Walter Slezak, Lawrence Tierney, and Claire Trevor in Born to Kill (1947)


BORN TO KILL (AKA: Deadlier than the Male)

(director: Robert Wise; screenwriters: Eve Greene/Richard Macaulay/from book by James Gunn “Deadlier Than the Male”; cinematographer: Robert de Grasse; editor: Les Millbrook; cast: Lawrence Tierney (Sam Wild), Claire Trevor (Helen Trent), Walter Slezak (Arnett), Phillip Terry (Fred Grover), Audrey Long (Georgia Staples), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Marty Waterman), Isabel Jewell (Laury Palmer), Esther Howard (Mrs. Kraft), Kathryn Card (Grace), Tony Barrett (Danny), Grandon Rhodes (Inspector Wilson); Runtime: 92; RKO; 1947-B/W)

“A revolting B film noir…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A revolting B film noir, made before director Robert Wise became known for making classier films. This was his first foray into film noir. It features some of the most repugnant people imaginable, as they commit senseless murders and act in bewildering sexual ways and embrace greed as their motive for living. None of the characters were convincing. Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) played the part of a psychopathic slum kid and former boxer and rancher, with a zero personality and a red-hot temper, who manages to marry a wealthy and sophisticated newspaper heiress, Georgia Staples (Audrey Long). Her poor adopted sister, Helen Trent (Trevor), also plays around with this dangerous character for the thrill of it.

The film opens in Reno, Nevada, where cold-hearted Helen is in town to get a quickie divorce. In the rooming house Helen stays in, she makes friends with sexy Laury Palmer (Jewell) and the older and more ornery Mrs. Kraft (Howard). Laury’s new boyfriend is Sam, but she plans on getting him jealous by going out with another guy, Danny (Barrett). When he finds Danny in her place, he orders him to scram; but, Danny, instead, pulls a knife. As a result Sam stomps him to death. When Laury finds the body, he kills her also.

Back at the hotel, where he’s staying with his best pal Marty Waterman (Elisha), the level-headed Marty tells the hot-headed Sam to go to San Francisco and he will stay here to make sure that everything is okay. On the train Sam meets Helen, who found the two bodies but didn’t report it to the police because she didn’t want to get involved. Sam manages to win her over with his confident attitude and gets her address. When he shows up at her San Francisco mansion she introduces him to her wealthy fiancé, the steel tycoon, Fred Grover (Terry), and her sister Georgia. It seems Sam has a way with women, as he recovers from his disappointment at Helen’s engagement and takes off after the attractive Georgia. He seems more interested in her money than in her looks. In an unconvincing relationship, where nothing seemed to add up, he suddenly marries her. This disappoints Helen who has no money but is richly supported by the generosity of Georgia. Helen loves money more than anything else and she now feels she’s losing her meal ticket. Her other meal ticket, someone she doesn’t love, postpones the marriage first because of his mother’s death and then because he senses she loves Sam more than him.

Meanwhile, back in Reno, the cops have an unsolved crime on their hands. But Mrs. Kraft feels that Laury was her best friend and that she should make an effort to get the killer for her sake. She hires sleazy private detective Arnett (Slezak), who picks up the killer’s trail to San Francisco.

When Arnett is sure that Sam is the killer, he tells Helen to pay him $15,000 or else he’ll tell his client who will surely tell the police. Knowing that Sam is the murderer doesn’t bother Helen, who plans on keeping her affair with Sam while marrying Fred. To keep things going her way, she tells Sam about Arnett. His plan is to have Marty locate the client and kill her. But Sam is such a psycho, that when he sees Marty coming out of Helen’s room he becomes enraged with jealousy. He then follows Marty to the dunes, where Marty’s about to knife Mrs. Kraft to death. Instead, Sam kills him in a rage.

Warning: spoilers to follow in next two paragraphs.

Helen is so perverse and her attraction for Sam is so strong, that she acts in his behalf to see Mrs. Kraft and scare her into not telling the police about Sam. But when Fred drops her, Helen realizes she will now have no one to support her and she blames Sam for her failure–as she reacts by calling the police to have him arrested.

There’s no happy ending, as the police close in on Sam. But in a final confrontation with Georgia, her sister realizes how much Helen hates her and decides to cut her off from any more money. Before the police kill Sam, he riddles Helen’s body with bullets.

This was a bleak tale, but in a perverse way it was fun to see such a woeful collection of misfits. The rotund and corruptible Slezak couldn’t be sleazier, while Elisha Cook, Jr. came in a close second with his performance of the loyal hack who for some inexplicable reason would even murder for friendship’s sake. Esther Howard added her brand of misogyny to the mix by acting so daffy, and showing some gumption as she spits on Trevor. But Tierney and Trevor made all of them look like choir boys, as their performances led them to take enormous pleasure in their cruelty to others and in their unbridled lust they had for each other. I guess one should be grateful that Tierney didn’t kill Laury’s pet dog when he brutally went into his killer act. The only thing wrong with the film, is that this melodrama hardly made any sense.