Posted: 10/02/2001


Born to Kill


by Robert Weston

“…a film about the grimmest corners of the human condition…”

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“As you grow older, you’ll discover that life is very much like coffee—the aroma is always better than the actuality.”
- Detective Arnett

The working title for Born to Kill was Deadlier Than The Male (from the pulp novel by James Gunn). It’s a title that’s easily applied to most of the ‘black films’ of the forties. This was the first and the nastiest of the noirs directed by Robert Wise, who would also give us The Set-Up (1949), The Captive City (1952), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Wise came to genre with a background in the Val Lewton horror team and the expressionistic films of Orson Welles, so he was the right tool for the job when it came to film noir.

The story begins in Reno with Laury Palmer, a less-than-innocent young woman bragging to her landlady about the newest man in her life, a mysterious brooder named Sam (Lawrence Tierney). Unfortunately, Sam turns out to be a lot darker than Laury ever imagined. When he spots her out with another man, Sam kills them both with his bare hands. Another tenant at the rooming house is Helen (Claire Trevor), a worldly brunette on her way to San Francisco to marry Fred (Phillip Terry), her wealthy fiancé. Helen discovers the bodies, but decides not to report the murder because it might hinder her trip down gold-digger row.

En route to San Francisco, Helen runs into Sam, who left town at the same time in hopes of avoiding arrest. Helen and Sam are instantly attracted to each other, sexually and by an irresistible criminal magnetism. Sam’s keen eye spies something sinister under Helen’s dignified façade, and despite herself, Helen reciprocates with admiration for Sam’s cold-blooded willfulness. In San Francisco, Sam meets Helen’s fiancé and her half-sister Georgia (who is heir to the family fortune). Sam gets the idea to marry Georgia for money and power. Helen hates the idea, but its clear her disapproval is partly out of jealousy. Meanwhile, back in Reno, a devious private detective named Arnett (Walter Slezak) is hot on Sam’s heels, while Sam’s only friend tries desperately to cover the trail.

Evil and corruption are measured by small degrees in Born to Kill. The film offers not just one antihero, but an entire cast of nastiness. Each principal character can be divided into two camps: Those who are irreversibly corrupt or those who admire—even lust after—crime and corruption. Everyone revolves around Sam, a man of such virulent evil that he barely comprehends human virtue. Disturbingly, Sam has various supporters: there’s his loyal friend Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.), the foolish Laury Palmer, and Helen and Georgia who go helplessly doe-eyed in his presence. Even when Georgia, whose only real flaw is naïveté, learns Sam is a murderer, she vows nevertheless to protect him in his darkest hour. Finally, there’s Arnett, the closest the film comes to a representative of law and order—he’s so desperate to accept a bribe, he makes a personal call to beg for one.

The only characters with a spec of integrity are the landlady Mrs. Kraft (played with cackling zeal by Esther Howard) and Fred, Helen’s misguided fiancé. Unfortunately, Mrs. Kraft is a haggard drunk and Fred, similar the young women in the film, foolishly adores a woman who is clearly a light-fingered villain.

Happily, the familiar hand of Fate ultimately steps in and takes everyone down a notch—but that’s not to say they go down easy. As the title suggests, Born to Kill is a film about the grimmest corners of the human condition, the wicked place where sex, corruption and violence join hands and rumba round in darkness. Director Robert Wise suggests that we all share a collective dark side, that one way or another we are all ‘born to kill,’ and in the final throw of the dice, only the incontrovertible laws of chance can set the record straight.

Robert Weston is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

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