movie career, Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948) is possibly the strangest, and the hardest to grasp. It’s not a picture that suffers from complexity, although it does get slowly better the longer it runs. Robert Newton plays the crooked spiv that nags and bribes Burt Lancaster into abandoning his reformed ways ― another film noir favourite idea.

The notion here is that morality is a path, and the straying from that path is a popular theme in the canon. Bill feels cornered into a fatal decision, and fate yet twists again when his true love Jane opts to join him at the wrong moment. The action plods at times, and yet it is still a vehicle perfectly suited to Burt’s tough-guy talents ― he does the indecisive yet romantic heel, quite well.

Things get messier and messier, and Burt goes deeper and deeper, and the writing does not entirely do justice to the themes of violence, corporal punishment and dissociative disorder. What promises to be a tale of doomed lovers, ends up being a troubled romantic melodrama, somewhat rescued with the film noir photography which suitably places virtually all the action at night.

Melodrama with hat, shadow and cigarette; the hang-dog male, it is pure melodrama and film noir, in a lovingly doomed bundle. It is the 1940s and road ahead is long.

Despite the film noir dressage, there are still a few moments left unsure in Kiss The Blood Off My Hands. Joan Fontaine doesn’t get to show her darker side, as she does in Ivy and Born to Be Bad. To some it will appear frustrating and tepid, but all the ingredients are there nonetheless ― the lost male hapless in the hands of relentless fate ― the tender-hearted woman who just can't help helping him ― the diabolical two-faced low-life doing his best to drag Burt further down the gutter of criminality ― and the ominous haze of city fog, making the atmosphere moody and dark.

Wikipedia helpfully offers one of its largest film noir articles on this exciting title:

Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948) at Wikipedia

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