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Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948)


Early on his stellar career, Burt Lancaster, found himself in this Noir thriller opposite Joan Fontaine with foggy postwar London as a backdrop by way of a Hollywood backlot. Bringing some authenticity to the film, Universal, imported Robert Newton to star as the heavy who holds incriminating information over Lancaster in order to have the up and coming superstar do his bidding.

Burt looks to be a troubled soul when we first see him in a pub at closing hour. Not wanting to leave he strikes the barkeep with a punch and when the man falls to the floor he bangs his hit resulting in his death. Burt has no intention of remaining at the scene. He makes a run for the door but is clearly seen by Newton who is also in the pub at closing time. Newton’s sighting of the killer on the run will play a major part as the plot develops. With coppers blowing their night whistles, the chase is on which gives our acrobatic star an opportunity to show his circus honed skills. Scaffolding and brick walls are easily scaled as Burt evades the police in a thick fog. All of which leads him to take refuge in an apartment by way of a window. Inside he’ll find himself face to face with Miss Fontaine.

Joan plays the scene calmly. She’s unsure of just how threatening the large sized intruder might prove to be. He’s unshaven, his clothes are worn and show holes at the seams. But he claims he just needs a place to lay low and he won’t hurt her. With a chair set in place at the door to her flat he falls asleep and come morning she’s ready to leave for work as a nurse at a local hospital. She expects him to be gone by the time she returns home. So ends the first meeting.

Could Joan be the angel that Burt is looking for? Following the theft of a wallet by force, he’ll clean himself up with a shave a new set of duds and even rents a room. Now it’s off to reintroduce himself proper like to the lady who aided him in his hour of need. She’ll brush him off at first but ….. but …. then comes that famous Lancaster smile and she’s captured though it’s going to be a rocky romance moving forward. We’ll learn that Joan is a widow who lost her husband to the war. Burt himself spent two years in a Nazi prison camp and carries the emotional scars and a deep seeded fear of being caged.

What we have are two lonely people, one troubled and another looking to find a new life that has meaning.

If it wasn’t for Burt’s criminal activities, this could almost have been a straight forward drama following the end of WW2. That’s all going to come crashing down when Burt takes Joan to the horse races on a sunny afternoon. It’s here he’ll be spotted by Newton who in a not so subtle manner will put the bite on Burt. From the outset there’s that feeling of blackmail in the air. It’s on the train returning home that Burt’s irritable temper will get the better of him when he’s outfoxed by an seasoned cardshark in a railway car. Violence seeps to the top as he strikes the elderly gent prompting a shocked Joan to let him know, “You’re nothing but a cheap vicious bully.”

An arrest follows and a 6 month sentence. Notably he’s also sentenced to 18 lashes. Not sure when (or even if) this was abolished in the British penal system but I was a bit surprised that a film taking place in 1948 included this as a legal form of punishment. I kind of thought it had gone out with keelhauling as a means of deterrent.

Though his jail sentence may come to an end, the threat of Newton doesn’t and upon his release from a jail cell, the soon to be Long John Silver of Disney fame is to begin tightening the screws on our leading man with a dark past.

Looking to give Burt some help, Joan, re-enters his life by arranging for him to secure a job as a driver at the hospital. Mostly he’s delivering medical supplies from one town to the next. Medical supplies and the “black market” go hand in hand in the postwar era and so Newton plays his ace card he’s had tucked away since the opening scene of this film from director Norman Foster. All Burt has to do is allow himself to be robbed and roughed up. No one will know the difference and he can go on living his peaceful life courting the pretty nurse. Of course nothing is ever that simple in the shadowy world of Noir.

On the night that Burt has set to make the run where he’ll be brutalized and robbed, a twist of fate throws him a dangerous curveball. One that is going to have him drive past the roadblock that Newton and some thugs have set up. Newton doesn’t take kindly to being double crossed and it’s this final fallout that will dominate the final third of the film. I’ll let you discover the rest and how it all plays out for yourself.

Thankfully this turned up on blu ray recently from Kino Lorber which allowed me to revisit this oh-so-rare Lancaster title from his early years. I had seen it ages ago on late night TV but remembered very little about it. All I’m familiar with is the fact that it’s never been treated overly kind by reviewers and the history books. While I don’t put it in the same category as the rest of Burt’s early Noirs, The Killers, Criss Cross, I Walk Alone or Rope of Sand it plays well enough even if it needed a stronger finale down the stretch. I should also point out that if you are a fan of Lancaster, you’ve got to like the fact that Kino Lorber has put out a large number of his films on blu ray these last few years.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was the only film that Burt or Joan worked on with director Foster. The director had graduated from the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto films of the thirties to some more “starry” affairs in the 1940’s. Among them being the credited director of Orson Welles’ Journey Into Fear and in 1948 alongside Kiss the Blood he had Rachel and the Stranger in theaters starring the trio of Young, Holden and Mitchum. He’d also direct the first rate Woman On the Run released in 1950. Like many of his contemporaries he’d drift into series television once that medium took hold.

