One of Robert Wise’s early directorial efforts was the film noir “Born to Kill” (1947). It is without a doubt one of the darkest, most seedy crime stories to emerge from the 1940’s. What it lacks in identifiable “hero” type personalities, it more than makes up for in loathsome, revolting people who can’t help but make bad decisions without any regard for others- even their supposed loved ones.
Helen (Claire Trevor) is in Reno, acquiring herself a divorce. The night she is supposed to leave, her hard-drinking boarder, Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), and her sexually charged neighbor (Isabel Jewell) explain to the quiet, innocent seeming Helen how she should treat men in order to keep them in line. Soon we learn that Helen doesn’t need a lesson from these women. When she meets the strong and quiet Sam (Lawrence Tierney), her lust filled eyes tell a story that words would be unable to describe. Needless to say, Sam is no picture of morality, and later that same night in a jealous rage, he savagely murders his former fling (once again the neighbor) and her new man. Helen stumbles across the bodies but chooses to ignore the situation and leave for her home in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Sam is off to the same train station as well, looking to escape town before his crime is discovered.
In San Francisco it is obvious that Helen and Sam are going to have trouble escaping their attraction for one another. Helen is engaged to a nice-seeming, wealthy, ambitious man (Phillip Terry), so Sam decides to marry Helen’s foster-sister, Georgia (Audrey Long), who also happens to be filthy rich. With both of them marrying only for money and status, they have to satisfy their sexual urges with each other, even at the risk of being discovered.
To throw a wrench in the unhappy couple’s plans for eternal bliss, old Mrs. Kraft hires a Bible-quoting private investigator (Walter Slezak) back in Reno to find the killer of her dearly departed neighbor. He acquires a lead in Sam’s old friend (Elisha Cook Jr.), who essentially drops a trail of bread crumbs leading the detective straight to San Francisco, and directly into a handful of trouble.
Some movies have an uncanny ability to leave an audience feeling dirty. “Born to Kill” is one of those films. There is no escaping the nastiness and evil that seems to manipulate and overpower everyone in this picture. In fact if any character shows any real strength or any hope of morality, they are quickly discarded in one way or another. This is a film noir that doesn’t want happiness or sunshine- it wants misery in every manner of the word- and it gets plenty of it. Unlike so many other noir films of its time, “Born to Kill” isn’t filled with fast-talking, witty, smile inducing dialogue either. The screenplay, penned by Eve Greene & Richard Macaulay, is very straight-forward, giving the viewers little reason to escape.
Although it’s hard to find a connection with this cast of misfits (especially that of Lawrence Tierney who is frightening beyond belief), it’s easy to become caught up in the overall feel of the film. Robert Wise is more than an accomplished director. He gets in and out of this film without wasting his viewers’ time. He is direct and to the point, and he doesn’t ever attempt to make something out of nothing. He knew his characters were evil, and he exploits their dysfunction at every turn. Cinematographer Robert De Grasse adds an exorbitant amount of darkness and fog to a production that benefits from his (and Wise’s) talents.
“Born to Kill” is anything but a “feel-good” movie. But it does illustrate how much can be accomplished by quality filmmakers. It serves as an example to directors everywhere what can be created, even when the story and characters promise to repulse your audience.