|Born to Kill (1947)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Dir. Robert Wise
Cast: Claire Trevor, Laurence Tierney, Walter Slezak, Audrey Long, Elisha Cook Jr.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir
Screening Time: Monday, July 31st at 7:00 p.m.
Sam (B-movie bad guy Tierney) has a field day here; he marries one gal but yearns to stray with her sexy sister (Trevor), who finds his constant aura of menace completely irresistible. Cold-blooded, cynical, and totally engrossing.
"Born To Kill" is some kind of minor phenomenon. It is hard to believe it was even made or released in 1947. This picture is so hard-boiled, so unrelentingly downbeat that audiences must have been shocked or frightened by it.
There are so many elements that make this film memorable: the perfect casting of Lawrence Tierney as Sam, the amoral killer is one of the few truly scary villains of the 1940s. Claire Trevor, a gifted, subtle performer, is also perfect as Helen, a woman trapped between wanting what she can never really have and a self-destructive desire for the ruthless criminal Sam. Elisha Cook, Jr is superb as always, playing a strangely solicitous companion to Sam: we never know where his devotion is coming from. And then there is Esther Howard, giving a highly original performance as an aging woman who wades in too deep, trying to avenge her friend’s murder. There is a striking scene between Howard and Claire Trevor, in which the latter attempts to frighten the older woman into giving up her mission. Perhaps best of all is the ending, eminently fitting, yet totally atypical for the era.
The film is shot in the familiar style of the period we now label "Noir", but this time the look is matched by the content. There is something grim, yet compulsively watchable about "Born To Kill". It would not be an overstatement to call it a study in corruption. Helen is drawn to Sam because her own life is so unexciting, but she oversteps her mark and enters a world of pure, cold evil.
It is indeed surprising to realize that this dark, brooding minor masterpiece was directed by Robert Wise, better known for "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music". But Wise, in his early career, had worked with Val Lewton on "The Body Snatchers" and, two years after the film under discussion, would direct "The Set-Up", another Noir sleeper.
Robert Wise does not come to mind as a master director of film noir, but he came through with flying colors (all black) in this gem, starting out in Reno, Nevada, and ending up in San Francisco. Claire Trevor, the dark spider of so much noir, outdoes herself in cold malevolence here (she should have copped the Oscar for this film, not Key Largo). Her evenly matched partner is the frightening Lawrence Tierney (who last showed up as Elaine Benes’ author dad on Seinfeld, not to mention in Prizzi’s Honor and Reservoir Dogs). The supporting cast, for once, earns its keep (though Walter Slezak, as a corrupt detective, is oddly irrelevant to the story). If you’re a fan of these dark post-war films, Born to Kill is central to the canon.
Here is another one of those films I didn’t particularly care for the first time around, but gave it a second chance some years later and was rewarded. Now I love the film and am a Lawrence Tierney fan.
Tierney’s intense character, his hot temper and insane paranoid jealousy are, well, fun to watch once you get to like this actor and his tough-guy roles. Tierney, in this film, would kill over the slightest thing that would suggest to him that he might be getting double crossed. Talk about a guy with mental problems!
Trevor was effective as the immoral woman who cared for money first, and everything else a distant second. As good as she and Tierney play off each other, for me, the most entertaining parts of the film were watching three of the supporting characters, played by Elisha Cook Jr., Walter Slezak and Esther Howard.
Cook played his normal film noir jittery-worried gangster accomplice and victim. He made a living playing these type of roles. Slezak was the Shakespeare/ Bible–quoting detective and Howard was a real hoot as an old lady trying to track down the killer of her young friend.
This is film noir in all its moodiness and hard attitude. If you find it a bit slow, please give it a second chance. These characters grow on you!
I was delighted when I saw that Quentin Tarantino had given a starring role in his debut film, Reservoir Dogs, to Lawrence Tierney. I had read somewhere a year or two prior to its release that he had been finding it hard to get roles; that invariably he was involved in barroom brawls and , well, that he was difficult. Of course, the role didn’t require any great acting ability and it couldn’t be said that the big lug had grown old gracefully, but I got the impression that it was in recognition of his services to cult filmdom that he was being rewarded by the new kid on the block.
I first saw Born To Kill in the late 80’s on one of those TV channels dedicated to old black and white movies and I was immediately wowed. It was my first sight of Lawrence Tierney and both in his presence and the enthusiasm he brought to his role he certainly made a huge impression. You could never accuse him of being a great actor but he had the perfect bad guy presence: he had the physique and tough look about him that neither Bogart nor the diminutive Raft could touch and, while his features were certainly handsome enough for Hollywood, his smile was too disarming to make him a romantic lead (it reminded me nothing so much as a shark at feeding time). And this role was perfect for him: ruthless, amoral, his character, Sam Wild, was like a steamroller who mowed down anybody, girlfriends, men friends, wives, that stood in his way or upset him. It may well have been the closest to the big leagues that he got and, for me, its the best thing he’s ever done (and, under Wise’s economic direction, the film could certainly compare favourably with Reservoir Dogs).
The film sits well with all those minor noir classics the late 40’s and early 50’s with apparent ease: Wise’s own The Set-Up; Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal and the T-Men, Kiss Of Death, and Ray’s masterly debut, They Live By Night.
It’s not specified just who the title refers to but it could apply equally and aptly to both Tierney’s and his peerless co-star’s Claire Trevor (for me the Queen of the noir femme fatales)characters.(In the UK it is titled Lady OF Deceit but in my opinion it does Tierney a disservice by apparently ignoring his contribution to the mayhem).
The story is basically a simple one: Tierney is an ex-boxer who is prone to violent fits of jealousy which erupts with fatal consequences when he spots a girl friend out with another man. Claire Trevor’s character discovers the bodies but finds herself attracted to the excitement and danger which she sees Tierney providing for her while recognising his flaws.
He uses Trevor to marry into family money while at the same time needing the thrill of an adulterous affair with her. Of course, that could never work!.
Perversely, I found myself cheering for Tierney and Trevor and hoping that they would find true love (maybe it’s because the other loves are such drips), but that could never be in noir. In addition to the stars, it boasts wonderful performances by notorious scene-stealers, Elisha Cook Jr., and Walter Slezak, while Esther Howard is a delight as a boarding house owner who realises that a beach is not always the safest place at night.
Although Robert Wise acquitted himself well in his later big budget films, its in films such as this, the aforementioned Set-Up, and his Val Lewton horror classics that he showed himself to be an economic, effective and underrated director. Not in the Howard Hawks league for versatlity,for sure, but he always told a good story well which more highly-touted directors often found beyond them. While not quite major league noir, its one I turn to regularly and it never disappoints