Dir:- Robert Wise
Starr:- Claire Trevor, Lawrence Tierney, Walter Slezak, Elisha Cook Jnr.
During the 1940’s RKO produced a steady stream of overheated noirish thrillers, including bona-fide classics of the genre such as Out of the Past, Crossfire, Notorious and They Live By Night. Born to Kill, which was also known as Lady of Deceit, was Oscar-winning editor-turned-director Robert Wise’s sixth film at the helm for the studio. Already, at this relatively early stage in his career, Wise had established a certain visual signature on his films, that featured highly polished and well-framed long shots, that frequently cut to medium shots of talking heads. This seemed to perfectly mimic the movements in this movie from coolly clinical thriller to overt melodrama. Despite the fact that Wise is most often thought of as a director of musicals nowadays, his early black and white thrillers and horrors are hidden cinematic gems that are well worth hunting down.
In Born to Kill Claire Trevor (shortly before her Oscar-winning turn in Key Largo) plays Helen Brent a down-on-her-luck west-coast socialite, who has just come out of a costly divorce at the start of the film. Whilst boarding at the Reno guesthouse of goggle-eyed drunk Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard, from Champion, having immense amounts of fun) she stumbles upon the aftermath of a double murder involving Mrs. Kraft’s daughter Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell). Showing the kind of ruthlessness that normally indicates a film noir femme fatale, Brent high-tails it out-of-town without calling the police. On the train back to San Francisco she meets Lawrence Tierney’s murderous thug, the aptly named, Sam Wild, and thus begins a curious love-affair that will eventually ensnare an ‘innocent’, and wealthy, foster-sister, a private detective and Wild’s best friend, and partner-in-crime, in a wicked web of murder and deception.
All the pieces for a classic noir potboiler are quickly established within the first twenty minutes of the movie, but what puts Born to Kill very much in a league of its own, is the remorseless cruelty of its central protagonists. Helen Brent is an entirely selfish and wilfully detached ego, the kind of woman who is all too convincing at going through the motions of what society expects from her, whilst all the day making it clearly evident that nothing, and nobody, affects her. Sam Wild, on the other hand, is the kind of sullen, physically imposing and charismatically brutish figure that Frank Norris often wrote about. There is absolutely no restraint in his character and this leads to impulsive acts of violence, like the initial double-murder that sets the story in motion. However, this lack of restraint doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of cunning and cold calculation. Helen and Sam, whilst on the train together, sense a primal energy between them, they are kindred spirits, lost, unfeeling and violent souls. They lust after each other, but they also lust after power and wealth. Where these latter concerns disrupt the possibility of the former, they ruthlessly suppress their carnal instincts, or, in Sam’s case, attempt to act upon them only within the privacy of the family home. Sam’s marriage to Helen’s heiress foster-sister Georgia (Audrey Long), brings him the societal position he has craved, whilst bringing him into Helen’s family home (as she shares accommodation with Georgia).
Sam’s friend Mart Waterman (a water-carrier if ever there was one), is poignantly played by one of my favourite ‘golden era’ character actors, Elisha Cook Jnr. It is Waterman that has the deepest understanding of the depths of Sam’s depravity, yet like an overindulgent parent he fails to challenge his friend whenever he transgresses. Ultimately it is this failure to hold Sam accountable for his action that proves to be Waterman’s undoing. Cook Jnr. made a career out of playing these kind of wheedling, weak-willed wastrels and in Born to Kill he offers superb support to the laconic Tierney.
It is in the colourful supporting characters that the film manages to paper over some of the occasional deficiencies in the dialogue (lines like Waterman’s clunky “Honest Sam, you go nuts about nothing, nothing at all. You gotta watch that. You can’t just go round killing people whenever the notion strikes you, it’s just not feasible”). The script by Richard Macauley and Eve Green is ridiculously uneven, managing to establish moments of chilling sociopathy and psychosis, yet also offering up the kind of redundant, throwaway nonsense just quoted. However, as the film moves toward its duplicitous climax, the writing grows increasingly assured, particularly the exchanges between Helen and Mart, and Helen and Arnett (Walter Slezak in full smarm offensive), the blackmailing Private Detective. Mart is given a verbal eccentricity, which is the overuse of the word ‘feasible’, made ironic by the fact that almost every time he refers to something as ‘not feasible’ it is proven to be quite the contrary. Some of the juiciest dialogue is directed at Helen, with Arnett asking her after their second meeting “Has it occurred to you neither of us looks like a scoundrel”, and Mrs. Kraft describing, Helen to her face, as “The coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, with the rottenest insides.”. Perhaps Wise’s biggest coup as a director is his careful husbandry of such lines, that suggests corruption, morbidity and violence, whilst resisting the urge to explicitly depict such things.
In the end Born to Kill is a surprisingly taut noir drama, that sacrifices thrills for a convincing trawl through the psychology of two egotistical and callous individuals. Furthermore, it fluidly switches between moments of ironically detached melodrama and darkly twisted black comedy, making it a morally ambivalent work at best. It’s fascinating to note how the religiose moralisms fall, with a hollow echo, from the mouth of the self-serving Arnett, like a latter-day, low-budget Greek chorus, not to mention that the most perceptive remarks on character are those made by the beer-swilling old floozie Mrs. Kraft. Within the opening scene of the movie the fated Laury Palmer delivers a line which perfectly encapsulates the overall mood of this miniature masterpiece. Talking to Helen and her mother about her latest boyfriend, she gleefully describes his most positive virtue thus:- “You get the feeling if you stepped out of line he’d kick your teeth down your throat”. Far from being a misogynistic marker of the times, this accurately nails the slither of ice that runs right through the, already cold, heart of the film.