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Born To Kill

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Odeon Entertainment
Film Noir
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Robert Wise
Claire Trevor
Lawrence Tierney
Walter Slezak
Philip Terry
Audrey Long
Bottom Line: 
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A  juicy little quote from a contemporary New York Times review concerning this latest film classic to appear on DVD via Oden Entertainment’s Hollywood Studios Collection, provides the perfect route into understanding from which dark festering corners of the human psyche Robert Wise’s jaundiced 1947 film noir for RKO Radio Pictures, “Born To Kill”, actually springs: after more or less dismissing it for being ‘a smeary tabloid fable’, the 1940s reviewer goes on to totally condemn the film’s subject matter, claiming that it is ‘not only morally disgusting, but an offense to a normal intellect’. It’s easy to look back from our present vantage and laugh knowingly at the sometimes prissy mores and opinions which characterised how drama that seems laughably tame to us now was once viewed in the past, but this cheapie thriller, whilst not exactly considered one of the premier league crop of the 1940s film noir stable, is much loved by aficionados of the shadowy cult crime sub-genre nonetheless -- precisely because you can still watch it today and un-ironically goggle at the sheer unrelentingly cynical diet of nastiness served up by screenwriters Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay’s adaptation of James Gunn’s pulp crime thriller “Deadlier Than the Male”  -- a title which is not to be confused with the camp ‘60s Bond rip-off movie of the same name, by the way!

 In the irredeemably morally sick and benighted world that’s conjured up out of shadows and diffuse lighting by Wise and his cinematographer Robert De Grasse (“The Leopard Man”, “The Body Snatcher”), almost every character with noticeable screen-time (whether minor walk-on or main artiste) is very quickly proved somewhat less than sympathetic and then some; in this film, the world is divided crudely into two camps: those who are bad are strong, dominant, manipulative, go-getting and shrewd; and those more usually termed ‘good’ are invariably re-cast here as simply malleable, intrinsically weak and easily influenced. Film noir is infamous for its pessimistic, reflective, morally ambivalent depiction of the human condition, of course; but few movies in the genre harbour as profoundly misanthropic a view of humanity and what lurks in its darkest internal recesses as “Born to Kill” repeatedly demonstrates -- and few others revel with the same level of melodramatic abandon in the unsubtle excesses of psychopathology, which are dealt with here on terms that bespeak uncommon relish for the psychologically deviant. Even the shabby but likable gumshoe who turns up halfway through proceedings, ostensibly to bring the malefactors to justice, turns out to be perfectly willing to brush the results of his investigation into a brutal double murder under the carpet -- agreeing to forget the whole thing if those protecting the killer prove willing to pay him enough to do so: there’s no-one to truly like here, because people are on the whole just a bad, dangerous bunch of clowns or killers, at least according to the feverish Old Testament rules followed throughout by what turns out to be a magnificently quotable screenplay.

The perverse nexus of corruption and  unwonted desire dominating the film’s thematic content is attended to in an early scene which also sets up the murder of slick, boy-baiting blonde dame Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell): arriving back at a down-at-heel, flea-bitten rooming house in Reno in which she’s been lodging while attending hearings relating to her imminent divorce, Helen Brent (‘queen of noir’ Claire Trevor) is confronted with Palmer and her booze-soaked elderly landlady Mrs Kraft (Esther Howard) excitedly discussing Laury’s latest beau: ‘You get the feeling that if you stepped out of line he’d kick your teeth down your throat,’ purrs the besotted young woman. The fact that these lines are spoken as though the sentiment expressed were the most romantic gesture anyone could ever wish to elicit from a man -- and reacted to with rapture by Mrs Kraft who exclaims ‘oh, I wish I’d had a man like that!’ -- immediately signals the rotten, twisted calculus by which the film operates, in which male violence equals irresistible sex appeal. In front of the two women Laury details her plan to keep this guy on his toes by dating another man she cares nothing for but then flaunting her assignation in front of the violent bruiser she actually prefers. Unfortunately, that guy happens to be ex-boxer and brutal psychopath Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney), who reacts to this attempt to keep him keen by treating him mean by breaking into Laury’s house, waiting for her and the unsuspecting sap to come back home for ‘drinks’, and then brutally bludgeoning them both to death in her kitchen; before that even Laury’s soon-to-be-murdered date signals his un-likability before his dispatch by trying to console Wild with assurances that he can always stop by on another day, and that anyway, 'she ain’t no queen of Sheba!'

