Born to Kill

Dir: Robert Wise, 1947. Starring: Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak. Film Noir.
Born to Kill
Born to Kill is one of the kinkier Noirs out there and it’s slightly ironic considering the director Robert Wise is mostly known for helping to butcher Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons at RKO’s request and directing The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Wise was not an iconoclast like Welles or Robert Aldrich. He was a director most famous for helming big road show musicals and Born to Kill is the polar opposite of such family friendly fare. It’s a fairly sordid tale of obsession, jealousy, and murder. Lawrence Tierney plays the cold blooded killer at the center of things but he’s no match for Claire Trevor as a steely society dame turned on by his brutish exploits. Tierney plays a thoroughly rotten character who kills for kicks but it’s Trevor’s high class vixen who really makes an impression because while she’s just as mean as Tierney’s numbskull thug she’s also got a brain which makes her involvement in his homicidal hi jinks that much more unsettling.

Tierney plays Sam Wild, a suit-clad psychopath who worms his way into the inner circle of a wealthy family, marrying Trevor’s half sister Georgia (Audrey Long) but maintaining a hot n’ heavy flirtation with Helen (Trevor) all the while. Sam shares a filthy apartment with his friend Marty (the personification of low rent sleaze, Elisha Cook Jr.) before moving into the family mansion. When Helen finds out that Sam is a deranged killer with at least two murders to his credit she finds herself protecting him and intimidating people who might be in a position to finger him as a murderer all stemming from the twisted logic of her own infatuation with him.

Claire Trevor was one of the great thinking man’s pin-ups of the golden age of Hollywood. She was glamorous but with an edge and a look that told you she had a lot on her mind. Born to Kill gave her an opportunity to effectively upstage Tierney, who is the ostensible heavy of the picture. While they are both pretty evil, Tierney is simplistic. He’s a barbaric narcissist who takes what he wants.  Trevor’s character Helen is far more complicated. She isn’t a part of the criminal world that Sam and Marty are involved in but she becomes an accessory because of her own fascination and titillation with Sam. She is self aware enough to understand what she is falling into and it’s fascinating to watch her play with fire before getting burned. The film also features excellent support from the aforementioned Elisha Cook Jr. and Esther Howard as an old Reno boarding house booze hound terrorized into submission by Trevor’s cold blooded manipulation.

Though Born to Kill is a top notch Noir it also can be understood as a precursor to the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Both films are about men on the outside of society monotonously acting in the most horrific ways imaginable with the indispensible help of their sicko sidekicks. They are beyond the rationalizations of criminality; they are simply psychopaths. A film revolving around Tierney’s homicidal character would have been at least watchable but it’s the inclusion of Trevor’s character that makes Born to Kill more memorable, more seductive, and more unsettling.
Posted by:
Jed Leland
Aug 19, 2011 5:37pm
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