Robert Miklitsch is a professor in the department of English language and literature at Ohio University. He recently answered some questions about the the Edgar Award-nominated book Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, of which he is the editor.
Q: Where does the title “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands” come from?
Robert Miklitsch: The title of Kiss the Blood Off My Hands derives from a 1948 film noir that was adapted from a novel by Gerald Butler and directed by Norman Foster, who co-directed the early noir Journey into Fear (1943) with Orson Welles before helming another noir Woman on the Run (1950). Kiss the Blood off My Hands (1948) possesses all the hallmarks of a classic film noir: doomed lovers, murderous violence, and fog-shrouded streets. Starring noir icon Burt Lancaster as ex-WWII serviceman Bill Saunders and Joan Fontaine as sensitive nurse Jane Wharton, Foster’s film features Russell Metty’s dusky, atmospheric evocation of postwar, bomb-ruined London. While the film marries Lancaster’s brashness and vulnerability with Fontaine’s passionate reserve, the heart of the film is, for me, a sunny day at the zoo, nimbly scored by Miklós Rózsa, which abruptly darkens when the animals, storming their cages at feeding time, startle Saunders, awakening his traumatic memories of his time in a Nazi, prisoner-of-war camp.
Although Kiss the Blood off My Hands is a fascinating film, I chose the title not so much because of its relevance to the collection of essays I edited but because film noirs frequently have wonderfully lurid titles that, not so incidentally, have very little to do with the action of the films themselves. (So, no, Bill Saunders never actually asks Jane Wharton to kiss the blood off his hands.) In fact, in the spirit of the original film, I only refer to the 1948 picture in passing in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands and therefore my use of it is more promotional than not—a “hook,” if you will, for prospective readers.
Of course, in this sense, it’s not unlike a lot of the promotional material for films noirs, which also often have very little to do, as with the titles, with a picture’s content. However, one of the retrospective ironies of this unabashed commercialism is that many of the original posters are now considered works of art in their own right. For an illustrative example, see Eddie Muller’s The Art of Film Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the Classic Era of Film Noir (2014).
Q: Does Film Noir belong to a specific period of film making?
Miklitsch: The question of whether film noir belongs to a specific period remains tangled up in many ways with the question of genre: to wit, is film noir a classical Hollywood genre, like the Western or musical, or does it refer to a particular historical period?
In 1972, in the seminal essay “Notes on Film Noir,” Paul Schrader asserted that “film noir is not a genre” but a “specific period of film history, like German Expressionism or the French New Wave.” Some twenty years later, in 1993, in “Film Noir on the Edge of Doom,” Marc Vernet countered that film noir is neither a genre nor a period: “film noir does not belong to the history of cinema.” For Vernet, film noir is an imaginary, “eminently lost object” and belongs instead to the “history of criticism.”
I have engaged the issue of genre and film noir in the introduction to Siren City: Sound and Source Music in Classic American Noir (2011), but by way of an abbreviated answer, I would submit that film noir is a genre in the sense that viewers, reviewers, and filmmakers have “used” it as one since the mid-1950s. For example, writing about Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in On Film-Making, Alexander Mackendrick, renowned for his Ealing comedies such as Whiskey Galore (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955), confessed that he “always hankered to make a melodrama, or film noir as it has been called.” In Great Britain and the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s, what we think of as film noir might have been described as a “melodrama” or “meller.” The point is, Mackendrick understood that there was a genre that was once referred to as “melodrama” but that was now called “film noir.”
As for the question of periodization, in the concluding chapter of Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, “Periodizing Classic Noir: From Stranger on the Third Floor to the ‘Thrillers of Tomorrow,’” I bracket the issue of genre in order to examine how film noir has been historicized. Although the current consensus is that classic or “historical” noir ranges from Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) to Robert Wise’s Odds against Tomorrow (1959), I argue that this demarcation of American film noir, like all efforts at periodization, is a “necessary fiction” always already open to revision.
For example, to address what I refer to as the “omega” of classic noir in “Periodizing Film Noir,” I’ve been musing a lot lately about the end or “fall” of classic American noir and the beginning of neo- or post-classic noir. A key film for me is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Psycho is not “normally” categorized as either a classic noir or a neo-noir, but it can certainly be considered one. (I’m thinking here of the “detective” elements of the latter half of the film associated with the character of Lila Crane [Vera Miles].) Precisely because Psycho can be seen as a film noir and “horror,” proto-“slasher” film, though, it provides a unique opportunity for thinking about what Jacques Derrida calls the “law of the genre.” In other words, if we are all in some sense “abnormal” like Norma/Norman Bates (at the end of Robert Bloch’s novel, Lila says, “We’re all not quite as sane we pretend to be”), the abjected elements of genres may be as constitutive as their more normative, homogeneous components. In fine, the more I think about genres, the more I think they’re like Marx’s definition of the commodity in Capital: queer things.
Q: What are some of the elements of classic film noir that are overlooked?
Miklitsch: Since I offer a checklist of some of the basic elements of classic film noir—a “baker’s dozen”—in the introduction to Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, this is an especially provocative question for me: Have I left some “essential” element off the “table?”
For a lot of viewers, the element that is most often overlooked is, I imagine, the sound track—not the “soundtrack” (as in the music that accompanies the film) but all the various “sounds” that make up the audio track: score, dialogue, diegetic music, ambient sound effects, silence, etc. (Diegesis refers to the fictional world of the film, so diegetic music is music that occurs within the fictional world of the film, as opposed to the score, which is non-diegetic.)
