Wash the Blood Off My Hands (1948) with Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine

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It sounds like a gritty and exciting movie if you only look at the title of Wash the Blood Off My Hands, a 1948 noir thriller starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine. It is also rather short, so easy to work into your schedule if you’re a touch pinched for time. Significantly, it is also the first film Lancaster had a role in producing under his own Norma Productions- significant perhaps only because Lancaster was himself still extremely early in his career.

Here he plays a former World War Two prisoner of war with what one might term a slight anger problem. Set in England, the story opens with Lancaster drinking alone in a pub and accidentally killing another man with one punch after a very brief confrontation with the victim. Lancaster scampers through the night, avoiding the constabulary until he finally barges into a woman’s apartment as his options for flight seem at a nadir.

Wash the Blood Off My Hands 1948 5Here enters Joan Fontaine, who is a presumably lonely war widow who works at a clinic. She befriends him enough (after he mostly assaults her to quiet her) to let him stay for the evening, but shows him the door in the morning. Lancaster leaves, but begins tailing Fontaine around town until she finally agrees to go to the horse races with him. Truly yesterday’s dating bears more than a touch of similarity to today’s stalking.

What Lancaster doesn’t know, but soon learns, is that a black marketer and general thug Robert Newton witnessed the pub killing. Newton reappears in short order and holds it over Lancaster like a proverbial anvil (insert Wile E. Coyote reference here). Newton isn’t as over the top in his characterization as he is in his showpiece role in the later Treasure Island, but there are a few hints of his later role in his accent and especially his facial contortions.

Wash the Blood Off My Hands 1948 3Lancaster puts Newton off at first, but once Fontaine gets him a job as a route driver delivering medicines for her clinic Newton ups the ante and won’t take no for an answer, forcing Lancaster to agree to permit an upcoming truckload of penicillin be hijacked by Newton’s crew.

In a surprise move, Fontaine opts to ride with Lancaster on the fateful night of the hijacking and Lancaster has to abort the hijacking and beats the crew down without letting Fontaine in on the plot. However, now that he has incensed Newton, the romantic couple begin plans to leave town.

But Newton ups the ante yet again, and makes a surprise visit the Fontaine’s flat. After he threatens her, she stabs him and flees to find Lancaster. He collects Newton and takes him away, eventually killing him in Newton’s apartment.

Wash the Blood Off My Hands 1948 2Wash the Blood Off My Hands has a lot going for it on paper, but the odds are decidedly stacked against it. It has a very dark noir feel, with most of the film set during the wee hours. Director Norman Foster creates a great feel for the picture and a rather intermittent and randomly effective score from Miklos Rozsa aids as well.

The cast is a good one, but they sadly don’t have a deep script from which to work. Fontaine and Lancaster never seem to click onscreen, even if one gets beyond the implausibility of the way they met. She- along with everyone else, with the sole exception of Newton- seems to forget that Lancaster is a wanted fugitive. He has no problems in getting around town making his deliveries and such.

And that’s probably where the movie starts to fall apart. There is tremendous potential, especially in Lancaster’s character. But his issues, though presumably tantalizingly deep, get only cursory treatment- resulting in a tremendous lost opportunity. The backstory of his rage and the impact of his imprisonment are left to the imagination of the viewer.

Wash the Blood Off My Hands 1948 1Another lost opportunity is the relationship between Fontaine and Lancaster, which never really seems to click onscreen. Again the missing element seems to be the script as the two leads are never given anything relationship-wise to sink their collective teeth into. Not only does Fontaine make the incredulous decision to harbor Lancaster during his initial escape, but then makes the even more astounding leaps to date the man and then run away (presumably leaving the country) with him on a few minute’s notice.

Lastly, the final act of the picture seems insanely overly compressed and rushed. Perhaps the budget was running tight but the denouement lacks the punch it should have if just a bit more time was involved. The stabbing, the death of Newton, and the final escape all take place in only mere minutes. Again opportunities to develop the story – and the characters- is lost.

Finally is a most egregious error. Though set in England all the automobiles have the steering column on the left (American) side of the vehicle. Maybe U.S. Army surplus?

In spite of the negatives, Wash the Blood Off My Hands is not a bad picture. It has more than its share of flaws, but it is still quite enjoyable.

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