Born To Kill is a 1947 film noir released by RKO and based on James Gunn’s strange, overheated and disturbing 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male.
The movie opens with a murder. The murder is important but it’s not absolutely central to the plot apart from the fact that it tells us something about the murderer. And the murderer is definitely central to the plot. We know the identity of the murderer but that’s just the beginning of the story.
Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) is in Reno getting a divorce. Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) has killed a man and a woman at the rooming house in which Helen is staying. Helen has no connection with the murder although she does discover the bodies. She does not call the police since she witnessed nothing important, has no idea who the murderer is and has no wish to become involved.
Sam more or less invites himself to the Brent house in San Francisco. Helen lives with her sister Georgia (Audrey Long). Actually they’re foster sisters. Georgia is fabulously wealthy. Helen is penniless and lives on Georgia’s charity. Once Sam figures out which sister has the money he loses interest in Helen and sets his sights on Georgia. Helen is more than a little conflicted about all of this. She loves Georgia but she resents her wealth. She is attracted to Sam but it’s pure lust - Helen is not dumb enough to consider even for a second marrying a man like Sam, but Georgia lacks Helen’s very extensive experience with men.
The main interest in the plot is in trying to untangle Helen’s incredibly twisted motivations. Sam is psychotic, violent and paranoid and suffers from delusions of grandeur but Helen is possibly even scarier. She has zero moral sense, she’s a practised and plausible liar and her whole life has been based on combining deception with selfishness. This would have made her an unpleasant enough person but the combination of Helen with Sam is clearly going to be exceptionally unfortunate. Helen will discover whole new depths of depravity.
Robert Wise made a couple of surprisingly grim and pessimistic noirs, with The Set-Up (1949) being just as dark and perhaps more brooding than Born To Kill. When given the opportunity he really could plumb the depths of human misery although whether he really had a natural flair for this sort of material is debatable. Wise however had the ability to adapt himself to just about any genre.
Val Lewton, running RKO’s B-unit, had given him the chance to direct but Born To Kill was his first real A-picture for the studio. He clearly had absorbed a good deal of Lewton’s approach to film-making. Wise knew he had a good script and a good cast. He doesn’t go overboard with the noirish visuals, although with subject matter as noir as this he really didn’t need to. He does manage to ratchet up the tension very effectively as we wonder just how far Helen will go, and just how far she will allow Sam to go. Wise does a flawless job.
With this movie you know you’re watching a real film noir because Elisha Cook Jr is in it. He plays Sam’s friend Marty and it’s quite a meaty role. It’s another little gem of a performance. Walter Slezak is fun as the not-too-honest but surprisingly efficient private detective Arnett. Esther Howard as Mrs Kraft, a friend of the woman murdered in Reno, is outrageously but enjoyably excessive.
With some movies one can enter into a lengthy debate on their claims to film noir status. There is absolutely no need for any of that with Born To Kill. This movie is the real deal. This is hardcore noir. Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney deliver performances that are arguably the best of their respective careers. Highly recommended.