Noirvember 2021, Episode 6: Born to Kill (1947)
Born to Kill (RKO, 1947) directed by Robert Wise
Born to Kill was directed by Robert Wise, universally recognized as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. If there is such a thing as the complete opposite of Wise, it’s the star of this film, Lawrence Tierney.
Much has been written and related about Tierney, which I’ll briefly get to in a moment. For now, the film.
After securing a divorce in Reno, an attractive woman named Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) meanders into a casino where she watches a man shooting craps. He’s solid, confident, and all man, probably all the things her former husband wasn’t. She learns the man’s name is Sam Wilde (Tierney), and we know that’s she’s hooked.
While waiting for her divorce to come through, Helen has been staying at a boarding house where she meets a young woman named Laury (Isabel Jewell), who has a date with a man named Danny (Tony Barrett). Laury is actually stepping out on her boyfriend Sam, wanting to make him jealous. Boy, does it work.
Sam kills Danny for making time with Laury, then does Laury in for two-timing him. And we’re just getting started.
Things happen fast in Born to Kill and maybe too fast, but we don’t care. We’re fascinated with the volatile Sam and Helen’s attraction to him. When they see each other on a train to San Francisco, they spend the entire trip getting to know each other. Sort of.
But Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), the boarding house owner, hires a private detective (Walter Slezak) to find Laury’s killer. Hang with me here; things get a little crazy very quickly:
In San Francisco, Sam meets Helen’s lovely sister Georgia (Audrey Long) and learns that Helen is actually Georgia’s foster sister. Georgia has all the money, so Sam keeps his violent tendencies in check just long enough for Georgia to say “I do” to his advances.
Sam’s best friend Mart (Elisha Cook Jr.), who has kept him out of serious trouble so far, attends the wedding and is clearly out of place in the posh surroundings. Mart is so sketchy looking that Helen’s fiancé Fred (Phillip Terry) suspects something’s going on, but Helen soon finds Fred a bore, seeking instead any opportunity to be alone with her sister’s new husband.
Everyone in this picture is terrific, and as Eddie Muller correctly points out in his Noir Alley intro, Tierney is terrific, but he’s not acting. This is who this guy is, aggressive, violent, out-of-control, filled to the brim with mayhem. Acting or not, he’s perfect in the role.
Then there’s Claire Trevor as Helen, a powerhouse performance of a woman who’ll do anything to be with such a man, regardless of the fact that he’s a truckload of dynamite with a fuse that’s always just a whiff away from a raging fire.
One of the elements of the film that seems hard to swallow is Georgia’s easy marriage to Sam, yet Georgia has lived a life so distanced from anything unpleasant (and certainly anything criminal) she doesn’t recognize it when she sees it right in front of her face (or across the bed, as the case may be). Plus Sam knows how to put on his best face in front of her. Yet Georgia's gullibility can best be explained by Helen’s comment to her: “You’ve never had to take any jolts. Your money has always protected you.” But there’s not much protecting Helen from Sam, and their scenes together are explosive.
Esther Howard steals the show as Mrs. Kraft, and Elisha Cook Jr. gets more than his usual screen time, but everyone in the picture is terrific. But we’re here to see Tierney, a man whose rap sheet in real life was longer than his screen credits, which are considerable. You wonder how a guy this unhinged had such a long career that lasted into the late 1990s, most famously in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992).
For a very adult-oriented story of Eddie Muller’s unforgettable encounter with Tierney at a screening of Born to Kill, read this article.
Born to Kill is available to stream for free if you subscribe to Watch TCM, but you can also rent it from the usual suspects. I watched it on my 2005 Warner DVD, and I hope Warner Archive will give this the Blu-ray treatment someday soon.