Tuesday, September 20

Good 40s Films: Born to Kill

1947 Film Noir
From RKO Pictures
Directed by Robert Wise

Lawrence Tierney
Claire Trevor
Walter Slezak
Audrey Long
Phillip Terry
Elisha Cook Jr.
Esther Howard
I mentioned this film in pieces I did on Trevor, Tierney, Cook and director Robert Wise.  It may be the darkest movie any of them ever did... it's certainly right up there.  I loved it, of course, because it's noir but I can be counted among those who find it a nasty little noir. Even the title is more sinister than most. Tierney's character is despicable. He's not written with any redeeming qualities. Trevor, who knew her way around noir pretty well, isn't quite the heroine either. There were those in 1947, some critics especially, who thought it was far too sordid and unpleasant to even talk about in polite conversation.

You can dress this malignant duo up but there's not enough cologne at a cosmetics counter to mask their stench.  He is evil personified, and obviously so, while she is a cold-hearted opportunist who is far more subtle. Both characters flaunt their amoral ways to such a degree that I wonder if those pesky censors were catnapping during their viewing.

The doom that settles over all film noir begins in the biggest little city in the world, Reno, Nevada, where the nicely turned-out Helen has taken up a six-week residence to obtain a divorce.  We watch her descend the courthouse steps, chat with her lawyer and then head over to the boardinghouse where she has been staying.  We see the landlady, a blowsy Mrs. Kraft, and realize she has taken a shine to one of her other tenants, Laury.

The following scene is the one where we are introduced to Sam, an insane, conscienceless thug, as he commits a double murder.  His reasoning?  Jealousy. His victims? None other than Laury and a date she has brought home for the night. Now follow along and take a look at that four-minute scene as it sets the tone for all that follows:

Even though Sam saw Helen from afar, they actually meet in a well-staged scene at the craps table.  With no dialogue from either, they establish sexual teasing, position and attitudes.  She doesn't know that he is a murderer and he doesn't know that she discovered but didn't report the murders to the police.

We then meet Marty (Cook), Sam's lackey who seems to have some secret desire for his boss that appear to go right over Sam's head. No surprise, really, since Sam thinks of no one but himself.  In their hotel room Marty reminds Sam to take it easy, reminding him of his nervous crackup last summer.  We see how pathologically jealous Sam is and Marty hears that Sam committed the murders. When Marty asks why, Sam responds with nobody's ever gonna cut in on me.  Marty pleads that Sam cannot go around killing people while Sam shrugs it off.

Both Sam and Helen coincidentally board the same train to Los Angeles.  She wants to return home to her waiting rich fiancé (and she's just come from a divorce?) and her equally rich sister.   She may love the fiancé in her own way, but it's obvious that that love wouldn't be so strong if he had no money. Ditto the sister who's not stingy with the bucks.  Sam simply needed to get out of Reno but follows Helen to L.A. because he has become overly zealous about her. She does not return his eager affection while remaining cordial.

They part once arriving in L.A. but later in the evening Sam shows up unannounced at the home Helen shares with her sister, Georgia (Long). The fiancé, Fred (Terry) is also there. In typical noir fashion, Sam shows up at her home without any previous mention of the address.  The event brings about a contempt Helen now shows for Sam... risky business indeed.  The foursome goes out for dinner and dancing and Sam and Helen have some challenging words for one another, including Sam telling Helen that she does not love her fiancé.

With that Helen becomes even more testy and rebuffs Sam's advances.  He takes a second look at the comely sister and schmoozes his way into a marriage with her. It doesn't hurt that she is wealthy, something Helen is not.  When Helen asks Sam why he married Georgia, he replies that now ain't nobody gonna thumb their noses at me.

We meet a smarmy detective (Slezak) since all noirs seem to have a cop or detective. He has been sought out by Mrs. Kraft who wants justice for her friend's death.  As any faithful noir audience member knows, one has to do some figuring out, some conclusion-jumping because noir writers don't just hand one much of anything.

In short order the detective figures out Sam is the killer and in his questioning of Helen, she seems to figure it out, too.  While her contempt for Sam begins to weaken, she tells him that she loves her fiancé because she sees a goodness in him and he gives her peace and security.  She says she knows she'd go off the deep end without that.  She adds that she sees strength, excitement, depravity and corruptness in Sam which captures more of his attention. Finally they discuss the murders openly for the first time and we see that they are getting a sexual excitement from doing so. She also tells Sam a detective is nosing around.  We know the information will send Sam over the edge again.

The hapless Marty carves out a little wanted attention from Sam when he tells him he has discovered Mrs. Kraft is the one who hired the detective.  Sam orders Marty to kill the always-tipsy landlady.  In a perfectly chilling noir scene, drenched in chiaroscuro lighting, Kraft is lured to a lonely beach at night and just as Marty is about to stab her, Sam appears and stabs Marty to death instead while Kraft implausibly flees.  Earlier in the evening Sam saw Marty talking to Helen and assumed the worst. 

Helen's fiancé calls off their engagement because he finds Helen too cold, especially since Sam's been around.  The two sisters then have a fierce battle, the end of which Sam overhears.  He realizes that Helen has double-crossed him because she has called the police.  If Sam's in prison, he won't share in any of Georgia's fortune.

Things quickly go from bad to worse, resulting in an exciting fatal ending that you really need to see.

It may seem incongruous to some that a congenial man like Robert Wise would direct such a harsh drama.  What would the future director of West Side Story and The Sound of Music know about lowlifes such as these? But one can be reminded that this gifted director knew something about noirs as a result of helming Blood on the Moon and The Set-Up and later gutsy crime dramas like I Want to Live and Odds Against Tomorrow.

I suspect that what is behind the real notoriety of this film is the casting of Lawrence Tierney.  One only needs to consider that in real life, Tierney was Sam. We'll assume he never killed anyone (although I have no proof), but he was a deeply-troubled man, belligerent, cold-blooded, intimidating, alcoholic, a life-long brawler. Hollywood had a distaste for the actor that was so strong that it's a wonder he had any career in movies at all.  I think that when Hollywood saw Born to Kill, all they saw was an anti-tribute to the man they called the meanest man in the movies.

With heartfelt apologies to Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer, Gloria Grahame, Lana Turner, Lizabeth Scott, Audrey Totter and others, Claire Trevor is a certified queen of film noir. Manipulative and sneaky with ice water running through her veins, she ruled the shadowy, bleak world of noir and this film and the previously chronicled Murder, My Sweet.

Chubby, slovenly Walter Slezak is perfectly cast as the not-so-upstanding detective.  No matter his part in a film, he always played someone who seemed to know something he's not telling you.  How well-cast he is here.  In a larger part than he usually had and better-looking than usual, Elisha Cook always added a fey, menacing hue to everything he did.  This was a great showcase for him.

Phillip Reed never had much of a career. Here, for most of the story, he is a lapdog to a more powerful woman.  One suspects that's a role he played during his marriage to Joan Crawford who had divorced him just before production began.

I remain steadfast in my praise of the much-maligned Born to Kill. It deserves a spot toward the top of the film noir ladder and that holds court for me over anything else.  How could I not include it as part of good 40s films?

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