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Kid Glove Killer (DVD Review)

25 May, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Van Heflin, Marsha Hunt, Lee Bowman.

Fred Zinnemann’s modest 1942 debut feature turned out notably well on a ‘B’ budget, and it couldn’t have hurt the reception that the picture’s lead actor had just won an Oscar about a month before its director’s big break went into release. This is the dominant reason Zinnemann’s crafty quickie rewards a look today — as it did, just for the record, on my first viewing in 1959 at age 11 or 12 when its then still offbeat story hook also captured my imagination. Which is to say that anyone who caught Kid Glove Killer (good title) on the bottom half of a double-bill early on would likely have regarded its subject matter as the chief selling point; if there’s an earlier movie in which crime lab microscoping so motivates the plot, the title isn’t hitting me between the eyes.

Set in what looks to be a city of some size, Killer opens with a newly elected mayor (Samuel S. Hinds, which means he looks about 20 years too old for the job), promising to clean up rampant corruption. This is practically an advertisement in neon, narratively speaking, that he will soon be dead meat — and the movie breaks with whodunit convention in almost immediately letting us (though, of course, not the other characters) know that a pro-mayor radio crusader posing as a fellow crime buster is the mob suck-up actually responsible for his honor’s messy death by explosion. Thus, this isn’t exactly spoiler material — and besides, he’s a) played by Lee Bowman, an actor I always found shifty and bereft of warmth even as a kid; and b) he sports a mustache, which in ’40s movies often tipped us up that a character was no good unless Clark Gable was playing him. This said, I will always be grateful to Bowman for having starred in the TV-syndicated “Miami Undercover” from 1961, simply because the concept of casting him as a hotel sleuth opposite Rocky Graziano (as in, “let’s get The Rock some work”) always struck me as an ticklishly twisted concept.

Anyway. Van Heflin plays the lab hound charged with solving the crime — curly-haired, thinner than we’d subsequently see him and a recent winner of the supporting Oscar for Johnny Eager, a huge childhood favorite of mine that had finally ended what was left of Hollywood’s gangster cycle from the previous decade. In that one, Heflin played an alcoholic — but here he’s more or less addicted to the crime lab outside of occasional nightclub hopping with his extremely capable  assistant (Marsha Hunt). This is the same Marsha Hunt who’s still around today and receiving kudos for having outlived those who blacklisted her during the Red Scare, which put the career hex on a lot of individuals who mostly advocated social changes that were probably already taken for granted by the time when Ted Cruz was spitting up on his crib bumpers. She’s very appealing here and plays well with Heflin, though his character gets off so much on eyeballing stray overcoat hairs through a lens that she takes up with Bowman. Bad idea.

For a movie about science, Killer doesn’t shortcut us on just-another-day-at-the-office fisticuffs, with action taking over enough times so that even two good leads don’t have to shoulder the entire burden. Oddly, there’s one aside in which Heflin bemoans the fact that his status as a lab jockey is stifling any chances for real glory — though this is after he’s helped precipitate an office shootout with a mob type, a skirmish that you’d think would get him enough publicity to dine out on for a while if the press is doing its job in a city this size. And speaking of population, Heflin actually sends Hunt out to track down — or at least doesn’t dissuade her from trying to do so — sales information for every pair of nail clippers in town once they become a key murder clue. This takes me back to when Jack Webb made his Marines bury a single sand flea in a grave both deep and wide in The D.I.

Zinnemann started out in MGM’s shorts department before graduating to this feature. And he labored at that studio-slash-benign-dictatorship for several years before his High Noon-From Here to Eternity-The Nun’s Story-and-more glory years at other organizations — though, yes, The Seventh Cross, The Search and even Act of Violence (Heflin again) were hardly slouch stuff in terms of his apprenticeship with Leo the Lion. In the coffee table book he did on his career, Zinnemann tells a memorable anecdote about Killers’ first public pre-release screening when Louis B. Mayer and other brass suddenly bolted the theater at a point when all seemed to be going well. It’s the kind of episode where you see your career passing by your eyes, but the later explanation for the exodus was Carole Lombard’s in a plane crash during America’s second month of World War II. When the picture came out in April, it surpassed expectations, and he’d never make another movie about nail clippers again.

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