“Born to Kill” (1947)

Blowhard, Esq. writes:


I loved this wicked noir, one of Robert Wise‘s early directorial efforts. I won’t bother trying to summarize the plot other than to say amorality, rage, and murder abound as Claire Trevor‘s scheming San Francisco socialite and Lawrence Tierney‘s menacing thug are caught in the throes of sexual obsession. While the film lacks the Expressionist visuals that Europeans directors brought to this kind of material, there’s so much story packed into the screenplay that you hardly notice. Also unlike most noirs (but like the one I previously wrote about here), this one centers on a female protagonist. As the early poster art below shows, it was based on a book called Deadlier Than the Male. Trevor sinks her teeth into the role’s depravity and she’s equally matched by Tierney, who virtually gives a master class in Game. Was Tierney’s lunkheaded bully one of the models for Sin City’s Marv?


The film is currently available from Netflix on DVD and I also highly recommended the accompanying commentary track by noir historian Eddie Muller, who fleshes out the movie’s context as well as providing some wonderful insights. It was from him I learned that, at the time noirs were either called murder dramas or crime thrillers — “murder dramas” when the protagonists were amateurs (e.g. wife trying to kill husband) and “crime thrillers” when they were professionals (cops and gangsters). The film has a connection with Orange County, CA history too. Muller notes that Trevor married Milton Bren, a Sunset Strip developer who became rich when he bought significant real estate holdings in Irvine and Newport Beach. UC Irvine’s arts school is named after Trevor.

Sax is the one who tipped me off to the film, so I asked him to share his thoughts.

Sax von Stroheim writes:


I like what Bosley Crowther has to say about this: “Surely, discriminating people are not likely to be attracted to this film. But it is precisely because it is designed to pander to the lower levels of taste that it is reprehensible.” That, of course, makes it sound really great, though I think I like it a little less than some of the other noirs from the period that aren’t quite as consistently nasty. At times, it seems a bit like an early Coen Bros. film: the characters are either completely amoral, out-for-themselves scoundrels or naive fools. Just about every character is a grotesque. Tierney is a soulless version of a Bob Mitchum character; Trevor’s take on the femme fatale is pretty unsettling, partly because she seems to be operating from instinct rather than any kind of long term calculations. The heart of the movie, though, seems to be in the (symbolic) conflict between two supporting characters: Esther Howard’s silly but vital and vulgar and generous old woman, who, despite showing courage at first, is ultimately defeated by a growing sense of helplessness, and Walter Slezak’s grubby little private eye — a more sinister version of J. Wellington Wimpy: he has few expectations, sets his sights lower than any of the other characters, but he’s the only one who comes out (at all) ahead.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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6 Responses to “Born to Kill” (1947)

  1. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    I don’t remember this one all that well for some reason. Have to revisit. For more Tierney check out THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE and DILLINGER.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I loved Walter Slezak as the slimy snake-oil salesman in THE INSPECTOR GENERAL.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Actually, perhaps one of our cinema-historians can answer this for me. I’ve always been curious about why Robert Wise was never more acclaimed as a director. I’ve heard two possible theories for why this is so.

    A) What I consider to be a mark of his skill–his proficiency in a wide range of genres (musicals for THE SOUND OF MUSIC and WEST SIDE STORY, thrillers for RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, sci-fi for THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, westerns for BLOOD ON THE MOON, horror for THE HAUNTING, noir like the subject of this post) was taken by other cinephiles as the mark of a journeyman/hack who basically did the studio’s bidding. In other words, he was not considered an “auteur with” a consistent vision, but rather a competent craftsman.

    B) He was responsible for shooting the RKO-mandated footage for the new ending of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS after Orson Welles lost his right to final cut. Welles supposedly never forgave him for this, and by extension, the wider cinema-crit community never did either, considering it both a personal and artistic betrayal.

    Any truth to these? Very curious to hear educated/informed thoughts on the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sax von Stroheim says:

      I think there’s a lot truth to both of those, although I’d tend to agree with the folks who see him as a journeyman: he made some terrific pictures along the way (I especially like ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), but he also helmed a number of real stinkers and those stinkers tended to be pretty boring (in a big part because he didn’t have anything approaching a personal world view or style).

      But there’s a lot of randomness involved in both who gets the acclaimation and when they get it. Hollywood had a ton of pretty competent craftsmen and every few years one of them will be “rediscovered” by cinephiles. That’s happened recently with Richard Fleischer (whose career is simialr to Wise’s in many ways), mainly because of the success a restoration of VIOLENT STAURDAY has had at repetory houses and because Quentin Tarantino talked a lot about MANDINGO when he was making DJANGO UNCHAINED.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the thoughts, Sax! Have you heard or read anything to back up the Welles theory?

        I’m very intrigued by your statement;

        but he also helmed a number of real stinkers and those stinkers tended to be pretty boring (in a big part because he didn’t have anything approaching a personal world view or style).

        (emphasis mins)

        Am I reading right that you believe that flops by non-auteurs tend to be floppier than flops by auteurs? I’d think the opposite would be true: that a journeyman’s flop would be merely a flop, but an auteur’s flop would be seen as a failure of his vision and therefore an (at least partial) refutation of it. A journeyman would attribute the failure to any one of a hundred reasons why a movie could be unsuccessful. An auteur, as the person who takes ultimate creative responsibility if it succeeds, couldn’t avoid taking it personally if it doesn’t.

        I know little about film-crit thinking on this, so I’d appreciate any enlightenment.


  4. Pingback: The Best of UR 2014 | Uncouth Reflections

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