Van Heflin's first starring role and the feature debut of director Fred Zinnemann, MGM's Kid Glove Killer
is not a lost classic of crime cinema, but it is a fun little procedural of a B-picture with some sharp dialogue and more forensic detail than I've seen in this era until John Sturges' Mystery Street
(1950); its technical tickyboxes include ballistic fingerprinting, fiber analysis, spectrography, endlessly labeled slides, and the first-rate chemistry in-joke of mocking up a reaction with dry ice so that the flask looks like it's got something really fancy going on inside it. The film's heroes are a pair of underpaid scientists working for the crime lab of the Chicago-ish city of Chatsburg, which has lately suffered the shocking double loss of both its crusading DA and its sincerely incorruptible mayor, neither of natural causes unless ropes, ponds, and car bombs can be filed under acts of God; despite the necessarily painstaking nature of their work, Heflin's Gordon McKay and Marsha Hunt's Jane Mitchell find themselves expected to deliver miracles on command, conjuring a killer's name out of the stray threads and burnt matches and dog hairs that might as well be so many oracle bones as far as the impatient police, press, and public are concerned. No one outright suggests railroading the small business owner seen loitering around the mayor's house the night before the explosion—furious that the new DA's vaunted crackdown on crime didn't extend to the hoods shaking him and his wife down for protection—but there's a lot of official pressure to connect the dots to Eddie Quillan's hot-headed innocent. In the meantime a sort of love triangle is progressing between the two scientists and one ambitious lawyer, although the viewer can't invest too much in the romantic suspense since our privileged information includes the identity of the murderer. I confess I'm not sure where the kid gloves came into it.
It is rare for me not to like Heflin in a film, even when he's playing kind of a dick, and he makes an engaging proto-nerd here, a slouchy, grouchy smart-ass in a lab coat who has managed to figure out that he's in love with his educated, attractive coworker but not yet that flirting by insult only works for Oscar Levant
. (His eventual apology is legitimately adorable.) Hunt as Mitchell is nicely, unequivocally competent and has little time for her colleague's negging even as it's clear from space that she'd reciprocate his interest if he were only a little less schoolyard about it, but her character feels like a conservative compromise when she insists repeatedly—despite sufficient aptitude for chemistry that she has a master's degree in it—that forensics is "no career for a woman." I do appreciate that heteronormativity is defused at least once by McKay conceding wryly that it's "not much of a career for a man, either. No prestige, no glamour, no money. People holler at you when there are no miracles." I suppose it is also sociologically interesting that the script's anxiety about science and gender runs both ways—unless it's to prove that spending nine-tenths of your life behind a microscope doesn't make you less of a man, I have no idea why McKay is apparently incapable of confronting a suspect without a fight scene. He is otherwise not very macho, which I am fine with. He can't throw a dart straight to save his life. If the human heart were located in the right elbow, though, that firing-range target would have totally had it.
The extremely spoilery original trailer
suggests that Kid Glove Killer
was intended as the start of a series and I'm almost surprised it didn't happen—if Thin Man
stand-ins Joel and Garda Sloane could get a trilogy
, I don't see why we couldn't have enjoyed more McKay and Mitchell. As it is, the one film is all we've got. It runs 72 minutes and they are worth it all for the scene in which Heflin performs a precise, self-annotated mime of catching, cleaning, preparing, and then jettisoning a trout, all with the serious concentration of the slightly sloshed. He handles plain air so confidently, you can see the glint of the butter knife he's cleaning on the tablecloth and want to hand him one of those modern-day rubber grips for the ketchup bottle with the sticky cap. I have no idea if it was part of the original script or improvised on set or what on earth, but now I want to know where I can find more Van Heflin doing mime. He and Zinnemann would later reteam to superb and less comic effect in Act of Violence
(1948). I appear to have seen Hunt as the Broadway-bent eldest of Frank Borzage's Seven Sweethearts
(1942), but I don't hold it against her. Ava Gardner cameos as a cute married carhop. I hope to God mineral oil salad dressing is as much a thing of the past as the constant chain-smoking in chemically sensitive laboratory conditions. [edit: WHAT THE HELL IT'S NOT
.] This investigation brought to you by my scientific backers at Patreon