I have been writing a bit this year on the phenomenal popularity of faux American crime fiction in post-war culture in places like Australia and Great Britain. By this I mean crime fiction written and produced in these countries that not only mimicked the atmosphere and tropes of hardboiled American mystery novels and film, but was set in mythical versions of big American cities, such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. This fiction, for example many of the books written by Australian crime fiction author Alan Yates aka Carter Brown, was sometimes even mistaken for the genuine thing.
One of the countless cultural offshoots of the United States’ emergence as the dominant global power after World War II, the success of faux American crime fiction is often associated with the wide penetration of film noir and American writers such as Mickey Spillane. But as I wrote in this piece on the popularity of the controversial 1939 James Hadley Chase novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, its roots go much deeper; the influence of pre-war writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and W. R Burnett. Also the private detective and mystery fiction contained in the mass-produced American pulp fiction magazines that flooded into markets such as Australia and Great Britain in the 1930s.
As evidenced by the 1948 film version of No Orchids for Miss Blandish, sometimes this faux American material even made it onto the screen. The film version of Chase’s book was an American gangster story set in New York but shot in England by a British production company and with a largely British cast.
Tt was only recently, however, that I came across an inversion of the prevalence of faux American narratives, the evocatively named 1948 film noir, Kiss the Blood of My Hands, starring Burt Lancaster in one of the relatively early entries in his career, Joan Fontaine and Robert Newton.
Bill Saunders (Lancaster) is an ex-American serviceman living in London. A former prisoner in a German POW camp, although there was no term for it back then, he clearly suffers from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Fleeing after he kills a man for no reason in a bar fight, he hides in the bedsit of a nurse, Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine).
A subsequent fight with a policeman sees Saunders end up in jail but upon his release he reconnects with Jane, who gets him a job driving trucks loaded with medical supplies. The two of them fall in love. Indeed, everything seems to be going fine until a local gangster, Carter (Newton) who witnessed the earlier bar killing, blackmails Saunders to cooperate in a planned heist of the next shipment of drugs he is driving.
I won’t give away the rest of the plot, except to note that the film is a solid film noir. What is interesting about Kiss the Blood Off My Hands from the point of view of this post is the setting. The film contains all the signifiers of post-war life in London: the fog, the dimly lit streets, the pubs, cockney villains such as Carter, the rationing and sense of drabness that hung-over British life for the decade or so after the war. And it was all shot without ever leaving Los Angeles and its environs. The director, Norman Foster, and most of the cast with the exception of Newton where also American.
The film is based on a 1940 book of the same name by little known British crime writer, Gerald Butler. There is not much on record about Butler but his book sold nearly quarter of a million copies upon release, despite war time paper shortages. From memory the book, a copy of which I own and read ages ago without realising it had been filmed, infers Saunders is American, although Butler provides very few details about his character’s life. What I do recall is that Butler’s Saunders is far more brutal and objectifying about the world and people around him. Lancaster portrays him far more sympathetically.
Lancaster and the man who would be the film’s executive producer, Harold Hecht, who would go onto work on a raft of Lancaster movies, including Vera Cruz (1954) and The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), were apparently fans of Butler’s book, although God only knows how they got a copy in the United States. I do know that the novel was released by Dell in 1948 to coincide with the film, under the title The Unafraid.
The only other American film noir I can think of that feels similar to Kiss the Blood off My Hands is Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950), but that was actually filmed in England. Kiss the Blood off My Hands remains, to my knowledge, the only faux British American film noir ever made.