I think I’m slightly in love with the young Burt Lancaster. Lancaster’s first film, a 1946 adaptation of a Hemingway short story, shot him to overnight stardom. And why not? Lancaster’s intense gaze and his hard, athletic body made him a natural when it came to film noir. Here’s how the trailer for The Killers lured audiences into theatres: “Raw! Rugged! Ruthless Drama! Of a man who gambled his luck -- his love -- his life for the treachery of a girl’s lips.” The “girl” in question was Ava Gardner, and oh, how the sparks flew between them.
The respected UCLA Film and Television Archive has devoted almost three months to the career of Burt Lancaster (1913-1994). This “centennial celebration,” which runs through June 30 at the Billy Wilder Theater, features such Lancaster hits as Elmer Gantry and The Birdman of Alcatraz, as well as latter-day art films like Louis Malle’s Atlantic City. But I attended a double-bill of two lesser-known film noir classics, Brute Force (1947) and Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), in which Lancaster’s charisma could not be overlooked.
Aside from Lancaster himself, the star of the evening was Kate Buford, author of the definitive Burt Lancaster: An American Life. (This 2000 biography, currently in paperback, is due for release as an ebook this fall.) Buford’s introductions to the films helped put them in context. Brute Force, only Lancaster’s second movie, is a men-behind-bars flick, complete with searchlights, stool pigeons, and a sadistic warden played to a fare-thee-well by Hume Cronyn. Buford helpfully reminded us of the political climate in 1947: director Jules Dassin and many on his creative team felt a strong sympathy for the underdog that aroused the suspicions of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Despite its ghoulish title, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is not a slasher movie. Rather, it’s a stylish post-WWII melodrama, noteworthy as the first project of Lancaster the independent producer. (A smart and ambitious man, he produced not only several of his own films – like the caustic Sweet Smell of Success – but also the gentle and romantic Marty.) In Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Lancaster plays close to type as an ex-GI with an explosive temper. He’s an accidental killer, but we root for him because of what he’s endured. Having spent two years in a Nazi POW camp, he can best be understood as a victim of what today is called PTSD. In his dealings with a sad and lovely English lass played by Joan Fontaine, Lancaster stands out as the very definition of the phrase “tough but tender.” (An added bonus is the jolly yet thoroughly creepy menace of Lancaster’s nemesis in the film, the great Robert Newton.)
What struck me is how well this little movie knows Lancaster’s strengths. The opening sequence, in which he strikes a deadly blow in a barroom, then is chased by coppers over the rooftops of a London slum, stands out because it understands the power of silence. Lancaster’s thrilling physicality carries us along for at least five minutes, long before he utters a single word. Later in the film, his shirt is stripped off and he’s punished with the cruel strokes of a cat-o’nine-tails: surely a boon to every woman in the audience.
I can’t leave this film without mentioning the late Hugh Gray. No, not a relative, but a long-ago UCLA film professor who looked Dickensian but had flown dangerous missions for the RAF. He’s credited as the film’s technical advisor, and I imagine he was helpful indeed in conveying the realities of London in the post-war era.