Thursday, February 17, 2011
Born To Kill
[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]
There have been countless films where a woman is torn between a life that would bring her mild but unfulfilling happiness and an alternative that she knows is bad for her but wants anyway: facing a choice between the good, stable but maybe a little boring man who loves her, and the bad but irresistibly exciting man she can't help but love. Few films, though, make the choice so explicit as it is in Robert Wise's Born To Kill. Helen (Claire Trevor) says she's not interested in men who are "turnips," that she wants someone strong and forceful, someone who knows what he wants and takes it. That seems to fit Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) perfectly: he's a violent, impulsive man, jealous and angry, unwilling to let anyone walk all over him. He's carrying a heavy burden on his shoulders, the burden of class: he's got none, and feels like he's been cheated out of the good life he deserves. He's had so many people try to step over him and he won't tolerate it. Helen is in many ways just like him. She exists on the outskirts of polite society: her foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long) is the heiress to a newspaper fortune, while Helen has all the appearances of a wealthy society woman without the actual wealth. It's obvious that she, like Sam, feels aggrieved by her poverty, constantly reminded that she depends on her sister for charity, forced to rely on others. For an independent woman like her, that especially hurts.
At the beginning of the film, she's just gotten divorced — to a man who's never actually mentioned by name, so complete is his erasure from her life — but she's already got a new marriage lined up, to the rich Fred (Phillip Terry), who can provide her all the stability and security she's always wanted. Nevertheless, when she meets Sam on a train back from Reno after her divorce, she's obviously drawn to him, impressed by his strength and his self-assured manner. Laying out the film's themes in an especially naked way, she says that Fred represents security and comfort for her, but not Sam. She tells him, "You're strength and excitement and depravity. There's a kind of corruption in you, Sam." That's what turns her on, what drives her into his arms again and again, even as Sam, a social climber like her, latches onto her sister instead, courting and marrying Georgia once he learns about her fortune.
The class subtext flows through the film, often in rather uncomfortable ways. Those who have money, like Georgia and Fred, are seen as icons of innocence and goodness. They are noble and free of bad thoughts, never knowing the desperation or pettiness or conflict of people like Sam and Helen, people who have to worry about money, who aren't secure in their place. Arnett (Walter Slezak), the private detective hired to look into Sam, is like Sam and Helen as well. He's a down-on-his-luck immigrant who doesn't even have an office for his business. He stumbles into a juicy case only because he happens to be listed first in the phone book, and once he does, he's determined to milk it for every cent he can get out of it. If cheating justice pays better than fulfilling it, he's willing to do that, too. The film seems to imply that the lack of money makes one willing to do anything to get it, that class is synonymous with morality. Sam's compunction-free evil, Helen's weakness, Arnett's easy corruption: all are signs of low character, a lack of morality, a rotten core that's tied to their lack of wealth.
Still, it's possible that the bad do have more fun, at least in the short term. The film's opening scenes are largely set in a boarding house where Helen is staying during her divorce proceedings. The place is run by a cross-eyed matron, Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), a boisterous old drunk who had obviously once been a prostitute or simply a raucous party girl, and who in her old age lives vicariously through the bawdy tales of her young friend Laury (Isabel Jewell). This duo's banter is light-hearted and fun, reflecting their total delight in their lifestyle of decadence and pleasure. Mrs. Kraft might be lonely in her old age — no security or stability for her — but at least she has her booze and a good story. The film delights in these lively characters, even as it acknowledges how fleeting their happiness is — and how dangerous it is for them to get involved with the deadly-serious Sam, who can't coexist with this free-and-easy lifestyle.
Tierney delivers a powerful, glowering performance as the violent Sam, who will kill at the slightest provocation, who won't tolerate any real or imagined affront to his fragile ego. He's constantly called strong, but in fact he's delicate, always on the verge of losing his cool, never truly in control of his emotions. His violent temper is carefully monitored and soothed by his longtime friend Mart (Elisha Cook Jr.), whose connection to Sam is ambiguous but obviously intense. Cook is a perpetual Hollywood sidekick and bit player who often seemed to have a small guy's chip on his shoulder, a side-of-the-mouth tough guy attitude out of proportion to his weaselly looks. He is also almost always fun to watch whenever he shows up, and this film is no exception. At one point, he manages to make "I'm a baaaad boy" sound simultaneously infantile and playful and threatening and creepy, and it instantly becomes clear why he's such good friends with the sinister Sam.
Tierney's seething performance, set against the hard edges of Trevor's tough gal Helen, makes Born To Kill a compelling noir melodrama, in spite of (or even because of) its unsettling undercurrents of class warfare. The film juxtaposes bleak settings — particularly a haunted-looking abandoned street adjacent to windswept sand dunes, a prime site for late night murder — with the bright, lavish interiors of the palatial home shared by Georgia and Helen. Wise emphasizes closeups that capture the determined glares of Helen and Sam, and lend a discomfiting intimacy to their sudden, violent clenches and kisses. The film's most effective moment, though, is a surprising scene of attempted murder that blends menace with desperate slapstick pratfalls. The scene's tone shifts from sinister to morbidly comical, making murder seem anything but clean or easy: what starts as an assassination becomes a sloppy tussle in the sand. That abrupt and disturbing tonal destabilization is indicative of the film's boldness and assurance. It's a hard, edgy, tough-minded film — adjectives that describe both the film as a whole and its central characters.