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Tag Archives: Joan Fontaine

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Oct. 30, 1948)

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)
Directed by Norman Foster
Norma Productions / Universal Pictures

Norman Foster’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands begins with some onscreen text that could fit at the beginning of nearly every single post-war film noir:

The aftermath of war is rubble — the rubble of cities and of men. They are the casualties of a pitiless destruction. The cities can be rebuilt, but the wounds of men, whether of the mind or of the body, heal slowly.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is based on Gerald Butler’s bestselling 1940 novel of the same name, and stars Burt Lancaster as Bill Saunders, a tightly wound, violent man with a mysterious past. He says he was born in Canada and raised in Detroit, but he doesn’t go into much more detail. When the film begins, he’s alone in a pub in an unnamed city in England, hunched over the bar and nursing a pint. When the barman tells him that it’s closing time, he lashes out violently. His assault on the barman starts a fire that his uncontrollable rage will continue to stoke throughout the film.

The role of Bill Saunders seems tailor-made for Lancaster at this point in his career. He made his debut in The Killers (1946) as Ole “Swede” Andreson, a brutish former prizefighter. In his next film, Brute Force (1947), he played Joe Collins, the toughest man in a tough prison. In Desert Fury (1947), Lancaster played a sheriff’s deputy who was also a former bronco buster. In I Walk Alone (1948), he played a former bootlegger and all-around alpha male who was determined to exact vengeance on his former partner.

Subsequent roles in All My Sons (1948) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) allowed Lancaster to stretch his thespic muscles a little, but Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a solid return to type.

Lancaster and Fontaine

In the NY Times review of the film, published on October 30, 1948, the headline was Lancaster Fights the World Again. The first paragraph of the review was as follows: “The process of humanizing Burt Lancaster obviously is not going to be easy and it is going to take time. Mr. Lancaster is handy with his fists and speaks most eloquently when using them. But to develop fully as an actor and to come over to the right side of society he will have to make a break someday, for there are only so many variations on the theme of being misunderstood and Mr. Lancaster has just about exhausted them all.”

The reviewer praised the film, however, especially its three-act structure and strong climax, two elements which the reviewer lamented were sadly absent from most current films (apparently this is not just a 21st-century problem).

I think that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a tremendously effective film noir. What it lacks in innovative storytelling it makes up for with strong performances — not only by Lancaster but also by Joan Fontaine as the woman who grows to love him and Robert Newton as the Cockney schemer who is determined to manipulate him through blackmail. In addition to the acting, the shadowy cinematography by Russell Metty sharpens the violence and suspense of the film, and the tense, driving score by Miklós Rózsa (who also wrote the music for The Killers, Brute Force, and Desert Fury) propels the action of the film and mirrors Lancaster’s barely controlled rage that constantly threatens to boil over.

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Letter From an Unknown Woman (April 28, 1948)

The key to Max Ophüls’s Letter From an Unknown Woman lies, simply enough, in its title. No matter how rapturous or romantic the proceedings get, the title of the film will nag at viewers’ minds. We know what is coming, even if we’re not fully conscious that we know.

Letter From an Unknown Woman takes place mostly in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century. It tells the story of a love affair between a young woman, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), and a concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan).

When the film begins, Stefan is coming home in a carriage. He appears dissolute and wasted. He is to fight a duel in the morning, and he’s more upset that he’ll have to get up early than he is about possibly being killed.

In his apartment, a letter awaits him from Lisa, his old love. In the letter she recalls the stages of her life with him, beginning with girlish obsession, moving on to a more mature love affair, and finally … the end of it all.

Through it all we see Stefan, a brilliant and temperamental musician, experience his own journey of love with Lisa, albeit a more selfish one.

Like his fellow German expatriate director Douglas Sirk, Ophüls has a love of beautiful costumes, sumptuous set design, and moments of beautiful whimsy. One scene in Letter From an Unknown Woman begins with Lisa and Stefan sitting in a train compartment, having a conversation. The moving background outside the train’s window looks almost ridiculously fake until the full scene is revealed to the viewer. They are at a carnival, and an old man on a bicycle is making the painted backgrounds scroll past their window. He even has a wooden train whistle he blows as they stop at each new “station.”

Letter From an Unknown Woman is based on a story by Stefan Zweig, with a screenplay by Howard Koch. It’s a meditation on love, memory, and loss that I really liked, but didn’t completely love, although I suspect that repeating viewings might reveal added layers.