Director: Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Van Heflin, Marsha Hunt, Lee Bowman, Samuel S. Hinds, Cliff Clark, Eddie Quillan, John Litel, Nella Walker, Catherine Lewis
Screenplay: John C. Higgins and Allen Rivkin
Stories built around the role of forensic science in crime solving, so ubiquitous today, are nothing new. In 1938, as part of their long-running series, “Crime Doesn’t Pay”, MGM produced a short film called They’re Always Caught, about the workings of a crime lab in a big city; and how small pieces of physical evidence could be used to build a case against a criminal. They’re Always Caught was nominated for an Oscar in 1939. Encouraged by this success, three years later MGM expanded the concept of this short film to feature – or at least, B-movie – length, and gave a Viennese immigrant named Fred Zinnemann the chance to direct his first American film. Set in the fictional mid-western city of “Chatsburg” (a thinly veiled Chicago), Kid Glove Killer is a remarkably entertaining little film, full of drama, comedy, action, and interesting character touches, all crammed into a brisk 74 minutes of screentime.
When Kid Glove Killer opens, we find the city of Chatsburg in the grip of organised crime; a situation challenged by the election of crusading duo Mayor Richard Daniels (Samuel S. Hinds) and his District Attorney, Hunter Turnley. Instrumental in the election victory was Gerald Ladimer (Lee Bowman), a legal eagle in the Daniels camp, whose fiery radio broadcasts did much to galvanise the voters.
It comes as a bit of a shock, therefore, when we immediately learn that Ladimer is actually hand in glove with the mob. Shortly after a meeting between Ladimer and crime boss Matty (John Litel), the unfortunate Hunter Turnley is found floating in a lake, his hands and feet bound. Ladimer is promoted into Turnley’s vacated post, and given the job of finding his predecessor’s killer. When the killer is caught, and shot while resisting arrest, everything seems to be going Ladimer’s way – until Mayor Daniels discovers that his seemingly loyal underling has been receiving large sums of money from persons unknown. Faced with ruin and jail, Ladimer plants a homemade bomb beneath the mayor’s car…
As the outraged citizens of Chatsburg rise up, demanding action, the investigation of the assassination is handed to Ladimer – with the vacated office of mayor also on offer, should he succeed in apprehending the killer. Ladimer’s luck is still holding, as an unfortunate schmuck named Eddie Wright (Eddie Quillan) was seen hanging around the mayor’s house the night before the murder. Ladimer sets to work railroading poor Eddie, who seems certain to fry for a crime he didn’t commit – until Gordon McKay (Van Heflin), head of the police crime lab, steps in….
Kid Glove Killer was designed primarily to showcase the cutting edge technology (circa 1942) that was at the disposal of a big city police force; and to this end, the investigations into the murders of Hunter Turnley and Richard Daniels turn up a number of clues which, conveniently enough, each require the application of a different scientific procedure. On one level, this is a frankly didactic little film, with the various city officials eager to have all these modern wonders explained to them, and McKay, nothing loath, delivering a mini-lecture at every opportunity (“We’ll use the SPECTROSCOPE!” “The SPECTROSCOPE? What’s THAT?” “Well—”); the object being, apparently, not just to educate the viewer, but to frighten off any prospective criminals. “Boy! These days, it sure pays to stay straight!” observes the head of the Homicide squad solemnly, after being blinded with science.
In its attempt to cover as much ground as possible, Kid Glove Killer turns Gordon McKay and his assistant, Jane Mitchell (Marsha Hunt), into the kind of scientists usually found only in fantasy films: they are experts in everything. We see them examining crime scenes; analysing bodily fluids; identifying dog hairs, chemicals, and gunpowder; carrying out ballistics tests; and collecting and examining fibres, burnt matches, cut wires, dust particles, fingernail scrapings, and all the other detritus of a murder investigation, with no outside help from anyone.
Not content with this, however, Gordon McKay doesn’t just hand his findings over to senior officers: he also goes out and interrogates his suspects – once identifying a killer after a burst of distinctly Sherlockian “reasoning”, and twice apprehending criminals himself, in each case after a furious bout of fisticuffs. My suspicion is that these scenes were included in order to reassure the audience: McKay might work with his brain and all, but the viewer needn’t fear that he’s some kind of pansy.
