Posted by Karen on 5/22/2006, 6:52 am
Born to Kill is one of those noirs that I keep in my pocket like the last peppermint. Sometimes I forget about it, but I'm so pleased when I run across it, because it's just so good.
Born to Kill tells the story of Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney), who meet on a train platform on their way to San Francisco. Helen is returning home after her divorce; Sam is hightailing it out of town after murdering his girlfriend and the man he found her with. Although Helen is engaged to one of Frisco's wealthiest eligible bachelors, she is strongly attracted to Sam, who ingratiates himself into her family when they reach San Francisco, and winds up marrying Helen's affluent foster sister, Georgia (Audrey Long). Over the course of the film, Sam continues to pile up corpses -- he kills his best friend, Marty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), after mistakenly suspecting him of having an affair with Helen, and he winds up fatally shooting Helen as well, just before he himself is shot and killed by police.
This film is fairly brimming with a melange of quirky, unforgettable characters. Among these are Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell), a comely boardinghouse dweller who provides instant insight into her personality when she describes her new boyfriend, Sam, to her landlady: "He's the quiet sort, but you get the feeling that if you got out of line, he'd kick your teeth down your throat." Laury says these words not with a sense of fear or dismay, but with a look of rapturous admiration on her face. Her landlady, Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard) obviously shares the feeling, as she sighs plaintively and responds, "My, ain't that wonderful. I never knew a man like that. My two husbands was just turnips." Unfortunately for Laury, Sam is no turnip. After he spots her at a nightclub with another man, he murders them both in a jealous rage.
It is Helen, incidentally, who finds the bodies of Laury and her date. However, her natural reaction is not to recoil in terror, or scream, or faint. She doesn't even utter a gasp or alter her facial muscles to wince in disgust. She also doesn't trouble herself to report the crime to the police. Instead, she softly closes the door on the horrific scene and telephones the train station for a schedule of outgoing freights. As she later explains to her sister, Georgia, "it's a lot of bother -- coroner's inquests and all that sort of stuff."
Unlike most noir films featuring these immoral femmes, Born to Kill, at least to some degree, provides insight into Helen's past. Adopted by a wealthy family, she apparently never felt that she truly belonged. Her sister's subsequent sole inheritance of the family fortune only served to deepen Helen's bitter sense of inadequacy, and heighten her resolve to become independent through her own means -- hence her engagement to a San Francisco attorney, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry), whom she views as "goodness and safety."
Born to Kill was based on the book, "Deadlier Than the Male," by James Gunn, an obvious reference to the black widow spider, who mates with, then devours her male counterpart. The analogy provides an fitting representation of Helen -- although she is attracted to Sam, her compulsion to destroy him is evidenced in a number of ways. In one scene, she subtly lets a private detective know that Sam may be connected to the double murder in Reno--in another, she sides against Sam in his bid to run the family business. And finally, it is Helen who tells Georgia about the murders that Sam has committed and notifies the police.
It's also worth noting that there seems to be a shred -- albeit a tiny one -- of decency within Helen, a part of her that realizes the kind of person she has become and wants desperately to change. She tells Sam that, to her, Fred represents peace and security. "Without him, I'm afraid of the things I'll do, afraid of what I might become," she admits. "Fred is goodness and safety." And later, when Fred breaks their engagement, Helen begs him to stay. "If you leave me, I haven't a chance," she tells him. But Fred leaves her nonetheless--he isn't up to the task of saving Helen from herself.
In many films of this era, one character is cunningly guided by another into the land of deceit and murder, not realizing until it is too late that he or she has been victimized. In Born to Kill, however, Helen knows from her first glimpse of Sam that he represents danger, and it doesn't take her long to deduce that he is a murderer. Yet, this knowledge only heightens her excitement and increases her desire to be a part of his life. She willingly goes into his dark world and when she finds herself mortally wounded by his gunshot, can only state with a sense of irony, "Fred was right . . . this time I didn't land on my feet." Click here to view the original Webpage.