Judge Maurice Cobbs needs a shower after spending 92 minutes with this collection of freaks.
The coldest killer a woman ever loved!
Director Robert Wise will be remembered for an incredibly diverse cinematic legacy, from sci-fi classics like Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Day the Earth Stood Still to musical masterpieces like The Sound of Music and West Side Story; in his career, he directed supernatural thrillers, like The Haunting; war movies, like Run Silent, Run Deep; and this masterpiece of melodramatic misanthropy—Born to Kill, without a doubt one of the most disturbingly amoral movies ever made. This isn't a story about heroes or villains. Heck, it isn't even a story about ordinary people. It's about bad people, worse people, and downright depraved people, and it starts in a pretty dark place and only gets worse, and if it were you or I or any normal person (I'm generously assuming that you, dear reader, are normal), we'd have called the cops and maybe also the guys in the white coats and departed rapidly in several different directions. But, as commentator Eddie Muller notes, film noir is "all about notcalling the police."
Facts of the Case
Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) is a free woman—she's just received her divorce in Reno and couldn't be happier. While returning to her rooming house after a night out on the town, she stumbles over the bodies of a murdered woman and her lover. Deciding that the best thing for her is to stay out of the whole thing, she says nothing and catches the first train out of town to San Francisco. On the train, she has a chance encounter with Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney, The Devil Thumbs a Ride)—little realizing that he is the the murderer, also leaving town on the advice of his companion, Marty Waterman (Elisha Cook, Jr., Phantom Lady). The two are almost instantly attracted to each other, but Helen isn't willing to jeopardize her engagement to wealthy Fred Grover (Phillip Terry, The Lost Weekend), who represents security and her ticket to independence from her innocent and loving foster sister, heiress Georgia Staples (Audrey Long, Post Office Investigator). Nonetheless, Helen can barely suppress her attraction to Sam, especially when he insinuates himself into her life by marrying Georgia. Meanwhile, back in Reno, a friend of the murdered woman has hired a sleazy private investigator named Arnett (Walter Slezak, Lifeboat) to find the killer. When he tracks Sam to Frisco, events are set in motion that will teach Helen that if you choose to dance with the devil, you must eventually pay the piper.
"Is he really so attractive to women? Is he?"—Fred Grover
In Dr. Helen Stout's book The Sociopath Next Door, she lists seven characteristics that define a sociopath, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: failing to conform to social norms, being deceitful and manipulating, being impulsive, being irritable or aggressive, being unconcerned about the safety of the self or anybody else, being consistently irresponsible, and being unconcerned and unremorseful for hurting or stealing. In order to be diagnosed as a sociopath, says Dr. Stout, the subject must meet at least three of these criteria. Now consider that Sam Wilde meets all of them. Not only does he meet them; he lies down and wallows in them. So what happens when a sociopath falls in love with another sociopath?
What happens is Robert Wise's Born to Kill. Based on the book Deadlier Than the Male by James Gunn, Born to Kill is a gruesome exploration of the darkest corners of the human psyche, centered around two ruthless and morally bankrupt individuals who are just rotten enough to deserve each other. Sam Wilde, as portrayed by Lawrence Tierney, is a vicious, scowling, brutal, arrogant monster of a man, well built and darkly handsome—and, apparently, just the sort of man that women go for in a big way. Throughout the movie, women coo over Sam despite—or maybe because of—his dangerously amoral mystique. They swoon over Wilde like…well, like most men swoon over the femme fatales in other noir movies ("His eyes run up and down ya like a searchlight!" gasps one housemaid with breathless delight) and usually with the same results. He brings to mind a passage from Richard Stark's classic crime novel The Hunter:
Office women in passing cars looked at him and felt vibrations above their nylons…They knew he was a bastard, they knew his big hands were born to slap with, they knew his face would never break into a smile when he looked at a woman. They knew what he was, they thanked God for their husbands, and still they shivered. Because they knew how he would fall on a woman in the night. Like a tree.
Born to Kill is filled with women who know what Sam is and don't care. As the movie starts, we find out that Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell, Marked Woman), a carefree divorcée of hard living and easy virtue, is feeling that tingle, and she tries to describe it to her alcoholic friend, Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball), who gets her thrills vicariously through Laurie's adventures. "He's the quiet sort," says Laurie, wistfully, "and yet you get the feeling that if you stepped out of line he'd kick your teeth down your throat."
"Isn't that wonderful?" sighs Mrs. Kraft.
It's fairly obvious that Helen Brent thinks so. Since her previous experience has taught her that most men are "turnips," the idea of one who isn't of a vegetable nature certainly gets her attention. But she has bigger fish to fry—Helen is celebrating her first day of freedom after getting her divorce, and she's preparing to head to San Francisco to marry into a lot of money. She accelerates her plans when she stumbles onto the freshly murdered corpses of Laury and one of her hapless boyfriends. Naturally, she doesn't call the cops—it's none of her business, after all—and she catches the first train out of town.
