|Directed by||Robert Wise|
Born to Kill is a 1947 American film noir starring Lawrence Tierney and directed by Robert Wise. It was the first film noir to be directed by Wise, who later directed The Set-Up (1949), The Captive City (1952), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). The film also features Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak, and Elisha Cook Jr.
The film was released in the U.K. as Lady of Deceit and in Australia as Deadlier Than the Male.
Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) has just received a Reno divorce in Nevada. That night, she discovers one of her neighbors, Laury Palmer, and Palmer’s gentleman caller both murdered in Palmer’s home. The killer is Palmer’s other boyfriend, Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), an insanely jealous man who won’t abide anyone “cutting in” on him.
Helen says nothing to the police; she’s leaving town and doesn’t want to be impeded. She runs into Sam and is instantly attracted to his self-confidence and brutality, but she is engaged to marry a wealthy boyfriend, Fred (Phillip Terry). Sam wants to call on her in San Francisco. He arrives there and meets Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), Helen’s foster sister, also rich. Sam soon shifts his attentions to her, marrying the sister for her money after a whirlwind romance. Neither Helen’s engagement nor Sam’s marriage is an impediment to their beginning an affair.
Meanwhile, back in Reno, the owner of the boarding house where Helen lived has hired a mercenary, verse-quoting detective, Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak), to find out who killed Laury. The detective follows Sam’s friend, Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.), to San Francisco, where he soon begins to make blackmailing overtures to Helen. Marty finds out who hired the detective and attempts to kill her, but Sam thinks he’s trying to cut in on his action and kills Marty.
Fred is troubled by the resulting police investigation, as well as by Helen’s increasingly heartless demeanor. He calls off their engagement. Sam and Helen face off in a fatal confrontation as their schemes begin unraveling, with Sam fatally shooting Helen before he is slain by police.
Leads shine along highway to hell in film noir gem *******
I was delighted when I saw that Quentin Tarantino had given a starring role in his debut film, Reservoir Dogs, to Lawrence Tierney. I had read somewhere a year or two prior to its release that he had been finding it hard to get roles; that invariably he was involved in barroom brawls and , well, that he was difficult. Of course, the role didn’t require any great acting ability and it couldn’t be said that the big lug had grown old gracefully, but I got the impression that it was in recognition of his services to cult filmdom that he was being rewarded by the new kid on the block.
I first saw Born To Kill in the late 80’s on one of those TV channels dedicated to old black and white movies and I was immediately wowed. It was my first sight of Lawrence Tierney and both in his presence and the enthusiasm he brought to his role he certainly made a huge impression. You could never accuse him of being a great actor but he had the perfect bad guy presence: he had the physique and tough look about him that neither Bogart nor the diminutive Raft could touch and, while his features were certainly handsome enough for Hollywood, his smile was too disarming to make him a romantic lead (it reminded me nothing so much as a shark at feeding time). And this role was perfect for him: ruthless, amoral, his character, Sam Wild, was like a steamroller who mowed down anybody, girlfriends, men friends, wives, that stood in his way or upset him. It may well have been the closest to the big leagues that he got and, for me, its the best thing he’s ever done (and, under Wise’s economic direction, the film could certainly compare favourably with Reservoir Dogs).
The film sits well with all those minor noir classics the late 40’s and early 50’s with apparent ease: Wise’s own The Set-Up; Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal and the T-Men, Kiss Of Death, and Ray’s masterly debut, They Live By Night.
It’s not specified just who the title refers to but it could apply equally and aptly to both Tierney’s and his peerless co-star’s Claire Trevor (for me the Queen of the noir femme fatales)characters.(In the UK it is titled Lady OF Deceit but in my opinion it does Tierney a disservice by apparently ignoring his contribution to the mayhem).
The story is basically a simple one: Tierney is an ex-boxer who is prone to violent fits of jealousy which erupts with fatal consequences when he spots a girl friend out with another man. Claire Trevor’s character discovers the bodies but finds herself attracted to the excitement and danger which she sees Tierney providing for her while recognising his flaws.
He uses Trevor to marry into family money while at the same time needing the thrill of an adulterous affair with her. Of course, that could never work!.
Perversely, I found myself cheering for Tierney and Trevor and hoping that they would find true love (maybe it’s because the other loves are such drips), but that could never be in noir. In addition to the stars, it boasts wonderful performances by notorious scene-stealers, Elisha Cook Jr., and Walter Slezak, while Esther Howard is a delight as a boarding house owner who realises that a beach is not always the safest place at night.
Although Robert Wise acquitted himself well in his later big budget films, its in films such as this, the aforementioned Set-Up, and his Val Lewton horror classics that he showed himself to be an economic, effective and underrated director. Not in the Howard Hawks league for versatlity,for sure, but he always told a good story well which more highly-touted directors often found beyond them. While not quite major league noir, its one I turn to regularly and it never disappoints
If there’s hard-core noir, this is it!
Author: bmacv from Western New York
21 June 2000
Robert Wise does not come to mind as a master director of film noir, but he came through with flying colors (all black) in this gem, starting out in Reno, Nevada, and ending up in San Francisco. Claire Trevor, the dark spider of so much noir, outdoes herself in cold malevolence here (she should have copped the Oscar for this film, not Key Largo). Her evenly matched partner is the frightening Lawrence Tierney (who last showed up as Elaine Benes’ author dad on Seinfeld, not to mention in Prizzi’s Honor and Reservoir Dogs). The supporting cast, for once, earns its keep (though Walter Slezak, as a corrupt detective, is oddly irrelevant to the story). If you’re a fan of these dark post-war films, Born to Kill is central to the canon.