Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill (1947)
Claire Trevor is actually the one who got top billing in 1947’s film noir, “Born to Kill,” Noir Alley’s feature on Sunday, July 30, 2017. Host Eddie Muller says that Hollywood’s chief censor, Joseph Breen, called it a film that “ought not to be made because it is a story of gross lust and shocking brutality and ruthlessness.” The censors made RKO cut out some of the more brutal scenes of the film but, let’s face it, that was the 1940s and moviegoers these days are much more desensitized to all of that than ever before.
Muller waxes rhapsodic about Claire Trevor’s role as Helen Brent, claiming that of all the femme fatale roles she played, this is the ultimate. He calls her character, Helen, a “viper.” Mmmmm, I didn’t really see that, but moving on to Lawrence Tierney, Muller calls him an “homme fatale.” Okay. Tierney is Sam Wilde, the one who was born to kill and the real deal when it comes to brutality and ruthlessness. “On the posters, he looked like Tyrone Power’s bad-ass black sheep brother,” Muller quips. He says that Tierney was not acting in the film. He was a rough and tumble brawler in real life who found it difficult to stay out of trouble.
The film opens in Reno, Nevada where Helen Brent just got a divorce. She returns to her boarding house where Mrs. Kraft, the owner, is guzzling beer with her next-door neighbor, Laury Palmer. Laury has a date with Danny, a guy she is using to make another man jealous. Helen pays her bill through the next day and goes off to the casino. At a craps table, she watches the man with the dice intently, imitating his bets for a couple of throws. He notices and when she goes against his bet, she loses. Ominous omen! Laury shows up with Danny and they say hello to Helen. The dice-thrower is Sam Wilde, the guy Laury was trying to make jealous and it worked. He follows Laury home and orders Danny to leave. Danny refuses, pulls a knife and wants to fight, so Sam kills him. Laury comes in post-foul deed, finds Danny’s body and Sam kills her too.
Sam returns to where he’s staying with a guy named Marty Waterman and tells him what happened without a hint of remorse. Marty tells Sam to leave town and he’ll hang around Reno a few days till the heat is off. Meantime, Helen discovers the dead bodies but decides it would be too messy to report it to the cops. She heads off to San Francisco and on the train, encounters Sam again. She is taken with his strength and self-assurance.
In San Francisco, Helen says she will get in touch with Sam later and they go their separate ways. Before long, he shows up uninvited at her place. She actually lives with her rich foster sister, Georgia Staples. Sam is pissed off to meet Helen’s fiance, Fred Grover, and demands to know why she is with him. Helen says she needs the money and security Fred can offer her and insists she loves both Fred and Georgia. Sam decides to go after Georgia. He sweeps her off her feet, right to the altar. This does nothing to alter the steel and magnet attraction between Sam and Helen. Georgia is completely blind to that until it’s too late, but Fred isn’t. He can’t fathom what’s so hot about Sam but knows it’s too hot for him to be related to. He breaks off his engagement with Helen.
In the meantime, Mrs. Kraft hires a private detective named Albert Arnett to find out who murdered Laury. When Marty follows Sam to San Francisco, Arnett follows Marty and he is soon on Sam’s trail. Watch the film to find out what happens next. The supporting actors and the entertaining dialogue make this film really enjoyable, not to take away from the leads. There’s an encore presentation on TCM at 8 p.m. Eastern on Friday, 8/4/2017 and it’s also available on TCM On Demand until August 6th.
Notes on the Cast:
Lawrence Tierney had already made a name for himself in the title role of 1945’s “Dillinger.” Perhaps by now, that role and his other noir forays have all been overshadowed by his portrayal of crime boss Joe Cabot in 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs.” In his 70s by then, he was still barking out orders in that tough guy voice. (To Steve Buscemi: “Now listen up, Mr. Pink. There’s two ways you can go on this job: my way or the highway. Now what’s it gonna be, Mr. Pink?”)
Claire Trevor was the only cast member of Key Largo (1948) to get an Oscar. In 1949, she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Johnny Rocco’s alcoholic girlfriend, Gaye Dawn. Another 1949 Best Supporting Actress nominee was also in “Born to Kill”: Ellen Corby, the future Grandma Walton. She had a small uncredited role as a maid. Her 1949 Oscar nod was for “I Remember Mama.”
Tierney himself told Eddie Muller that Esther Howard “stole the film” as Mrs. Kraft. She most certainly made a memorable impression.
Elisha Cook, Jr. played Sam’s friend, Marty. His exchanges with Mrs. Kraft were hilarious even if his intentions weren’t. Cook’s career as a character actor began in the 1930s and lasted through the ’80s. Believe me, you’ve seen this guy in something. He was the building superintendent in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968).
As the shady P.I., Walter Slezak also added a lot of comic relief. He had a witty way with words, aside from his Shakespeare and Bible quotes. Some may remember him fondly as the enterprising major domo who got Rock Hudson arrested by the Italian police in “Come September” (1961). He was also the father of Erika Slezak, long-time star of the ABC’s daytime soap, “One Life to Live”
Phillip Terry played Fred Grover. He was one of the stars of “The Lost Weekend” with Ray Milland and Jane Wyman. He was also Joan Crawford’s third husband.
For a comparison of “Deadlier Than the Male,” the novel that the movie is based on to the film, check out Paul McGoran’s write-up on his blog.