In addition to the “soundscape” of film noir (which I discuss in detail and at length in Siren City), other elements that viewers might overlook are specific production codes such as “costuming” and “hair and makeup.” A number of people, including myself, have written about, say, Rita Hayworth’s gown in the striptease scene in Gilda (1947) or her auburn-colored mane in the same film as opposed to her “butch,” platinum-blonde cut in The Lady from Shanghai (1948). However, despite the obvious significance of the “look” for classic noir (cue fedora and trench-coat) and women’s glamour for classical Hollywood cinema, the sartorial and cosmetological aspects of the genre have received surprisingly little attention from either viewers or critics.
Q: How were women represented in these films beyond the “femme fatale” role?
Miklitsch: On one hand, there are arguably very few hard-core femme fatales in classic noir—but see, for example, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944) or Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past (1947)—so the emphasis on the femme fatale on the part of both fans and critics has come, it’s clear, at the expense of a more complex examination of the figuration of femininity in the genre. On the other hand, the femme fatale remains crucial, I believe, to any appreciation of classic noir. (In addition to making some sharp observations about the iconography of the femme fatale, Janey Place persuasively argues in an essay in another seminal text, Women in Film Noir , that the “fatal” aspect of the femme fatale can be read as a displaced index of women’s increasing sexual and economic autonomy at the time.)
This said, all sorts of women are represented in classic noir. One good example is Fritz Lang’s Blue Gardenia (1953), which features a female protagonist, Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), a telephone operator who not only interacts with her two fellow, female telephone operators and roommates, Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern) and Sally Ellis (Jeff Donnell), but is the “wrong woman” to the film’s “femme fatale,” Rose (Ruth Storey), who kills off playboy Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) after he impregnates, then refuses to marry her.
The Blue Gardenia is noteworthy in the context of “women in film noir” in that the source material for the film, “The Gardenia,” was penned by Vera Caspary, who, among other things, wrote the novel Laura (1943/1943) and co-scripted A Letter to Three Wives (1949) with Joseph L. Mankiewicz. I also can’t resist adding that, as Janet Bergstrom notes in her essay on The Blue Gardenia in Shades of Noir (1993), “all four female leads” in the film have “blonde hair.” Bergstrom does not pursue this lead except to say that the women “represent a standardized image of wholesome, domestic femininity.” However, I suspect that the color of the women’s hair is symptomatic—that, in the United States in the 1950s, women were subjected to a fetishistic, socio-cultural gaze that rack-focused on the way they looked. (See, in this context, the devolution of “the blonde” in Alfred Hitchcock’s 50s and early 60s films.) Is it any surprise, then, that for the men in The Blue Gardenia, the women might as well be identical, reduced they are to being telephone numbers in a black book?
Q: Is Film Noir often a product of constraints? A lack of color, a lack of budget and other factors that forced the film makers to make the best of their limitations?
Miklitsch: Film noir is famously a function of constraints, whether it’s censorship, “B” budgets, or the sort of shortages associated with World War II. A classic, not to say the classic, example is Detour (1945), which Edgar G. Ulmer made at the “Poverty Row” PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) on an impoverished budget ($117,000) and radically abridged shooting schedule (six days, at least according to the director himself, with some 80-plus setups a day!). Despite these “draconian constraints” (in The Rough Guide to Film Noir  Alexander Ballinger and Danny Graydon observe that Ulmer was rationed to 15,000 feet of film and the locations limited to a fifteen-mile radius from the studio’s headquarters), Detour has become part of the canon of classic American noir and, for many critics, a quintessential noir.
Another classic example of the “virtue of necessity” is The Big Combo (1955), which was made at Allied Artists, formerly “Poverty Row” studio Monogram. Unlike Detour, The Big Combo was an “intermediate” or “A/B” production, but since the bulk of the budget was spent on the “A” cast (Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, and Brian Donlevy), there wasn’t a whole lot left for the sets and locations. Thus, despite the titular stress in the film on the bigness of Brown’s “combo,” the “all-powerful syndicate is depicted”—as Chris Hugo has persuasively shown in an essay on the film’s production conditions in The Book of Film Noir (1993)—“entirely through suggestion.” The Bolemac Corporation is represented, for instance, by a “sole plaque in an elevator” that hints at the “combination’s vast assets,” which, crucially, “we never see.”
The Big Combo does not—to understate the matter—possess lavish production values. However, what it does have in abundance is creativity in the form of John Alton, who is generally regarded as the most inspired cinematographer of “mystery lighting” in the history of classic noir, and David Raksin, who composed the brassy, jazz-colored score. Moreover, as I explore in my reading of The Big Combo in the book I’m currently completing, The Red and the Black: Classic American Film Noir in the 1950s, the director Joseph H. Lewis cannily exploited the “sex and violence” angle to appeal to younger viewers, who were becoming an important market in the latter half of the 1950s.
The production constraint at play here is the Production Code Administration. Because Lewis could not be as explicit as he wanted to be, he was forced to be creative. And creative he was. A number of scenes in The Big Combo are as memorable, and memorably suggestive, as any in the canon. To cite two: see/hear the wildly inventive scene where the diegetic sound suddenly cuts out when the “button men,” Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), assassinate demoted mobster Joe McClure (Donlevy) and the now notorious scene where the head of “kingpin” Mr. Brown (Conte) disappears from the frame as he goes down on former “society” girl” Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace). I’ll leave the last word to Lewis:
By suggestion it was all there. I was called before the [Production Code] Committee. And they accused me of shooting a perverted scene, of having a filthy mind. And I said, “Gentlemen, I don’t understand what you’re talking
And this one guy, this hot-shot, jumped up and said, “You know the scene where Dick Conte starts to kiss her, and he goes down on her.”
And I turned on him and accused him, “How dare you say a thing like that. You’re the one that has a filthy mind . . . . We just shot a close-up of a girl.”
“Well, where did Dick Conte go?”
“How the hell do I know.”