Monday, June 24, 2024

Kiss the Blood off My Hands, by Gerald Butler


Stark House Press, 2024
originally published 1948
166 pp


Just released this month, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is the latest in the Noir Film Classics  series from Stark House Press.  I have a few of these books but this is the first I've read.  And since I love to see books I've read  sort of come alive on the screen, I bought a copy of the 1948 film based on this novel starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine and watched it as soon as I'd finished reading.  More on the movie later -- on to the book. 

The action begins in a pub when Bill Saunders, fresh off the boat in England,  kills a bouncer. He hadn't meant to, but the punch he'd landed on the man's face knocked him to the floor, stone cold dead. He doesn't care that the guy is dead; all he cares about is getting out of there.   Before anyone could call the police, Bill takes off running and so do a few others, chasing right behind him.  He notices a woman "going into a door," and takes advantage of the situation, forcing his way in.  Deciding to stay overnight, the next morning Bill discovers that the woman (Jane) has guts and doesn't seem afraid of him.  He realizes that she's different than the other women in his experience, and that  "There was something about her."  Eventually he leaves after she returns home from her job, but it won't be the last they see of each other. 

Bill is a certified tough guy, beating up and stealing money from taxi customers, robbing a sex worker, referring to women as bitches and tarts, and violence, which exists just beneath his surface,  is his way of dealing with most situations.  For him, people are just mugs, and as such, they're prey, ready to be taken advantage of.  He doesn't respond normally on an emotional level, but he is definitely attracted to Jane, showing up at her workplace,  but with Jane (whom he refers to as "the kid"), he's different.  He still hasn't told her that he'd actually killed the bouncer, and somehow he is able to persuade her to go out with him, at first to the races, then for tea based on the money she'd won from the track but when they're on a train and Bill tries the 3-card con on a fellow passenger, she sees his true colors when he turns violent when the fellow doesn't want to play any longer.  Then she lets him have it:
"I can't pretend that I didn't know you were a tough guy. I was fool enough to allow myself to be attracted by that. But I thought there was something decent underneath. Now I know there isn't. You're nothing but a cheap, bullying hooligan." 
Although she tells him she never wants to have anything to with him again, and that he's "rotten," it's that "something decent underneath" that Jane saw in him that eventually brings the two back together, with her believing that maybe a decent job would do him some good and give his life "a shape again."  Can she change this man  by taming what Curtis Evans refers to in his introduction as "his brutal impulses with the proverbial good woman's love?"  Is Bill at all redeemable and can he truly be rehabilitated?  In the meanwhile, in an horrific twist I didn't see coming, Jane finds herself in an unexpected dilemma that has the potential to bring everything crashing down around the two of them and tear down what the two have managed to build. 

The length of this book has nothing whatsoever to do with its complexity, and when an author can pack so much into such a short space, in my opinion, he's done a fine job.  Here that complexity is found not only in the character of Bill, or in the question of redemption, but more to the point, in the way that Butler maps out exactly how one random event sets everything else into motion, with unintended, and most certainly unexpected  consequences rippling down the line, definitely a true noir trait. 

It's so good that I couldn't put it down once I'd picked it up.   Solidly good reading and an absolute must for anyone who likes tough, gritty  twisty noir.  A giant thank you to Stark House for my copy!

And now the film -- I once did a mega Burt Lancaster moviefest in the comfort of my own home, but somehow I missed this one.  Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was released in 1948, with Lancaster starring alongside Joan Fontaine.  The opening chase sequence is just dynamite with Lancaster running through the dark, shadowed streets of London before climbing into Joan Fontaine's window.   All of the basics of the novel are there as a foundation, although there are quite a few changes, as expected.   Fontaine plays Jane, whose occupation changed between page and screen from a shopgirl  to a nurse.  I have to think that it's as a caregiver that movie Jane recognizes something damaged inside of Bill, and it is instinct that makes her want to help him.  It's also a good setup, because as part of Jane's ability to help him keep his violent tendencies in check and get Bill focused, she is able to get him a job as the driver for the clinic where she works; in one particular case, he is able to bring a young father the medicine his dying daughter desperately needs to survive.  Even though ignorance causes the dad to not want his child to have it, the scene affords a glimpse of something within Bill that truly cares about this little girl as he forces his past the father to make sure she gets what she needs.  And speaking of Bill, in the film he admits to having been a POW, where in the book, he doesn't really have too much backstory going on.   One of the biggest changes, however, has to do with a blackmailer played by actor Robert Newton, whose utter nastiness comes through on the screen enough to make you uncomfortable just looking at the guy.  I won't say what the differences are so as not to wreck things, but the changes vis-a-vis that particular portion of the plot  worked very nicely in the film, as the suspense ratchets slowly until a fateful moment, but it's clear that the story's not quite over yet.   Nicely done, although I did prefer the ending in the novel to the ending of the film, although I didn't jump for joy over either one.

So, both book and movie are a yes, both I can easily recommend. 

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