Billed above Lancaster, Joan, already had an Oscar under her belt for 1940’s Suspicion but unlike her sister, Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, Joan wouldn’t maintain the level of success that Olivia found as the decade wound down and on into the 1950’s. Long believed to be at odds with her sister, Joan would pass away at the age of 96 in 2013. I’ll admit to being a big Olivia fan and less so when it comes to Joan but that’s rather unfair. Anytime I do see Joan on screen I find her drawing me in to her films but I guess the difference is that I was never really exposed to her as a youngster like I was Miss Olivia who will always remain an early screen crush thanks to those wonderful adventure films she made with Errol Flynn.

Minor observations to share about this 1948 black and white film are I liked the fact that Burt’s character claims he was originally born in Canada. Eh’ when you’re Canadian you notice these minor details. Also the fact that there hardly appears to be a scene without Burt or some other character lighting up another cigarette. Times sure have changed. Say wasn’t that Jay Novello as a shady ship’s Captain? Love that character actor. Finally the film was executive produced by Harold Hecht. Hecht was a major player in the career of Lancaster. Of the 25 producing credits on his resume, 17 of them starred Lancaster. It should also be noted that Hecht and Lancaster would become a producing team and scored an Oscar for the Best Picture of 1955, the sentimental favorite, Marty.

If you’ve visited Mike’s Take prior to this then you know that the films of Burt Lancaster are regularly featured here so don’t be surprised if you see more in the coming months. Thanks for dropping in and by all means do come back.

14 Comments »

  1. I should like to recommend two excellent films, one with Burt Lancaster, the other with Joan Fontaine, which I watched (yet) again the other evening: ‘Criss Cross'(1949), with Lancaster and the incomparable Yvonne De Carlo, and: ‘Born To Be Bad’ (1950), with Joan Fontaine in an uncharacteristic part (superb cast, including Mel Ferrer, Robert Ryan, and Joan Leslie). One never tires of good films.

  2. Burt Lancaster is always a joy to watch, doesn’t matter the type of film, he’s got that presence to him. Robert Newton was another of those tragic stories of a talent tainted by an addiction they just couldn’t kick. He’ll always be Long John Silver for most people and of course he invented the pirate lingo we all use on “Talk Like a Pirate Day”.

    • Yes I’ve read about Newton and it’s a real shame. He’s not alone sadly. Far too many talented people are lost souls in the end. Yes Burt is a total pro and it’s easy to see why he’s so highly ranked among all time leading men.

  3. A pretty fair assessment, I think. I caught this for the first time a few years ago and had generally favorable response to it. The title demands you take notice but i don’t think the movie ever hits the kind of dizzy heights of noir fatalism it promises.
    Overall, it’s well made and well shot and the melodrama at the heart of it all works just fine when you realize what the movie is aiming for.

    • Yeah the title is a grabber but it gets weak down the stretch and I can never help but think of the “code” on many of these cause you know a man has to pay for his transgressions in the final scene. This one a bit phony I thought but it’s well done with some great shots and Newton memorable as the heavy.

  4. Have you ever read the novel by Gerald Butler? It was a while back that I read it, but if I remember correctly, it wasn’t medicine that Lancaster’s character was delivering as part of his new life – it was eggs! The girl’s Aunt ran a chicken farm. I can’t recall how this worked in with the plot overall – or how the novel ended – just that the film had a very different conclusion. I enjoyed the book but felt at the time that the screenwriters did a very good job pulling out the best aspects of it in their adaptation. One of those rare occasions when I thought the film was better than the book!

  5. What a dramatic title that is hey! I watched it a few months back and have been holding it back for a review. You done such a good job I might just move on LOL. Good old Blighty looking nice and grimy in Cali’s Universal Studios.
    It’s a great film and a nice tight run-time. Gets right on with the goods. The opening scene is quite a shocker straight out the gate.

    • Again it’s that running time that grabbed me. I squeezed it in late at night. That and of course Mr. Lancaster. Newton a real charmer in this one. By all means let’s hear your “take” on it from your England point of view. What did you think of those foggy London alleys and such? You know the ones on the Universal Studios backlot.

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by Brian Hannan

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"DESTROY ALL FANBOYS!"

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Movies ala Mark

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