Your roots are down where mine are
Steven Hellerstedt | 09/29/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"While in Reno for a quickie divorce ambitious socialite Claire Trevor meets ambitious thug Lawrence Tierney. The next day, by coincidence, they board the same train for San Francisco. By the time they arrive at the city by the bay they are warily falling for each other. What Claire doesn't know yet is that Tierney was the one who murdered the man and woman she stumbled over the night before.
Trevor and Tierney play two very twisted individuals in Robert Wise's 1947 BORN TO KILL, whose original title, "Deadlier Than the Male," indicates where the serious weirdness is concentrated. Wise decision. Trevor's role, that of a good woman drawn to a very bad man, is the most complex part in the movie and she's utterly convincing. Her co-star, Tierney, is a whole other kettle of fish. On the commentary track film noir author Eddie Muller tells us this was Tierney's shot at `A' films after his smash hit in 1945's `B' film "Dillinger." BORN TO KILL comes bundled in a set of films that includes "Dillinger" and he essentially plays the same character here. With his George Raft-ian vocal inflections, flaring nostrils, and perpetual scowl Tierney is intimidating enough, but Tierney was a legendary bad-boy off-screen and I'm not sure whether the one-note tough guy acts were conscious decisions or simply an extension of his personality. As it is, beyond his intensity and ways with a knife or a cudgel he's not much less bland than the Good Half-Sister (Audrey Long) and the Good Fiancé Phillip Terry (probably most famous as Mr. Joan Crawford #4.)
If Trevor has to carry the main plot on her capable shoulders without a whole lot of help from her other top-of-the-billers, the under-cast is wonderful. The great Elisha Cook Jr. plays Tierney's prison buddy and nervous guardian, somewhat analogous to a chihuahua guarding a rottweiler that's just caught the first whiff of the scent of innocent blood. Walter Slezak plays the slightly sleazy private investigator hired by the loud, beer-loving, frumpy Esther Howard to investigate the murder of her friend in Reno. Esther Howard steals the movie, although Cook and Slezak give her a run for her money. Trevor makes it all worthwhile.
Although flawed and transparent in some spots, BORN TO KILL is immensely entertaining. While I was aware, before "Dillinger" and BORN TO KILL, of Lawrence Tierney and how his self-destructive behavior derailed a promising career, I thought he was wooden in both films. He certainly could project cold-blooded ruthlessness, though, and for this movie that's good enough. A very strong recommendation for this one.
Wise to Their Ways
Vince Perrin | Stockton, CA USA | 07/07/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"No director has ventured further into more genres than Robert Wise. Here the man who made, of all movies, "The Sound of Music" tackles its polar opposite, the small, smoky, searing melodrama of betrayal that is film noir. In "Born to Kill," available singly but part of a second DVD boxed set, Wise steers a steady stylistic course while at the same time driving in reverse. Based on the book "Deadlier Than the Male" and set in San Francisco, the movie focuses on its femme fatale (a classy Claire Trevor) rather than on the man (a stony Lawrence Tierney) who does her wrong.
That man does other people wrong, too, because, after all, he is born to kill. There seems to be no other reason for his rampant killing, which is what attracts Trevor (kinky), even after he marries her rich sister. By the time she is Wised up, it's too late for them to escape the cross-purposes of their passions; these people are so hard boiled they could roll unhurt down Nob Hill. For them, it is clear, everything will end badly. We would be cheated if it didn't. Film noir forbids happy endings.
Its sister heiresses (one a beauty, the other a deviant schemer) are right out of "The Big sleep." Walter Slezak as the portly private eye and Esther Howard as the blousy old dame who hires him are amusing. It's fun to be in wartime San Francisco, even when the editing confuses familiar locales (city dwellers will scratch their heads.) You see a movie like this to go slumming through messy lives and feeling superior to them. Plenty of opportunity to do that in "Born to Kill.""
Clash of the Wicked.
mirasreviews | McLean, VA USA | 12/03/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
""Born to Kill" is probably the second-greatest film noir on the "amour fou" motif, next to 1949's "Gun Crazy". Two lovers' irrational infatuation lead them to depravity, madness, and eventual self-destruction. "Born to Kill" is not as persistent in its sexualization of violence as "Gun Crazy", but it's there. Based on the novel "Deadlier than the Male" by James Gunn, this is outwardly a twisted melodrama. Robert Wise directed the film with his characteristic decorum, which disappointed some European critics who would have preferred a more explicit exploration of the film's psychological and sexual aberration. The production code would not have allowed that, but I still find "Born to Kill" one of the darkest and most satisfying film noirs.
In Reno to get a quickie divorce, Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) stumbles upon 2 bodies in the kitchen of her boarding house. Instead of calling the police, she decides to return to San Francisco immediately to avoid publicity. On the train, Helen keeps the company of Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney), a tough drifter to whom she finds herself attracted. Helen knows that Sam was the beau of the murdered woman in the kitchen, but she is unaware that Sam was her murderer. Sam is leaving town on the advice of his friend Mart (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who stays behind to keep abreast of the murder investigation. In San Francisco, Sam discovers that Helen is engaged to be married, so he sets his sights on Helen's rich foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long). But Helen and Sam's mutual infatuation, his compulsive violence, and a dogged private detective (Walter Slezak) threaten their plans.
"Born to Kill" was a big-budget noir with high-power stars and box office success in 1947. The sparks that fly between Sam and Helen were more than worth the price of admission. These two people are compelled by a perverse and inexplicable infatuation to destroy the security, the money, the freedom that they want so desperately. Helen and Sam may hate as much as desire one another, but they are two of a kind: deliberate, ruthless, ambitious, and somehow innately corrupt. Watching them dance around one another and go at each other is at once incomprehensible and completely fascinating. Sam is a rare "homme fatal" in classic film noir, suitably embodied by bad boy Lawrence Tierney. Claire Trevor looks stylish in her most complex noir role. "Born to Kill" is a real treat for film noir fans.
The DVD (Turner Home Enter. 2005): There is a good audio commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller, with some archival commentary by director Robert Wise that is barely audible. Wise talks about his experiences at RKO and with this film. Muller provides information on the actors, analysis of characters, scene-by-scene analysis of staging, tone, themes, and takes us through the stages of "amour fou" noir. Muller has interviewed both Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney, so he gives us the benefit of their recollections as well. Muller's story about "babysitting" Tierney at a screening of "Born to Kill" in 1999 is priceless. Subtitles are available for the film in English, French, and Spanish."
David Baldwin | Philadelphia,PA USA | 07/10/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The selling point of this film for me was the presence of Lawrence Tierney who made such an impression on me with his later character work in films like "Reservoir Dogs". The younger Tierney portrays an imposing powderkeg of a psychopath as Sam, a man with a chip on his shoulder a mile wide. Tierney conveys this pathology in a low-keyed manner with a drag from a cigarette or a glare that sends chills up your spine. The real revelation here is Claire Trevor as Helen who, despite the illusion of wealth and social status, is Sam's equal in the sociopath category. Trevor is one of the most unheralded actresses in screen history who, despite a history of consistently fine work ("Stagecoach", "Dead End", "Key Largo"), never gets proper recognition. The film contains alot of good character work with Walter Slezak as a philosophical private eye as a standout. This film makes many astute observations about human nature and alot of it is unsettling. A surprisingly frank film from a period in screen history not known for such provocativeness."