Kid Glove Killer had a fresh hook at the time of its 1942 release: the use of forensic science in criminal investigations.
Kid Glove KillerDirector: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Van Heflin, Marsha Hunt
Distributor: Warner Archive
US DVD release date: 2015-04-28
Now available on demand from Warner Archive is Kid Glove Killer, a well-made B-picture in the crime genre that had a good fresh hook for 1942. The trailer, included as a bonus, trumpets "something new" out of the mass of common mysteries. That new thing was what we call forensics, the scientific investigation of evidence while the police around him are standard conclusion-jumping hard-boiled flatfoots ready to sweat a confession out of innocent mugs.
The hero is advertised on the poster and the trailer as "Police Chemist Gordon McKay" (Van Heflin), as if introducing a new series character, though this is the only adventure that materialized. He comes across like a flip, semi-cantankerous Sherlock Holmes with microscopes and cameras and projectors, who's ready to make like Mr. Wizard in explaining his procedural gizmos. He's supposedly human by the way he baits his almost equally jaded assistant Jane Mitchell (Marsha Hunt), who embodies America's wartime schizophrenia about women in the workplace. She must be smart and competent (and pretty), but she must also aver that she "hates chemistry",and that it's "no job for a woman" who's only marking time to fulfill her destiny with a husband.
There's nothing fresh there, unfortunately, and it's no surprise that the script is delivered by a couple of men, Allen Rivkin and John C. Higgins. What they do offer is an interesting romantic and murderous triangle in which Mitchell (as Gordon calls her) is wooed by Gordon's friend Jerry (Lee Bowman), the new D.A. after the new crusading D.A. has been bumped off -- at Jerry's instigation, since he's in cahoots with a criminal bigwig. Said bigwig is the only one wearing kid gloves, and it's not an important detail.
So the audience has crucial information that the heroes don't, and we watch with apprehension as the villain is kept apprised of the entire investigation. We even know in advance that Jerry has planted a bomb under the car of the mayor (Samuel S. Hinds) and view the culmination in the kind of horror that does seem advanced for its time. When I saw the same ploy in one of Bill Elliott's crime pictures, the 1956 Calling Homicide (also available from Warner Archive), I wondered if there were earlier examples of this now-routine device. Kid Glove Killer certainly counts, and it's more graphic explosion-wise.
This movie believes, as did crusading films of the '30s, that corruption can be cleaned up by iron-willed patriarchs and two-fisted men of good will, but at first things look bleak. The "inside man" triangle is a good ploy that somehow doesn't make Gordon look like a fool while keeping up the suspense.
Everything doesn't work as well. The two fistfights, proving that Gordon is a real man instead of just an intellectual as Mitchell looks on, are contrived and badly staged (though the use of a dart is well-handled), and Gordon's super-duper idea of hair samples implies that nobody took showers several days after the crime. Maybe they conserve water for the war effort; the film's final exhortation is to buy bonds every payday.
This print looks excellent, doing justice to the gloss that MGM applied even to their B's. The supporting cast includes Cliff Clark, Eddie Quillan, John Litel, Cathy Lewis, Nella Walker, and Paul Fix, with an uncredited Ava Gardner as the carhop. This may have been the end of a promising screen career for Gordon McKay -- not to mention Mitchell, who caves in to the expected marriage proposal -- but it was just the beginning for director Fred Zinnemann. He and producer Jack Chertok turned out another above-average B-mystery the same year, Eyes in the Night, and he moved on to a distinguished career in high-minded films that won Academy Awards. In fact, he'd already directed one Oscar-winning short and made another nominated one before moving into features, so these B-items were only a milk stop.