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July 28, 2020

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands


Norman Foster - 1948
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Actor turned director Norman Foster honed his directorial skills churning out the yellow face adventures of Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan. The films were produced with modest budgets and short shooting schedules. Foster found his way into Orson Welles' circle and he was entrusted with filming part of the never completed It's All True, the project pushed on Welles in the name of pan-American friendship in 1942, taking Welles away from R.K.O. and The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles also entrusted Foster with directing Journey into Fear, a film much more entertaining than some have claimed, and similar to the 1951 version of The Thing, a film subject to debate regarding how much of the directorial credit is to be taken at face value.

It would appear that everything of value that Norman Foster took from his past work was used in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. A brisk eighty minutes long, there's no dawdling around to establish place or characters. Burt Lancaster, unshaven, disheveled, world weary and volatile, is sufficiently annoyed at the barkeep in a London bar at closing time to sock him in the jaw. Unfortunately, the barkeep is knocked dead. Accidental death or not, seedy Robert Newton has witnessed the incident and calls for the neighborhood toughs to get a hold of Lancaster. On the lam, outwitting the police in part by using his acrobatic skills, Lancaster hides in the apartment of Joan Fontaine.

That chase in the beginning shows the influence of Welles. It is a series of traveling shots, including several crane shots looking down at the street. Foster emphasizes the space between Lancaster and those who pursue him. There's depth of focus. Just that part of the film, from its introduction of Lancaster to the point where he makes a truce with Fontaine as her unexpected and unwanted guest, with its use of fog and shadows, can serve as a text for explaining the look of film noir. Robert Newton reappears, like the proverbial bad penny, to blackmail Lancaster and later, Fontaine. Any border between horror and film noir is erased in the facial expressions and use of lighting on Newton's face in close-up as he threatens Fontaine.

It's not all darkness. After a bit of cajoling, Lancaster talks Fontaine into a walk through a zoo. At one point they are in front of a cage with a chimpanzee. The chimpanzee makes a face which Lancaster imitates. I am unaware of any previous comparisons, but I was reminded of a line written as I recall written by Pauline Kael, reviewing a much later Lancaster film, the western Valdez is Coming. One of those weird bits of flotsam that stays in the memory, with Kael describing Lancaster as simian in that film.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was Lancaster's debut as his own producer. From the perspective of his his career, his choices for roles for himself and choices off collaborators has a strange consistency. As in this film, Lancaster more often than not plays flawed characters, sometimes deeply unlikable men such as in Sweet Smell of Success as the gossip columnist. At the same time, within the same film if possible, Lancaster loved to show off his body, up through his nude scene after hitting fifty in The Swimmer. There is a beefcake moment in Kiss . . . where Lancaster, jailed following another near murderous outburst, is stripped of his shirt, and strapped and restrained to be whipped in prison. Lancaster would seem to have no problem taking second billing to the more veteran Joan Fontaine here, or later two actors he admired, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. When it came to directors, the relationships with those hired by Lancaster would occasionally be more problematic with firings of several respected filmmakers, often replaced by the more cooperative John Frankenheimer or Sydney Pollack. All the more baffling is that for his telling directors what to do (Franenheimer once told of being lifted around by Lancaster with instructions on camera placement), Lancaster never took to direction after a couple attempts about fifteen years apart.

Norman Foster could well be another director worthy of further research. His career is even more idiosyncratic than that of another former Welles associate, Richard Wilson. At the very least, Foster has directed two noted entries in film noir - Kiss . . and Woman On the Run (1950), and the amiable western, Rachel and the Stranger starring sister-in-law Loretta Young. Foster would appear to be going back to his directorial roots in shooting multiple television episodes for Walt Disney's adventured of Zorro, and most famously, Davy Crockett, mini-series before that term was invented, that eventually were re-edited for theatrical release. Of possible interest would be the handful of films Foster made in Mexico for the local audience, three with Ricardo Montalban. Of further interest is that the source novel is by the British novelist Gerald Butler, who also provided the source novel for On Dangerous Ground, and that this story about a man on the run had its screenplay handled by three blacklisted and temporarily exiled writers - Ben Maddow, Walter Bernstein and Leonardo Bercovici. Bernstein and Maddow would work again with Lancaster on two later films produced by the star, The Train and The Unforgiven respectively.

Film historian Jeremy Arnold offers a generally informative, well prepared and cleanly recorded commentary track. What I found most useful was the explanation of how mobile sets were used to make the Universal studio London look bigger than it was, and for use in those overhead traveling crane shots that open the film. Arnold also discusses the film's Orson Welles connection lightly with Norman Foster, but in greater detail regarding cinematographer Russell Metty, with a mention that Gregg Toland was initially set to do the filming. There is also the pointing out of several of the lesser know supporting players as well as notes on how Joan Fontaine and Robert Newton were cast. This is one of the better commentary tracks for a film that is best known for its wonderfully lurid title.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 28, 2020 06:45 AM