It's on that train that she meets Sam Wilde for the first time. Sam's getting out of town, too, after murdering Laury and her gentleman caller in a fit of jealous anger. When his friend and fellow sociopath Marty hears about this, he's a little put out by Sam's impetuousness. "You can't just go 'round killing people whenever the notion strikes you," he whines, helplessly. "It ain't feasible!"
"Why isn't it?" snaps Sam, with such ferocity that Marty backs down and starts placating his friend. Marty's doing his best to keep Sam out of trouble—and it ain't easy, considering Sam's habit of going "nuts about nothing…nothing at all." On Marty's advice, Sam skips town and leaves his friend to find out if there were any witnesses or if the police have any leads…after all, what are friends for? Most disturbingly, you get the distinct impression that this isn't the first time that Marty has had to do something like this for Sam, who just doesn't seem to give a damn one way or another. One might even go so far as to read some measure of homosexual yearning in Marty's demented obsequiousness, but whatever the case, Marty seems to be the only person who can exert even a small measure of control over the appropriately named Wilde.
It has been said that every hard-luck story in the world begins with the words "There was this woman, see…," and that is certainly true in noir, if nowhere else. But in Born to Kill, the noir template has been reversed; the focus of the movie is Helen's struggle not to give in to Sam and, by extension, to her darker nature. Claire Trevor's performance in this role is riveting. The actress is largely unknown and unrecognized today except to fans of the noir genre, despite her Academy Award–winning turn as a drunken, washed-up gun moll in the 1948 Humphrey Bogart thriller Key Largo. Trevor made a name for herself playing hard-boiled bad girls in such memorable noir films as Murder, My Sweet, Dead End, and The Lucky Stiff, but undeservedly remains one of the largely undiscovered treasures of classic cinema, along with Marie Windsor and Adele Jergens. Here she plays Helen Brent so convincingly that her character sends chills down the spine in one scene while making the audience completely sympathetic toward her in the next. She's pulled in all directions by her ambition to be something that she is not—socially, mentally, and emotionally. For the most part, she is able to control her own darker nature, but when she comes into the orbit of the unrepentantly amoral Wilde, she feels herself being dragged down the road to perdition and can't help liking it on some level. One scene shows the two giving in to their baser desires, embracing in the kitchen while rhapsodizing over the murders that Wilde committed, winding up in a desperately passionate kiss…it's terrifying, it's repugnant, it's Born to Kill in a nutshell. On screen, Helen is likewise disgusted—with Wilde, with their passion, with herself for giving in to it. This is the major conflict of the story: not Helen vs. Sam, or Sam vs. the authorities, but Helen vs. herself.
Lawrence Tierney, on the other hand, spends far less time developing his character's complexity. In fact, Sam Wilde isn't really even a character—he's more of a glowering force of nature with exactly two temperatures: ice cold and white hot. He likes Helen, and he comes as close to loving her as he possibly could come to loving something other than himself, largely because he feels that she "understands" him. He's right, of course, and he recognizes the shadow of himself inside of her as well, but he's genuinely puzzled by why she chooses not to embrace that dark rottenness the way that he has. He reacts in the manner to which he is accustomed—with rage. A paranoiac, he sees betrayal in every corner, and his narcissism is such that he cannot bear the thought of being "made a monkey" of. He'll kill anyone who, in his twisted view of reality, tries—stranger or friend or lover, it makes no difference to Wilde. If it were up to Tierney to carry the movie, the film simply wouldn't work—but as the physical manifestation of Helen's darkest impulses, he's brilliant.
There are wonderful smaller performances, too: Elisha Cook, Jr. as Marty, who gets a rather chilling scene himself as he tries to kill another character to protect Sam; beautiful B-movie leading lady Audrey Long as the naïve Georgia; and Phillip Terry as Helen's turnip of a fiancé, Fred Grover. Esther Howard steals her share of scenes as the feisty alcoholic Mrs. Kraft, whose fierce sense of loyalty to her only friend drives her to hire a private eye to track down her murderer, giving the film at least a shred of morality. She settles on Albert Arnett because he was first in the phone book: a shady, Bible-quoting peeper who is just as rotten as any of the other principal characters.
Beautifully filmed by Robert Wise (who, let us not forget, worked with both Val Lewton and Orson Welles early in his career) and with grim cinematography by Robert de Grasse, Born To Kill is presented here with a nearly flawless print that must rank among the best that Warner Bros. has given us in their film noir sets, and I have no complaints at all about the mono sound. The commentary, by noir historian Eddie Muller, author of such works as The Art of Noir and Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, is informative and fun, and Muller doesn't drone on the way that some scholarly commentators tend to on these things. Listen for a particularly humorous story about an encounter with Lawrence Tierney as an old man, still just as ornery as he ever was. Intercut with Muller's observations are previously recorded comments from an obviously ailing Robert Wise.
This is the sort of movie that puts the "noir" in "film noir." A powerful and disturbing portrait of the dark underbelly of the human psyche, Born to Kill is a great introduction to the genre not only for its uncompromisingly dark nature, but also because of the wonderful commentary that Warner Bros. has provided to go with it.
Everybody in this movie is guilty as hell—and I wouldn't have it any other way.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Noir Scholar Eddie Muller with Excerpts from Director Robert Wise
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