‘Kiss the Blood off My Hands’ or — An Extreme Form of Absolution?

It’s got a spectacularly lurid title but does ‘Kiss the Blood off My Hands’ (1948) live up to its name in the sensationalism department? Kinda, but what’s most surprising about the film is that behind all the violence, blackmail and trauma is a strong undercurrent of compassion and forgiveness.

Not that you’d be thinking that at the beginning when Burt Lancaster’s war traumatised Bill Saunders knocks-out and accidentally kills a man in a London pub and flees the scene of his crime. Bill hides from the police in the flat of nurse Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine) who decides to trust this desperate man, even though he forced his way into her home, and not turn him over to the police.

Yet the police are less of a potential threat to Bill than cockney gangster Harry Carter (Robert Newton) who having witnessed Bill’s unfortunately accident spies an opportunity to blackmail Bill into doing a criminal job for good old Harry. Sure, the job might involved betraying Jane’s trust and confidence but it’s better than being turned over to the fuzz, right?

‘Kiss the Blood of My Hands’ is absolutely fantastic and wastes no time in grabbing you by the throat and showing you just what its capable of because this flick is firing on all cylinders, especially technically. The opening ten minutes or so — Bill’s initial crime and subsequent escape — are gripping as hell as Lancaster hurtles through “London” followed not just by the police but also an equally energetic and mobile camera. The set design of this artificial London in a Hollywood studio further enhances the unreal thrill of it all so that by the time Bill reaches Jane’s little apartment we’re almost as breathless as he is.

Most exciting of all though is the score by Miklós Rózsa and this could very possibly be one of his best, certainly one of his most propulsive. At one point Rózsa opens up the theme into a 3 part canon with startling effect which only adds even more forward momentum to an already dynamic soundtrack. This is film scoring at its highest level and it’s not just the music that’s bristling with life but the overall sound design too (the scene at the zoo is a great example of that).

Performances are spot-on with Lancaster nicely balancing pent-up physical violence with heart-breaking hurt so that we’re never quite sure if he’s a piece of work or simply an honest man corrupted by combat. This also means we, shockingly, buy Fontaine falling for the guy even though any rational person would be yelling at her run a mile. Not surprisingly Robert Newton steals every scene he’s in as the extraordinarily unlikable Harry although it’s this unlikability that might just allow for a certain form of redemption to occur for Bill.

The ending, which I won’t reveal, was abrupt and unexpected because so many of the signposts and signals were pointing towards all-consuming tragedy and although tragic events do take place there’s an almost even stronger emotion of reassurance and understanding operating here.

This makes sense when you view ‘Kiss the Blood off My Hands’ in relation to the Second World War when young men returned home only a few years previously after having been asked to perform acts that would normally be well beyond the accepted rules of society. They return traumatised at what they’ve either witnessed or done and this film seems to be saying to these men, and more importantly their families, “It’s okay. You’ve been forgiven. Don’t be scared to come back into society.”

Yet doesn’t forgiveness sometimes involve a form of sacrifice? If so, what will that sacrifice be and, more importantly, who will carry it out? What is the price and who will pay it? It’s worth watching to find out.

‘Kiss the Blood off My Hands’ is excellent. It doesn’t come close to being as exploitative as its sensationalist, yet quite delicious, title but what we have here instead is something better. What we have is a sensitive, sympathetic, exciting movie that’s superbly directed, wonderfully acted, perfectly paced and in possession of a genuinely outstanding musical score. The title might be shocking but you’ll be even more shocked at how tender it all is.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.