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.


DavidEhrenstein said...

There's a piece on Born To Kill in the new issue of Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Volume 28 #1 (I'm on their editorial board) "Queer Aesthetics in Film Noir: Born To Kill" by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

Ed Howard said...

Interesting. There's definitely more than a hint of homoeroticism in the relationship of Sam and Mart, who are basically living together like a married couple at the beginning of the film.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Right. They look forward to Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holiman in The Big Combo.

"Noir" was always a Doorway to Gay.
The Maltese Falcon is the most famous example of this.

Sam Juliano said...

Robert Wise's work in noir was no doubt forged by his fruitful associations with Val Lewton and Orson Welles, with whom he developed the visual trademark that defined the RKO output of the 1940's - moody, Gothic expressionism. BORN TO KILL is a brutal melodrama with a pronounced sexual underpinning, and a level of depravity and amorality singular in the noir cycle. Lawrence Tierney portrays one of the most heinous characters in all of cinema, a definition example of a sociopath, and the film poses the questions, 'what happens when two sociopaths meet?' and 'what happens when you play ball with the devil?' The film's most extraordinary performance however is by Claire Trevor - her best performance in the cinema, in fact - despite her fame in KEY LARGO - and her kitchen kiss scene is stomach churning, as the battle within herself does eventually yield to her giving in to her darker nature. The always-reliable Elisha Cook Jr. again delivers the goods as the murderous Marty, and there's a grim-laden tapestry, courtesy of the noted cinematographer Robert de Grasse, that enhances one of the darkest thematic considerations of the genre - darker even than Lang's SCARLET STREET, where the human psyche is explored with unrelenting ferocity, exposing the worst traits humanity can ever expose. As far as Wise's otput, this film does come within a hair of THE SET-UP, which is probably the director's masterpiece, exclusing his collaboration with Jerome Robins on the 1961 musical WEST SIDE STORY.

The Warner DVD of this film, by the way, is one of their best - pristine and including a fabulous commentary from noir luminary Eddie Muller, who provides some fasinating remarks from ailing director Wise, before the director's passing.

I salute you, not just for writing your customary masterful review, but for your astounding ability for maintaining a prolific pace of long and penetrating essays, a feat that is remarkable in every sense. I much appreciated your delineation of the 'class subtext' running through the film.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, your celebration of Trevor is very much deserved - she nearly overwhelms even Tierney's intense performance here, no small feat, as she plays the more conflicted but equally tough feminine version of Tierney's out-for-himself sociopath. I agree that The Set-Up is probably Wise's masterpiece, one of the greatest, most economical of noirs and one of my personal favorites, but this comes pretty close. (No comment on West Side Story other than, yuck.)

The Warner DVD is definitely great, though I haven't listened to the commentary; I rarely do. The film looks gorgeous, of course.

Sam Juliano said...

(No comment on West Side Story other than, yuck.)


now, now

DavidEhrenstein said...

West Side Story is my favorite gay Jewish musical.

Claire Trevor is indeed superb Born To Kill, as she is in any number of other fims including that marvelously absurd Rosalind Russell vehicle The Velvet Touch and Minnelli's spectacularly degranged Two Weeks in Another Town as Edward G. Robinson's volcanically malicious wife, using her husband's insecurities to stoke her own neuroses.

Wise was a favorite of Jean-Pierre Melville, parricularly for The Set-Up and Executive Suite. For me the key Wise is The Haunting with The Day The Earth Stood Still a close second.

And the less said about The Sound of Music the better.

Ed Howard said...

Wise had so many great films; his Lewton collabs are of course also essential.

And the less said about The Sound of Music the better.

On that we can agree. I'm way more of a noir guy than a musical guy, though, so the charms of West Side Story might just not be for me. Heh.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I was looking at Star!again the other night -- a flop that greatly saddened Wise as he put a ton and a half of effort into it.
The problem is that Gertrude lawrence is not a sympathetic figure for a biopic of this kind and Julie Andrews can't play Gertrude Lawrence bcause she can't do camp. Blake Edwards was savvy enough to build a brittle sophsiticated context around her for Victor/Victoria, with the marvelous Robert Preston and the teriffic Lesley Ann Warren in charage of the camping. But Andrews in Star! plays Gertie straight. That's fine when she's singing "Someone To Watch Over Me" but ruinous for "The Physician" (one of Cole Porter's most delicious numbers.) I don't think she had the slightest idea that it was about society matrons who have affairs with their "doctors" (some actual MD's, most gigolos masquerading as "specialists" in one for or another) Her climactic rendition of "Jenny" from Lady in The dark is likewise unaccountably stiff when it should be loose as a goose.

Anne Bancroft could have played Gertrude Lawrence easily, but she was thought of as a dramatic "carriage trade" star rahter than a "bockbuster" performer.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I like West Side Story just fine, but I like musicals. Of Wise's major films, I'm partial to Run Silent Run Deep and The Andromeda Strain. So many great movies. So little credit for making them...

God, I love Born to Kill. Watching it is like watching black widows mate: always touch and go, and you know it's going to end badly, but you can't help but watch. I love the fact that the voice of moral conscience in the movie comes from Walter Slezak's character, who is a blackmailer! Talk about a movie where the world is upsidedown. I love it.

Sam Juliano said...

I'd go with these Robert Wise films playing the list game for a Top Ten:

1. West Side Story
2 The Set-Up
3 The Body Snatcher
4. The Haunting
5. The Sound Of Music
6. The Day the Earth Stood Still
7. Curse of the Cat People
8 Mademoiselle Fifi
9. I Want to Live!
10. Odds Against Tomorrow

Yes, I will always defend THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

Sam Juliano said...

Wouldn't you know it? I left out BORN TO KILL, which goes to #6.

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW therefore, is out.

rudyfan1926 said...

Hooray! I was hoping someone would post on Born to Kill. This is one of my favorite hoir films and Tierney is scary as hell. I'm with you, as great as Trevor is in Key Largo, she's monumental in this film and I also LOVE her in Murder My Sweet. Thank you for the excellent piece on this marvelous film.

Ed Howard said...

Dr. Morbius, good point that Arnett is the closest thing the film has to an actual moral compass. It's a pretty bleak film where this guy is the substitute for a hero.

Sam, I'm glad to see Mademoiselle Fifi on that list - such a fine and underappreciated film.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, rudyfan. I'm totally with you, this is a great one held aloft by its fantastic performances.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes indeed Ed on MADEMOISELLE FIFI. I haven't forgotten your superb September 4,2009 review posted here for a Robert Wise blogothon:

Joe Thompson said...

I'll watch any movie with Elisha Cook, Jr. Thanks for an interesting essay.

Ed Howard said...

Joe, Elisha Cook Jr. was definitely one of those character actors who always brought some extra energy and appeal to anything he was in. He's especially great in this one.