Robert Wise, 1947
Starring: Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak, Audrey Long
Helen Brant prepares to leave Reno after finally obtaining a divorce, but the night of her departure she finds the dead bodies of her pretty young neighbor, Laury Palmer, and Laury’s boyfriend. Instead of calling the police, she flees back to San Francisco. On the train, she meets Sam Wilde, the man who murdered Laury due to his insane jealousy, bad temper, and impulsive violence. Though Helen’s engaged to the mild-mannered, wealthy Fred, she is attracted to Sam. He imposes on her, soon meeting Fred and Helen’s wealthy, though generous half-sister and roommate, Georgia. Equally attracted to Sam, the innocent Georgia soon marries him and is unaware that Helen and Sam have begun an affair. Unfortunately for them, Laury’s close friend and landlady, Mrs. Kraft, hires a private detective to track down Laury’s killer. He is hot on Sam’s trail and soon arrives in San Francisco…
This was director Robert Wise’s first film noir, though he would rise to much greater heights after this with Blood on the Moon (1948), The Set-Up (1949), and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). Wise got his start doing editing work on Citizen Kane and then began directing films for Val Lewton at RKO – Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). His varied career includes landmark haunted house film The Haunting (1963), and a fair amount of science fiction – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Andromeda Strain (1971), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) – and so much more.
While I can’t find much fault with Wise, the script is a different story. Though often known as a minor noir classic thanks to the explosive, psychopathic relationship between Sam and Helen, I was thoroughly let down by this film. There's something completely implausible about it – it almost becomes an amour fou type of film, but never rises to these heights. Claire Trevor (Murder, My Sweet) delivers a coldly impassioned performance, but she’s not able to save a bad script or make Lawrence Tierney a more complex actor. There’s certainly something compelling about him, but it’s too difficult to believe that every woman in the film is overcome with sexual hysteria in his presence. I could see a number of other actors pulling this off, so it could just be a question of miscasting.
Sam and Helen’s relationship has great potential, but overall it is frustrating. Born to Kill has far too much imbalance between moments of psychopathic terror and melodrama, which mirrors the script flaws in their relationship. The film starts out powerfully: Laury’s murder is brutal and unexpected and Helen’s discovery of the crime and subsequent attraction to Sam hints at a sexual preoccupation with violence (more eloquently articulated in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door). But these two elements – sex and violence – soon wither away to a number of humorous scenes (with Mrs. Kraft and the private detective) and melodrama (Sam’s marriage to Georgia and Helen’s breakup with her fiancé). Though it is clear that Sam and Helen are having an affair, almost none of this is displayed on screen. Without the explicit reminder of this relationship and scenes of its development, the characters’ collective motivations make absolutely no sense.
For example, if Sam is willing to murder his friend due to a misunderstanding that the friend was sexually interested in Helen, why does Sam not bat an eyelash over her fiancé? Sam’s tendencies toward sudden, inexplicable violence verge toward the childish and make Tierney’s character impossible to relate to or sympathize with. Perhaps this would have worked if Sam was a teenager instead of a middle aged man – it certainly would be more subversive.
There are some enjoyable moments, namely the film’s sheer campiness. Aside from the jarring opening scene with the double homicide, the quieter scenes of domestic drama are at least well shot and competently acted. There are also some fantastic side characters, including Sam’s absurdly mild-mannered friend (another welcome appearance from noir’s whipping boy, Elisha Cook Jr.), the drunken yet endearing Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard from Detour, Sullivan’s Travels, and Murder, My Sweet), and an eloquent, literary, and thoroughly shifty private detective (Walter Slezak of Lifeboat).
Born to Kill only comes recommend for fans of film noir and the work of director Robert Wise. It is available on DVD, though, as always, I’d love to see a Blu-ray box set of all Wise’s films noir, loaded with special features.