The Most Beautiful Fraud: Kiss the Blood Off My Hands
I’ve been waiting a long time to see the 1948 Anglo-American noir Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, always haunted by the vague fear that the film couldn’t possibly live up to what must be one of the greatest titles of all time. I shouldn’t have worried; it’s very nearly an all-time great, an electrifying and frequently surprising piece of work that doesn’t quite work on every level, but when it does, practically sucks you into its dark and murky world.
There’s no lack of talent behind Blood, assembled by something of an all-star writing cast and directed by Norman Foster. Foster didn’t make much of an impression as a filmmaker, but he was one of Orson Welles’ earliest collaborators, and that shows in a few of the film’s riskiest and most impressive shots: a thrilling foot chase through a dingy London set, still dotted with wartime propaganda posters; Burt Lancaster as morally shady protagonist Bill Saunders desperately battering his body against a locked gate in tight uncomfortable close-up; the camera crawling over the ceiling for an overhead view of a boisterous English pub at closing time, filled with brassy dames and colorful drunks. Much of the credit for the film’s striking visual feel should go to veteran cinematographer Russell Metty, who, in addition to lensing Spartacus and most of the films of Douglas Sirk, was an old hand at noir, having filmed, among others, The Stranger, Crashout, and Ride the Pink Horse.
Lancaster — featured here in one of his first starring roles, though he was already 35 years old — is an actor I often don’t care for, but he’s practically luminous here. One of the strengths of Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is that it makes explicit the post-war malaise and murk of the late 1940s that is always implicit in noir; destroyed cities can be rebuilt, we are informed by a series of title cards, but men not so easily. Playing Saunders, an American sailor in London just after WWII, Lancaster is brutality, menace, and self-loathing incarnate. Lancaster doesn’t make it simple for us by playing a tarnished innocent or a Hitchcockian wrong-man; he never lets us off the hook, preferring to play Saunders as a brutishly handsome, morally questionable, and distinctly unlikeable character. He kills the landlord of a pub by accident, but when he’s on the run, he implies a lot less agency than he actually possessed; he’s an unrepentant thug, thief, possibly a deserter, and, if not a murderer, at least a killer. At one point, living desperately on the streets, he strongarms a passer-by and hisses at him: “I’m not a pickpocket, see?” He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself, not his terrified victim.
Fleeing the police after his (unintentional but still savage) murder of the landlord, Lancaster careens madly through the city in some scenes that call on his previous profession as a traveling acrobat; he’s so footloose that it almost looks like he’s anticipated parkour by a half a century. Breaking into the flat of saintly nurse Joan Fontaine, he terrifies her into protecting her, and while the two fall in love, there’s little question that he entered her life in the most violent and traumatic way possible. Along the way, he charms her, lies to her, and threatens her, as she all the while develops the world’s grossest case of Stockholm syndrome. He’s so basically detestable, despite the film’s noncommittal insistence that he’s our misunderstood hero, that when he falls victim to a blackmailer who saw his original crime, the extortionist only manages to seek slightly worse for the comparison. (The way he pockets the lighter belonging to her dead fiancé, killed in the war, and then uses it to insinuate himself back into her life, is one of the all-time creepiest moves in crime drama history.)
Fontaine, while she does a creditable job as an actress, is one of the movie’s big weaknesses. It’s hard to fathom what she sees in Lancaster other than his admittedly jaw-dropping good looks; most noirs, pushing back against the Code, would have at least tried to imply that he had a sexual hold over her, but in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, no such soiling of her angelic character is allowed, and she just seems to put up with his bloody influence for no discernible reason. She’s also the nail from which the movie hangs most of its unwanted and clumsy attempts at melodrama, pathos, and terrible humor; watching her interact with reputedly charming and toothy British boys is downright painful. Far better are the English character actors who dot the landscape of the film, especially the gross, glad-handing blackmailer played by Robert Newton and Lewis Lord Russell as a gregarious commuter who becomes the victim of Lancaster’s short fuse. Miklos Rosza’s score can be overbearing at times, but it hits all the right emotional beats, and the London sets, while hit-and-miss, look terrific when time is put into them.
What really makes Kiss the Blood Off My Hands a film worthy of a much wider audience than it has is the combination of Foster and Metty’s skillful filmmaking and Lancaster’s hypnotic performance in the lead. Some of the scenes are visual dynamite; from the simple shot of Lancaster crossing a stark, shadowy pool hall — looking far too big for its pair of tables — to meet with his blackmailer, to the complex and nearly pornographic scene of him being subjected to flogging for an unexpected and brutal attack on a policeman, there’s nothing that’s taken for granted. As for Lancaster, he’s given the space to be far more unlikable than the typical noir anti-hero, and he uses every inch of it, coming off as much more unlikable in the role of a hero than most actors do as straight-up villains. (He doesn’t even seem that reluctant to go along with Newton’s extortion scheme, bristling against it more out of sheer stubbornness than anything else.) It’s a role where it’s simple to see why everyone had him pegged as a superstar this early on, and given such a juicy creep of a character, he bites into it with fangs flashing. It’s a noir soaked in bad vibes, and all the better for it.