Tierney (better known to modern audiences for his casting in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” as crime boss Joe Cabot) was a hard-drinking, trouble-making hard case in real life who forged a career playing noir villains after shooting to fame in the 1945 film “Dillinger”. He wasn’t the most versatile actor in the world but he’s perfectly cast for the role of the appropriately named Sam Wild, who is a psychopath of the most one-dimensional variety, bulldozing a path through the world without conscious or regard for anything or anyone who might get in his way (the closest approximation one can find from the cinema of the last thirty years to his character type is probably Frank Booth in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet”, a film which shares a similarly twisted noir-tinged take on the interrelation of violence and sex). Tierney was something of an impassive screen hulk and some might say the way in which all women swoon at his feet, begging to be treated rough the minute he scowls at them in this film is slightly ridiculous, but that misses the point -- which is that, although lowborn, wooden and cursed with a sullen, brooding persona, Wild’s deranged confidence that he can have anything and anyone he likes whenever he feels like it (‘when I want it I take it and nobody cuts in!’) is the essential quality which makes him so irresistible to ‘dames’ who are otherwise left with boring ‘turnips’ who offer little in the way of an exciting life. When his wily pal Marty (an ex con who is, in his own way, as enamoured with Sam as the man’s female conquests are, and who clears up the frequent messes his friend’s belligerence is apt to leave in his wake) finds out about the bloody murder in Reno he pleads, ‘you can’t just go around killing people whenever you feel like it … it’s just not feasible!’ but Wild’s is genuinely confused: ‘why not?’ he asks.

The other term in this dark equation is of course Claire Trevor’s Helen Hunt, who becomes involved with Wild but for even more complicated reasons than just the mere fact that she’s turned on by his blunt, forceful charisma (although she is). Trevor’s character is possibly the most unusual and conflicted anti-heroine in the noir cannon: we realise pretty early on that she’s not your average gal when she discovers the bodies of Laury and her bludgeoned date late at night after coming back from the casino where she’d earlier witnessed Laury stand Wild up. Instead of phoning the police, she leaves the gore-soaked bodies be (pausing only to lock the victim’s yapping terrier indoors) since she has a train to catch back to San Francisco and can’t be bothered with the inconvenience of hanging around for the resulting inquest!

But who else should also be fleeing the scene of the crime -- taking the same train back to San Francisco -- than the killer himself. The two are immediately attracted to each other and once Wild demonstrates his manliness by threatening his way into one of the reserved train compartments, she’s as smitten by his powerful, domineering mastery of all around him as everyone else. Wild fixes his sights on getting her, and turns up at the plush home she lives in with her sister, believing her to be rich and therefore quite the catch. It turns out, though, that Helen is the poor relation of the family, dependent on her heiresses foster sister Georgia’s (Audrey Long) millions for her keep whilst courting a dull but rich sop called Fred (Phillip Terry) mostly for his money, in order to give herself the independence she so dearly craves. Wild takes up with Georgia instead (it’s a foregone conclusion as far as Wild is concerned, who’s announcing his imminent marriage over the phone to his friend after just one brief meeting with the girl) and he soon has her eating out of his hand. They quickly marry and Wild moves into the family pile along with his best pal and ex con Marty (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and demands to run the family-owned newspaper on which the family fortune has been built, angered and distraught that anyone should dare object to the prospect of an ill-educated ex-boxer with no experience of trade taking over the running of such a major business. Wild’s reasons for wishing to do so have little to do with any interest in the newspaper trade, of course: ‘this would fix it so I could spit in anyone’s eye!’ he confides to Marty with expectant relish.

And Wild still hasn’t forgotten about Helen … and she certainly can’t forget about him now that he lives under the same roof! The crux of the movie’s fraught melodrama derives from the fundamental conflict contained inside Helen’s tortured psyche: while Wild is a full-blown sociopath, ultimately Helen’s curse is that she is only half-way there. It’s Sam’s crazy, deranged determination to have anything he wants and the violent means he goes about getting it which first attracts her to him, because she identifies with exactly such a quality and recognises its controlling influence deep inside herself. Her motivation for marrying the drippy but good-hearted millionaire Fred, turns out to be not just centred on the traditional noir femme fatale motivations such as acquiring wealth through use of her feminine wiles, but is also compelled by the part of her which is still aware of her inherent moral sickness and the homely counter it needs in order to stop it spilling over: ‘without him I’m afraid of the things I might do, afraid of what I might become’ she sobs to Wild when he makes his strongest play for her, despite his own marriage and her supposed up-and-coming one; at the same time she knows all too well what qualities she’s really attracted by and who really possesses them: ‘strength, excitement and depravity … there’s a kind of corruptness inside of you,’ she sighs. The most shocking sequence in the movie, still today, is when Sam finally seduces Helen by reminding her of the crime scene she discovered in Reno, whispering details of the atrocity into her ear while the two share a passionate midnight clinch in the kitchen … ‘the way they were: the kid’s body jammed in the doorway, the Palmer dame under the sink,’ he whispers, reminding her; she excitedly drools over the fact that ‘there was blood in her hair!’ ‘There was blood all over the place!’ responds the killer, at which point the floodgates of passion open.