Now, all of this becomes more than a little ridiculous at times; but Kid Glove Killer is kept on a steady course thanks to an intelligent and appealing performance from Van Heflin as Gordon McKay, who invests his character with a self-effacing charm and a great deal of sardonic wit. While the film’s depiction of “science” in general may be a bit off-kilter, its depiction of the woes of the professional scientist is not. Gordon McKay is simultaneously the city’s great white hope and its whipping boy, expected to perform miracles at the drop of a hat, yet never receiving any official recognition for his efforts.
One scene has McKay bailed up by the head of Homicide. The public, we learn, is pressuring the police commission, the police commission pressuring the Chief of Police, and the Chief pressuring Captain Lynch (Cliff Clark) – who has, naturally, come to pressure McKay. He, lowliest of the low, has no-one to pressure: the buck stops right there. Repeatedly, McKay is abused for working too slowly. “You’re the bottleneck!” Lynch throws at him. Similarly, Gerald Ladimer also becomes frustrated by McKay’s seeming lack of progress. “The way you’re working we’ll all be old by the time you deliver this killer!” he complains. “We need speed!”
One of the main ambitions of Kid Glove Killer is to defend its protagonists, to show exactly why their work must necessarily be slow and painstaking; and furthermore, to point out how much of the professional success of the public face of the law – policemen, prosecutors, politicians – can be laid at the feet of those anonymous few who piece together the physical evidence on which a case is built.
But the film doesn’t stop there. Along with laurels for its scientists, it wants them (hallelujah!) better paid. This is a constant, if lightly handled, theme, the point usually being made via a joking remark from McKay. For example, after one professional triumph, McKay is rewarded with – a hearty handshake. He responds by turning to Jane and shaking her hand once. “There’s half of what I got,” he comments dryly. And again, impressed with a piece of scientific deduction from her boss, Jane says admiringly, “You’re okay, McKay.” “Just a little underpaid,” he replies with a resigned smile. Its campaign on behalf of the scientific community for better pay and conditions makes Kid Glove Killer a film decidedly ahead of its time.
In contrast, one aspect of Kid Glove Killer that is very thoroughly of its time is its handling of the character of Jane Mitchell. If the film-makers were worried that their hero being a scientist might make him seem insufficiently masculine, they were equally worried that this career choice might make their heroine seem insufficiently feminine. To combat this impression, Jane Mitchell is introduced complaining about how much she hates her job. Similarly, the film concludes with her insisting that forensic chemistry is “no job for a woman”; and she reiterates both sentiments at regular intervals throughout, varying the litany only with expressions of her desire to “get married some day”.
All of this does rather beg the question of why, if she hates it so much, Miss Mitchell chose to study chemistry in the first place; but nevertheless, the underlying inference is clear enough: having failed to “catch” a husband during her undergraduate studies, Miss Mitchell was obliged to go on and do a Masters; and having failed to “catch” a husband during that time as well, was further obliged to find employment. Lucky for Jane that she manages to “catch” a husband over the course of the film, or she might have been forced to spend her life in a fascinating, fulfilling, socially imperative career. Poor dear.
Of course, all of this was common enough in films of the time, a great many of which took a thoroughly patronising attitude to working women, frequently depicting the poor little things as out of their depth and unable to compete, and not fit for anything but staying in the home. To the credit of the writers of Kid Glove Killer, there’s not a whiff of that here. Certainly, they feel obliged to pound it into our skulls that Jane is a REAL WOMAN; but having done so, they then allow her to be very good at her job – smart and skilful and an asset to the police department. And just as icing on the cake—what for a long stretch of the story appears to be a running joke at Jane’s expense, involving a hunt for a certain pair of nail clippers, turns out unexpectedly to be a critical plot point instead.
