One of the nastier films noir, Born to Kill has a surfeit of perverse psychology yet comes up lacking in character development. Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney make an alarmingly sleazy couple, but can't overcome a script that lets them down in the final reels. Robert Wise's direction is efficient so long as the film is building its twisted story. Before the final fade out, logic and style have pretty much disappeared. The one completely successful element is Lawrence Tierney's thoroughly rotten protagonist, who has no complex excuses for doing what he does: He's just Evil, through and through.
Even though the production code of 1947 would never allow it, what Born to Kill most resembles is the hardboiled literature of Jim Thompson, the brilliant author of lurid fictions with titles like Hell of a Woman and The Kill-Off. The story fits Thompson's world - there's an ambitious psycho hero who thinks he can con anyone in sight, a bitter contrast between seedy drifters and the snooty life in San Francisco's fashionable neighborhoods, and supporting players that are either gullible fools or repulsive degenerates. Born to Kill can't begin to sketch a world as dirty as what Thompson sees. We have to be content with reading some events as representative of rougher material that can't be presented.
Helen Brent and Sam Wilde are irredeemably amoral. She is just discovering her potential as a doublecrossing schemer, and he's an infantile sociopath unable to think beyond his momentary desires and resentments. Sam doesn't like people who get in his way, even over minor issues; his face slumps into this malevolent stare that indicates a dog ready to attack. A brutal killer with a looks that make weak women swoon, Sam is nothing but trouble ... yet Helen somehow finds his personality irresistable. Sam Wilde charms and cons his way into a swanky mansion, but we know he's still a swine at heart. He lies in his fancy new bed just as he did back in his fleabite rented room, with his shoes on and staring upward, dreaming up new antisocial things to do.
The best scenes are in the beginning, when director Wise sets up his story with skill and economy. There's an almost perfectly directed murder scene in a kitchen with Isabel Jewell, who Wise must have known from the Val Lewton days. Brent and Wilde shoot glances at each other over a craps table and in a railroad club car in the middle of the night, and we wonder what's going on, or more accurately, what the filmmakers think they're going to get away with. The characters are left mysteriously undefined, which keeps our interest high until we realize that we aren't going to learn much more about them.
The film is not permitted to deliver on its lurid promise. A lot of sick situations arise, with Helen yearning for Wilde even after he marries her sister, and meeting him in the night while claiming to be stuck on her dull fiancée Fred. Her feelings and actions are as muddled as the misdirection in Paul Sawtell's music score (a sharp observation from the disc commentator, Eddie Muller). We get plenty of fun sideshow action, with Isabel Jewell contributing some racy dialogue and Esther Howard (Murder, My Sweet) guzzling beer and giving us cockeyed laughs. There's also a fat part for film noir's favorite loser Elisha Cook, Jr., a murdering sadist and bad guy wanna-be who (naturally) is foiled before he can follow through with a killing. Cook's character makes references to mental illness being at the heart of Wilde's problems, but we know better. He's just BAD.
The slack script sets up a contrast between its rich (= cultured, naive) and poor (= seedy, corrupt) characters. Helen's rich relations have no reaction whatsoever when obvious climber Sam Wilde barges into their midst, and poor Georgia Staples seems ridiculously dumb for a woman attached to a big newspaper, even as an absentee owner. We never buy the setup, not for a minute. The first thing money does when an outsider appears, is to have the interloper's background investigated. There's always somebody who takes it upon themself to protect family interests, rightly or wrongly.
Walter Slezak plays a corrupt detective who doesn't figure into the plot very heavily and ends up being a largely irrelevant. His frequent classical quotes commenting on the vices of the main characters are meant to give the film a reflective tone. Instead, he just seems another gear in the works of a plot that has to grind to a mechanical end. The eventual demise of several cast members is handled as perfunctorily as in a grade-C poverty row film, like the hard-to-see Decoy.
Born to Kill is said to be one of RKO's more expensive pictures, with location shooting in San Francisco and Reno, but a lot of it still takes place against rear-projected screens. Outside of some thrilling early scenes most of the lighting is flat. We can't help but think that as the inspiration in the script ran down, so did Wise's contribution.
Warners' DVD of Born to Kill looks fine, in B&W sharp enough to make the many process shots stand out. The audio has also been well recorded. This second box of Warners' Film Noir should really be called the RKO Noir collection, as four of the movies are from Radio Keith Orpheum and one from Monogram. Two Lawrence Tierney movies are one too many. Until the first sold so well, Warner Home Video hadn't planned on another Noir box until 2006, so the choices may have been made in terms of what was readily restored and available. Perhaps a third box might contain some of the classic titles still outstanding - Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night and On Dangerous Ground, The Breaking Point, Angel Face, Nora Prentiss, Where Danger Lives, The Unsuspected, His Kind of Woman, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Berlin Express, The Locket, While the City Sleeps.
The one extra on Born to Kill is a fine commentary by Eddie Muller, who has been running yearly noir festivals at the American Cinematheque and has published several good books on the style, including a pricey poster book with art to die for, like the classy original poster used for the cover of this DVD. Muller goes over the usual themes and factors but adds his own special sense of humor and a speaking style to be envied. His rundown on the eight or nine stages of amour fou in movies about desperate doomed lovers is dead-on accurate, and he recounts his experience dealing with a grossly rude and profane Lawrence Tierney, who showed up at a Cinematheque screening and heckled Robert Wise from the audience. Some taped comments from Wise are interpolated into the commentary, but because of a weak voice his words are hard to make out. The only suggestion is that Muller would have been wiser leaving a simple description of Tierney's profanity, rather than repeating it ... but that's Savant's prudish personal taste.
Savant has already described his own run-in with Tierney, which happened in 1987 when the actor came to Cannon pictures, probably to muscle somebody for money he was owed. I met him on the stairs - by then he was bald and overweight but it was obvious that he could punch his way through a wall if he wanted to. I asked him about Val Lewton because at that time one of his first films, The Ghost Ship, was still unavailable and unseen. Tierney perked right up and responded (read: shouted) : "That Val Lewton was a sweetheart! Nicest guy I ever met at RKO! (pointing to the top floor) Not like these &*#'s you got here!" Tierney wrote down his phone number and told me to call him up and we'd have a beer. I asked the feature editors about him and they said to only go out with him if I was a hard drinker (no way) ... and not to let him know where I lived. He had once shown up at a production assistant's house at midnight, got mad because there was nothing to drink, and started breaking things! I never used the phone number. No guts.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Born to Kill rates: