“Born to Kill” starring Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, & Walter Slezak

THE COLDEST KILLER A WOMAN EVER LOVED! -A tagline from the original poster

In Reno, Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) kills Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell), a young woman he’d recently dated and her L/T bf, Danny (Tony Barrett). It may NOT be the 1st time that he has murdered- yikes! Sam’s friend/roomie- Marty Waterman (Elisha Cook, Jr.)- chides him for his hasty behavior; he also reveals that last Sam had a “crack-up” last Summer. Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), a woman whose divorce has just come through, finds the dead bodies. She decides NOT to call the cops and become involved. The next day, Sam and Helen meet on the train to San Fran, unaware of the (deadly) link btwn them.

Marty [to Sam]: You can’t just go around killin’ people whenever the notion strikes you. It’s not feasible.

This film noir (considered one of the MOST brutal of the genre) resulted in a loss of $243,000 (over $2.78M in 2020) for RKO Studios. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Tallulah Bankhead was 1st considered for the role of Helen that went to Trevor. French film maker, Jean-Pierre Melville, late said that he was influenced by this movie. The story starts out slow, as we meet Helen, Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard- playing a boozy/older landlady), and Laury (a talkative young woman who lives next door). Mrs. Kraft (who is a widow) delights in the stories Laury tells re: her dating life.

Laury [describing the man she recently met]: Well, this big across the shoulders. He moved my trunk around the other day like it was a cracker box. He’s the quiet sort. And yet you get the feeling if you stepped out of line he’d kick your teeth down your throat.

Mrs. Kraft: Why, ain’t that wonderful?

Laury: Sure is.

As Eddie Muller commented, this movie has some great supporting characters. Mrs. Kraft can be funny, though she is also a brave/loyal friend to Laury (even after she is gone). Marty will do anything to help Sam, though he projects a humble/harmless persona. Mr. Arnett (Victor Slezak), the private detective hired by Mrs. Kraft, is BOTH jovial and a shameless opportunist.

Delivery Boy: My, that coffee smells good. Ain’t it funny how coffee never tastes as good as it smells.

Mr. Arnett: As you grow older, you’ll discover that life is very much like coffee: the aroma is always better than the actuality. May that be your thought for the day.

“This is the rare film noir that has a femme fatale and a homme fatale,” Muller noted. Trevor (already an Oscar winner) is compelling as a graceful, worldly, and (above all) cold-hearted woman. Helen wants money, as her adopted/younger sister- Georgia (Audrey Long)- is the one who inherited everything from their father. Of course, Georgia is happy to share, BUT Helen isn’t satisfied w/ her paying the bills. Though Helen is engaged to a wealthy man from her social circle, Fred (Phillip Terry), she is V attracted to Sam. Even after she learns he is a killer, Helen still wants to be w/ Sam- yikes!

Helen: [to Sam] You’re strength, excitement, and depravity!

Muller explained that Tierney (6’1″tall w/ a square jaw, intense eyes, and deep voice) was “a real-life tough guy” who was known for his drinking and public brawling. Yup, he was arrested several times! Tierney’s younger brother also became an actor; Scott Brady (V conventionally handsome) changed his last name when he got to Hollywood. Tierney and Cook, Jr. were best pals IRL, too (as in this movie). Some viewers commented that Sam doesn’t have the charm (which is usually expected from a leading man). There is NO doubt that Tierney has something that one can’t teach- screen presence. Somehow, he managed to have a long career; he appeared in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Muller (who met Tierney in this later years) said that “he’s NOT acting” in this role- LOL!

[1] Tierney’s intense character, his hot temper and insane paranoid jealousy are, well, fun to watch once you get to like this actor and his tough-guy roles. Tierney, in this film, would kill over the slightest thing that would suggest to him that he might be getting double crossed. Talk about a guy with mental problems!

Trevor was effective as the immoral woman who cared for money first, and everything else a distant second.

[2] Marty Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.) has a strange friendship with Sam and the fact that they share a double bed in the low-budget hotel may give a hint that they have a homosexual relationship.

[3] It isn’t a surprise that a good script and some talented actors are put together with such smart, fast panache by a young Robert Wise, more famous for West Side Story and Sound of Music. It ends up taking some astonishing twists, and some liberties with location shooting that are fabulous for 1947.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

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