And in fact, the screenplay of Kid Glove Killer is a pleasure all the way through, featuring some remarkably complex character touches. Particularly interesting is the delineation of Gerald Ladimer: dishonest lawyer, corrupt politician, unhesitating murderer of his mentor; and yet for all that, never unlikeable. As portrayed by Lee Bowman (the poor man’s Zachary Scott), Ladimer comes across as a believably conflicted man. We get a real sense of an essentially decent human being whose greed and ambition have strangled his better impulses. While the film immediately lets us know of Ladimer’s criminal activities, we see the other side of him in his interaction with McKay and Jane – the former of whom he clearly likes and respects, and the latter of whom he swiftly falls in love with. We are left in no doubt of the sincerity of Ladimer’s feelings, and this in spite of the fact that the two scientists are, after all, trying to pin a murder on him – even if they don’t know it.
This central triangle becomes increasingly tangled as the story progresses. The viewer knows that McKay is himself in love with Jane, and that she is with him – or would be, if only he’d give her a little encouragement. Frustrated by McKay’s hangdog attitude, and dazzled by the glamour of the successful and ambitious Ladimer, Jane vacillates between the two men, teetering on the verge of an engagement to Ladimer almost before she realises it.
As with almost everything else in Kid Glove Killer, the romantic plot thread is handled with humour. This grants McKay yet another of his Sherlockian moments, as he greets Jane’s return from lunch with the hope that she “enjoyed her salad with mineral oil” – going on to explain that having been out with a man, she would naturally have been watching the calories. Both annoyed and intrigued, Jane demands to know why he thinks she was with a man? “The way you went out,” replies McKay with a twisted smile, “and the way you came back in.”
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Ladimer is in charge of the murder investigation – with the result that Jane cheerfully reports to him all of the lab’s progress, thus allowing Ladimer to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. The breakthrough, when it comes, is out of the blue. Confronted by the first clear evidence of Ladimer’s guilt, McKay actually hesitates – both, we feel, because of his own feelings of friendship towards the killer, but mostly due an altruistic impulse on Jane’s behalf. He might be about to catch a murderer, but in the process, he might also be destroying the woman he loves.
Kid Glove Killer is a most peculiar film to be produced by MGM. Its whole attitude – its scepticism about the social institutions, its irreverence towards both criminals and the law – is far more like what you might have expected from Warners; and it’s one of the main reasons why modern audiences can still relate to it. The film contains some wonderfully cynical scenes. In one, we hear one of Ladimer’s radio broadcasts, in which he boasts that the criminals preying upon small businesses have been rounded up—only for the camera to pull back and show us the put-upon Eddie Wright handing over his protection money to a local hood. Better still, when a suspect in Hunter Turnley’s murder hears that the police are there to see him, he responds without looking around, “Tell ’em I made payment yesterday!” Another classic moment comes when the aggrieved Captain Lynch begs McKay for help with the case. “All I ask is a few suspects to work over!”
Nor is the film afraid to poke fun at its hero. In an effort to convince Ladimer and the police that they can’t read too much into a certain piece of evidence, McKay demonstrates the similarities between a burnt match belonging to Ladimer, and a burnt match found at the crime scene—unaware, of course, as the horrified Ladimer is, that they probably are the same! Scientifically speaking, the highlight of the film comes when McKay has to collect a vital piece of physical evidence from Ladimer, without the latter realising he’s doing it. To this end, McKay employs the number one weapon in the arsenal of scientist and low-budget special effects man alike: he distracts Ladimer with dry ice. And while there is plenty of intentional humour in the film, viewers today are likely to get a shocked giggle out of the fact that, in the end, the whole story turns upon the revelation that in the forties, American men didn’t wash their hair all that often…
In terms of its cast, Kid Glove Killer boasts one of Ava Gardner’s earliest screen appearances (she plays the car-hop who serves Ladimer and Jane); while the sharp-eyed will also spot a very young Robert Blake. And if none of this grabs you, you can—well, actually, “entertain yourself” isn’t really the right expression. Horrify yourself? Yes, that’s it! You can horrify yourself by counting just how many times in its 74 minutes, one of the characters in this film lights a cigarette—even in the lab! A product of its time, indeed…
Van and Marsha do SCIENCE!!