Every Sunday Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)
In 1948, Burt Lancaster’s career was really just beginning, but it was beginning in a big way. His first film appearance was in 1946, but he made four films released in 1948. That’s a pretty meteoric rise even for a man who went from not working in films to being featured in a pivotal role for a multi-Oscar nominated noir his first time out.
Still, he still had years to go before rolling around in the surf with Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity and more than a decade ahead of him before delivering a blockbuster acting performance in Elmer Gantry. Perhaps that’s why, even though he’s the main focus of the film, Joan Fontaine steals all that focus for herself.
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is as tense a drama as you’d ever want. It almost stands as the formula for current thrillers – a dramatic chase scene to open, some slow but steady character development, another action sequence near the middle, and more drama leading to a do-or-die climax. However, if has something that most thrillers have forgotten about – high stakes and something meaningful to lose.
In the film, Lancaster plays Bill Saunders – a man prone to violence after his fighting stint in WWII who kills a man in a bar brawl. On the loose, he takes up with Nurse Jane Wharton (played by the beautiful, focus-stealing Joan Fontaine) who keeps him safe and gets him a job driving deliveries for a drug company. When someone recognizes him, the black mail is on, and Saunders has to choose between the woman he’s come to love and his own life.
That choice is the kind of thing writers seem scared of these days. There are a few examples each year of truly desperate films, but for the most part, drama is a lost art because characters are either let off far too easily or tortured beyond reason in a modern attempt to be gritty.
With Kiss the Blood, we have a perfect example of an impossible choice to be made by a flawed, mercurial character. You truly have no idea how the film will end.
However, with Lancaster’s rise comes his inexperience. Still, t’s fascinating to see the man in his acting youth still not sure of how to play subtle with his emotions. That deficit leaves the door wide open not only for the veteran Fontaine to steal every single scene she’s in, but also to steal the thrust of the story. Don’t be surprised if you watch this movie and begin caring only for Jane Wharton. There are reasons to love Saunders, reasons that she should love him, but ultimately he acts like a young stray dog – affectionate one minute and lashing out against the night air the next. That recklessness, that unpredictability (alongside the blackmail and his impossible choice) keep the latter half of the film stormy. Every scene either delivers a new reason to grip your seat or it toys with our emotions by delivering the kind of calm that reminds us both what’s at stake and that something is coming to take it all away.
Both actors have unimaginable chemistry (even if Saunders seems more like an angry young man than a war hero dealing with PTSD), but the real star of the film is probably the script by Leonardo Bercovici. His polar opposite script for The Bishop’s Wife had just come out the year before (offering sweetness and a slightly more complex recipe for a romantic comedy). Bercovici proved with these back to back films that he knows love, passion and people whether they are in the care free world of New England or the torturous throes of living outside the law. The structure for Kiss the Blood is a tightly woven tapestry and the dialogue will leave you bloody with cut marks as you walk out of the theater (or out of your living room).
Granted that the title of the film seems to sell something the film can’t really deliver. In the days of sensationalist advertising (which haven’t seemed to end), the Blood of the title is more metaphorical – meant to mirror that love and nurturing can rehabilitate and cure. There is still a solid bit of sweat-inducing action, but maybe not the kind or the amount that the name would suggest.
I can’t speak highly enough about the strength of this film. It looks gorgeous, features two actors that build on each other with buzzing intimacy, and the stakes are raised dizzyingly higher and higher like they should in drama. Just when you think Saunders is out, they pull him back in. There is heart in this movie unlike most stock thrillers made today which keep the tension but forget the point: you have to have something to fight for if you plan on fighting. Or if you plan on finally refusing to fight.