Monday, June 20, 2016

Born To Kill (1947)

Born To Kill is a 1947 film noir released by RKO and based on James Gunn’s strange, overheated and disturbing 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male.

The movie opens with a murder. The murder is important but it’s not absolutely central to the plot apart from the fact that it tells us something about the murderer. And the murderer is definitely central to the plot. We know the identity of the murderer but that’s just the beginning of the story.

Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) is in Reno getting a divorce. Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) has killed a man and a woman at the rooming house in which Helen is staying. Helen has no connection with the murder although she does discover the bodies. She does not call the police since she witnessed nothing important, has no idea who the murderer is and has no wish to become involved. 

On the train to San Francisco she meets Sam Wild. Unlike the audience she does not know he is a murderer. She does know that he is a very attractive man. He is clearly dangerous, has no respect for social rules and is little more than a well-dressed thug. To Helen that makes him very attractive. 

Sam more or less invites himself to the Brent house in San Francisco. Helen lives with her sister Georgia (Audrey Long). Actually they’re foster sisters. Georgia is fabulously wealthy. Helen is penniless and lives on Georgia’s charity. Once Sam figures out which sister has the money he loses interest in Helen and sets his sights on Georgia. Helen is more than a little conflicted about all of this. She loves Georgia but she resents her wealth. She is attracted to Sam but it’s pure lust - Helen is not dumb enough to consider even for a second marrying a man like Sam, but Georgia lacks Helen’s very extensive experience with men.

The main interest in the plot is in trying to untangle Helen’s incredibly twisted motivations. Sam is psychotic, violent and paranoid and suffers from delusions of grandeur but Helen is possibly even scarier. She has zero moral sense, she’s a practised and plausible liar and her whole life has been based on combining deception with selfishness. This would have made her an unpleasant enough person but the combination of Helen with Sam is clearly going to be exceptionally unfortunate. Helen will discover whole new depths of depravity.

The excellent screenplay by Eve Greene and Richard Macauley follows the novel fairly closely.

Robert Wise made a couple of surprisingly grim and pessimistic noirs, with The Set-Up (1949) being just as dark and perhaps more brooding than Born To Kill. When given the opportunity he really could plumb the depths of human misery although whether he really had a natural flair for this sort of material is debatable. Wise however had the ability to adapt himself to just about any genre.

Val Lewton, running RKO’s B-unit, had given him the chance to direct but Born To Kill was his first real A-picture for the studio. He clearly had absorbed a good deal of Lewton’s approach to film-making. Wise knew he had a good script and a good cast. He doesn’t go overboard with the noirish visuals, although with subject matter as noir as this he really didn’t need to. He does manage to ratchet up the tension very effectively as we wonder just how far Helen will go, and just how far she will allow Sam to go. Wise does a flawless job.

Lawrence Tierney missed out on genuine stardom (largely due to the fact that he had a reputation for being incredibly difficult to work with and somewhat unstable plus his liking for the bottle) but he is an authentic noir icon. He’s superb as the frighteningly intense and clearly insane Sam. Claire Trevor is just as good as a woman who is a mass of complicated and conflicting passions, none of them very admirable. 

With this movie you know you’re watching a real film noir because Elisha Cook Jr is in it. He plays Sam’s friend Marty and it’s quite a meaty role. It’s another little gem of a performance. Walter Slezak is fun as the not-too-honest but surprisingly efficient private detective Arnett. Esther Howard as Mrs Kraft, a friend of the woman murdered in Reno, is outrageously but enjoyably excessive.

Born To Kill is available on DVD in Region 1 and Region 2. The transfer is fine and there’s an audio commentary track featuring Eddie Muller with snippets from an interview with Robert Wise.

With some movies one can enter into a lengthy debate on their claims to film noir status. There is absolutely no need for any of that with Born To Kill. This movie is the real deal. This is hardcore noir. Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney deliver performances that are arguably the best of their respective careers. Highly recommended.


  1. I love this movie. Tierney and Trevor never not the recognition they deserved. Here they're given the chance to plumb the depths if their talents by plumbing the depths of depravity and the result is pyrotechnical. They truly are mad, bad and dangerous to know. Only Gun Crazy does as good a job of showing how destructive a dark passion can be. And of course, Elisha Cook, Jr.

    1. Kylie, Gun Crazy is as favourite of mine as well.

  2. I think Gun Crazy is a perfect movie. Joseph H. Lewis's direction is so sure and confident. I'm less impressed with My Name Is Julia Ross (probably because Nina Foch leaves me cold). But I love So Dark The Night. Certainly not as good as Gun Crazy but it's drenched in atmosphere.

    1. I haven't seen So Dark the Night but it's on my wish list. Cry of the Hunted is another Joseph H. Lewis movie that is worth a look.

  3. Cry of the Hunted is on YouTube! Haven't seen it so I'll watch it today. Thanks for the recommendation.