Up till this moment, the tension and suspense in the narrative has been generated by Helen’s internal conflict over her tentative relationship with Wild -- a conflict that's amplified in Trevor’s scintillating performance (as subtle and yet taut as Tierney’s is direct): since Laury Palmer’s death, the victim’s best friend Mrs Kraft has been employing a low-rent private detective called Albert Arnett (played by “Lifeboat” star Walter Slezak) to find the killer -- and in true Columbo style, the sleazy PI (who’s makeshift office operates from the stained counter of a city corner coffee shop!) sniffs out Wild as his chief suspect in Frisco in no time at all. Helen then alternates between feeding the detective helpful clues and taking huge risks to protect her lover and clear up his mess after him, just as Marty has always done in the past.  Her conflicting actions dramatize the dilemmas and contradictions which underlie  her attitudes to Wild and her awareness of her own corrupt nature, but Wild’s paranoia about betrayal and his overbearing jealousy – the same traits that led to Laury winding up dead – soon re-emerge to draw the events governing both their destinies to an unexpectedly hard-hearted conclusion.  

When he ponders, ‘why are women so fascinated by murder? … much more so than men,’ Helen’s good-natured, but oh-so-dreary suitor Fred, articulates one of the misogynistic canards that’s ubiquitous as a subtext throughout the movie’s representation of the relationship between the sexes – the claim of an association for women between male-perpetuated violence and notions of virility. Helen’s attraction to Sam Wild stems from her recognition of him as a kindred spirit: as a woman, there’s a part of her that wants to be able to act as ruthlessly and as brutally in pursuit of her objectives as he does, so she jealously coverts and protects him while resenting his proximity to her rich but ‘boring’ foster sister. But every other woman he comes into contact with, including Georgia, also seems just as equally drawn to Sam’s brutal animal magnetism: the house maids peeking in at the wedding ceremony from a side-corridor delight in his rough charm: ‘isn’t Wild the cutest thing,’ drawls one; ‘his eyes are so mean – they run up and down you like a searchlight!’ The difference between Helen and all the other women who fall under Sam’s spell during the movie is that while they are content to vicariously romanticise the violence of masculinity and accept (and delight in accepting) their place on the receiving end of it, Helen wants the power that comes with being able to dish it out as well, meaning their relationship is inherently one of conflict as well as lust. The demonstrable fact is that Wild is a hapless lug with anger management issues (to put it lightly) who needs other sympathetic and more intelligent (and less discernibly deranged) co-conspirators like Helen by his side to come along and clear up his mess. Other women just make do with vicarious pleasures, such as the drunkard rooming house owner Mrs Kraft, whose quest to find Laury’s murderer is born of resentment that her own life has now been diminished because ‘hearing her [Laury] tell all about her doings was all the fun I had left in life!’

This was a cheap production for RKO and it shows in the uninventive, head-on ‘proscenium arch’ camera set-ups demanded by its overuse of studio back projection in place of actual external locations; but hot from the editing suite of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and having cut his teeth on some of Val Lewton’s finest horror flicks, whether directing Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi in “The Body Snatcher” or demonstrating a chameleon-like flair for tackling a variety of cinematic styles after having been required to take over from and mimic the work of Gunther von Fritsch on Lewton’s “The Curse of the Cast People”, Wise found himself helming a collection of noir thrillers in the late-‘40s, of which this was the first: a detour on his way to diverse mainstream hits such as the wonderful “The Haunting”, “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story”. Despite its limitations, Wise makes the most out of the film’s potential for capitalising on its more disreputable elements: Helen Brent’s discovery of the bodies in the kitchen of Miss Palmer is rendered all the more disquieting for Wise’s use of noir lighting and shadow to break up our glimpses of the corpses into discrete body parts only, letting our imaginations run riot over the probable hideousness of what’s not being shown (we don’t get to see the photo of the gored bodies that’s splashed all over the front page of the next day's newspaper, either). The killings themselves are stark and grimly brutal, and come with awful thudding sound effects as Lawrence Tierney goes about the workmanlike business of clubbing down his victims with palpable relish for the task. There’s a marvellous, blackly comic sequence late in the move involving the tottering, slightly dotty Mrs Kraft being lured to an isolated stretch of beach in the middle of the night by Wild’s ruthless associate Marty, for what is obviously intended to be her demise; it’s as suspenseful as anything in Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” but twice as brutal -- with an uneasy sense of threat as a backdrop mixed in with Esther Howard’s semi-comical performance playing the unsuspecting potential victim. It’s thanks to compelling performances from supporting actors such as she (Slezak and Elisha Cook, Jr. are equally as wonderful to watch) that “Born to Kill” is able to make something darkly disturbing and rich out of such lowly pulp material. Claire Trevor is by turns, imperious, vicious, helpless and menacing, in the final moments switching between multiple conflicting emotions in seconds with almost alchemical skill. The overheated tone of the movie ends up locating it in an interesting place somewhere between ridiculous melodrama, hard-boiled crime drama and black comedy – a comedy founded on the irrational nature of the drives which govern human desire. The DVD print seen here looks excellent. The disc has no extras, but there’s a colourful reproduction of the theatrical poster included on the inside cover.


Be sure to check out more from Black Gloves at his blog - Nothing But the Night

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