Tuesday, February 9, 2010

#71: Born to Kill (Robert Wise, 1947)

Released: May 3, 1947

Director: Robert Wise; Screenplay: Eve Greene and Richard Macauley based on a story by James Gunn; Cinematography: Robert De Grasse; Music: Paul Sawtell; Producer: Herman Schlom; Studio: RKO

Claire Trevor (Helen Brent), Lawrence Tierney (Sam Wilde), Walter Slezak (Albert Arnett), Phillip Terry (Fred Glover), Audrey Long (Georgia Staples), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Marty Waterman), Isabel Jewell (Laury Palmer), Esther Howard (Mrs. Kraft), Kathryn Card (Grace), Tony Barrett (Danny), Grandon Rhodes (Inspector Wilson)

- "As you grow older, you'll discover that life is very much like coffee... the aroma is always better than the actuality."

In true film noir fashion, Born to Kill is as convoluted as can be, with constant plotting and counter-plotting throughout. The story opens with recently-divorced Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) discovering the dead body of her neighbor Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell) and Laury’s boyfriend in the apartment next door. Rather than become entangled in the situation, Helen keeps quiet and leaves town. It turns out that the killer is another boyfriend of Laury’s, the crazed Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), who becomes worked into murderous rages when made jealous by his love interest. As Helen is on her way back to hometown San Francisco, she meets Sam on the train and becomes attracted to his darkness and underlying fury. With Helen already engaged to a wealthy San Francisco businessman, Sam manages to worm his way into the good graces of the entire family and eventually marries Helen’s sister Georgia (Audrey Long). But the attraction between Helen and Sam never dies and as their affair grows more intense, Sam continues drop bodies in jealous rages. When a private investigator arrives to investigate the original double murder that Helen discovered in Reno, she begins plotting on how to steal Sam away from her sister and manage to keep both of them out of any trouble.

Ranking Robert Wise’s first full-fledged film noir release was hard for me to do. It’s a movie that has individual elements that are very impressive. Lawrence Tierney as the brooding, menacing killer is as sinister a villain as would have been allowed in Hollywood at the time. Claire Trevor is ice-cold in her role as the ambitious woman who cannot overcome her passions and desires. Noir everyman Elisha Cook, Jr. turns in an inscrutable role as the longtime companion of the homicidal Wilde. And in control of it all is Robert Wise, who had worked his way up from editor for Orson Welles to the B-horror films of Val Lewton. All of these components come together to produce an interesting, and at times intense, thriller. But for whatever reason, it does happen to fall short of the sum its parts.

That’s not a huge knock, as it is still strong enough for me to rank it at #71 in the countdown. The story is compelling and edgy enough to keep you engaged. In terms of its “noirishness,” it ranks very high, as at times the repugnance of the characters is jarring. Like I said, though, breaking each element down individually would make someone think that it would come off even better than it does. And I think that the main reason for why it falls a bit short of its potential is that it contains a bit too much polish for its own good. Born to Kill is said to have been granted a sizable budget by RKO standards, which in this case I think was unnecessary. The story never feels as sleazy as it is intended to be. I suppose what I am saying is that it might have been better served to adopt a much more overt “Scarlet Street-like” seedy atmosphere. As sinister as Tierney manages to be as Sam, the darkness never quite reaches the level of classics of the style.

But why focus only on the negative? After all, I’m still placing this one ahead of some outstanding movies. The two leads work well together, and Tierney’s performance is one that will always be remembered for its intensity. The brutality seen in Sam Wilde is hard to match, particularly when taking into account that the film was made in 1947. Even if someone finds the story a little too pat, with a bit too many improbable events coalescing, then there is certainly enough to be found in the direction of Robert Wise. His proficiency and ease with the camera is marvelous, underlining the years put in working with a master technician like Orson Welles. The sequence at the beginning of the film, with the murders and then Helen discovering the two corpses next door displays how adept Wise could be at telling a story through pictures. And there are also more subtle camera and editing movements – such as one in particular, where the camera watches Tierney lying on the bed smoking a cigarette and talking on the telephone – where Wise is able to reinforce the simmering fury of the character by descending the camera in toward his face. It might not be earth-shatteringly inventive, but it’s incredibly effective.


  1. I'll tell you what I first caught this movie about 10 years ago & it knocked me out. Still consider it to be a very fine noir. I would rank it higher than you did. It is true to a certain extent it is maybe less than the sum of it's parts but such scenes it does contain are very memorable. Like Cook telling Tierany he can't just go around killing whenever he feels like it & Tierany snaps back "why can't I" You could compare it to Tarentino's movies in a way I think. And yes I am sure he has seen it.

  2. Like Moremiles I would rank this higher as well. I agree with your assessment that the movie would be better with a little less polish. It could also use some more shadow and low key lighting. Overall though I consider this an excellent film and my favorite Wise noir. Tierney and Trevor's characters are so repugnant that they seem way ahead of their time. Even for film noirs of the classic 41-58 era they seem to take narcissism to an enjoyable extreme. The scene on the sand dunes where Cook meets his demise is my favorite. This movie contains almost every element that can be described as noir. Regardless of how narrow or wide your definition of the genre is this film could never be categorized as anything but noir.....M.Roca

  3. moremiles and M.Roca - I can see your thoughts on this one because I struggled on where to rank it. When this one is good, it's really good, but at other times it feels rather ho-hum to me. So, I could have easily moved this one up about 10-12 spots and been fine with it, but I feel OK about its placement here too. It's definitely a very good Robert Wise film, although I don't think it's his best.

  4. Unrelenting is the only word I can come with for this film. As you say, it is hard to believe this was made in 1947. Reel and Real life tough guy Lawrence Tierney is frighteningly hard ass. His character is approximately named Sam WILD. Trevor is “ice cold.” Elisha Cook Jr., a staple in so many fine noirs, that he probably entitled to have his own list of favorite Elisha noirs. The film does have its problems but still a decent work.

  5. Dave, I've missed this one so far but Wise's track record in noir and your recommendation will make me seek it out.

  6. Loved it. Claire Trevor is one of my faves. And Mr. Tierney is SOOOOO intense, duh!

  7. Tierney, Trevor and Cook are truly magnificent as others have said here in part or in total, and it's Wise's trademark noit, plot convolutions or not. I think you nailed it when you asserted that the film wasn't anything inventive or revelatory, even in genre terms, but it's an exceedingly deft display of craftsmanship macros the board. I would say you have it at just about the right juncture in the countdown, even if for me a few of the lower ones would be higher. But hey, we won't have the same placements, and I recognize your expertise in this field.

    Excellent review!

  8. Thanks for the compliments, everyone. This is definitely a solid entry and, as I said, could justifiably be ranked higher. But we're getting to areas where it's hard to choose between a lot of these films!

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