Born to Kill (1947)

“You’re strength… excitement… and depravity.”

Born to Kill Poster

Synopsis:
A recent divorcee (Claire Trevor) falls for a hunky psychopath (Lawrence Tierney), and finds herself covering up for his murderous tendencies.

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Review:
Dubbed by New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther as “not only morally disgusting but … an offense to a normal intellect”, and labeled by DVD Savant “one of the nastier films noir [sic],” this lurid flick by director Robert Wise tells the tale of an irredeemably psychopathic killer (Tierney as “Sam Wild”) who finds his would-be soul-mate in Claire Trevor’s cool and calculating neo-socialite, Helen Brant. As in the best noir, these two characters are utterly deserving of each other, but find themselves foiled (inevitably) by their own ambitions. In a unique twist, however, Tierney is the homme fatale in the equation — the irresistible male who causes havoc on the otherwise ordered lives of those around him.

While in some ways gruff-guy Tierney (best known for playing the title role in 1945’s Dillinger) is perfectly cast, he’s ultimately not a nuanced enough actor to bring Wild’s inner life to the surface; we never get a sense of him as anything other than a menacing hulk — and, given his lack of charisma, it’s difficult to see why so many women would fall head over heels for him. (He’s handsome and strong — definitely “not a turnip”, as one character puts it — but not THAT handsome!)

Trevor, however, does wonders with her challenging role, managing to make Helen sympathetic even as she stupidly gives up a life of luxury and contentment (with dull but moneyed Phillip Terry) for the questionable [sexual] thrills afforded her by Tierney. While there’s much critical discussion of Trevor’s dramatic eyebrow-raising throughout the film, I find her performance refreshingly sincere. The cast of supporting performers are mostly fine as well, with reliable B-actor Elisha Cook, Jr. playing nicely against type (sort of) as a care-taking “George” to Tierney’s “Lennie” (he has a bit more spunk here than in his usual roles), and the inimitable Esther Howard — whose grotesquely fascinating face is as creaky and crooked as a jalopy — equally effective as the catalyst who brings Walter Slezak’s sleazy PI to San Francisco.

Less impressive is Audrey Long as Trevor’s conveniently naive and gold-hearted foster sister, who is simply too beautiful to be credible as a wealthy heiress so easily won over by an uncultured lout like Tierney. Other elements of the plot strain credulity as well, simply through lack of sufficient explanation — i.e., what is Tierney’s relationship, past and present, with Cook, Jr.? How did Trevor get to be Long’s “foster sister”, and why is Long so loyal to her? Ultimately, however, one watches a picture like this simply to see how the corrupt protagonists will meet their ends — and the ride until then (implausibilities aside) is mostly satisfying, thanks to Trevor’s memorable performance, some crackling dialogue, and Robert De Grasse’s noir-ish cinematography.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Claire Trevor as Helen Brent
    Born to Kill Claire Trevor
  • Fine supporting performances by Elisha Cook, Jr., Esther Holland, and others
    Born to Kill Cook Jr.
    Born to Kill Howard
  • Robert De Grasse’s cinematography
    Born to Kill Cinematography
  • Some zingy dialogue: “”He’s the quiet sort, but you get the feeling that if you got out of line, he’d kick your teeth down your throat.”

Must See?
Yes, simply for Trevor’s performance. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Born to Kill (1947)”

  1. Agreed – mainly memorable for Trevor’s performance (which, alone, does make this must-see) but, on the whole, a rather solid noir entry as well. Along the way, certain scenes lean toward being patently absurd (i.e., the one in which we hear the quote used here for the assessment). But director Robert Wise treats everything here as making perfect sense and the capable cast members follow suit.

    The several times I’ve seen this movie, I’ve had the impression that Tierney is not meant to be anything but a tool, waiting (though not consciously, of course) for ‘the right dame’ to bring him to a dead halt. His appeal seems to rest either with women who are even dumber than he is (and easily awed) or women who are smarter (as witness Trevor and Long) but nevertheless have an undeniable, somewhat inexplicable urge toward slumming with brutes.

    At any rate, this is Trevor’s movie all the way and she is never less than fascinating. As she portrays her, there is a lot going on inside Trevor’s Helen. And she does make a play for our sympathy. With her lust for all the things denied her in life, Helen is somewhat similar to Bette Davis’ Rosa in ‘Beyond the Forest’ – the main difference being that Helen can’t help herself, and Rosa doesn’t want to help herself. Rosa yearns to be with someone as greedy as she is; Helen knows she would be better off, and more secure in various ways, if she married someone who could keep her in line. Unfortunately, Helen also seems to be ‘battling’ a sense of superiority when it comes to men. (One wonders what went on with the unseen man Helen has divorced as the film begins.) Trevor’s work here is every bit as good as her Oscar-winning, polar opposite performance in ‘Key Largo’.

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