Born to Kill (1947)

Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947), known as Lady of Deceit on its British release, is a cracking little sick romance in which, unusually for the genre, silky femme fatale Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) doesn't ensnare a feeble patsy but instead finds herself sort of hooked up with interesting psychotic brute Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). An impoverished society girl who gets a divorce in Reno, Helen happens to fall in with a thug who has just murdered his trampy girlfriend and the callow idiot she was stepping out with to make him jealous. Realising that Sam is a potential repeat murderer on a slow simmer, Helen schemes to get him together with her wealthy but naive adopted sister (Audrey Long) in San Francisco, hoping that his violence will boil over again so she can scoop the inheritance. Robert Wise, whose later films (The Sound of Music, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) tend to be more humane, was still in his bitter B picture phase here, applying the lessons he learned at the Val Lewton fear factory on The Body Snatcher to this twisted crime drama. Tierney, still tough years later in the likes of Reservoir Dogs, is a blocky, perpetually bristling villain, somewhat unusally talked up by the script as if he were an irresistible specimen of Tyrone Power-like manhood, and Trevor, who has a few un-fatale qualms about her plans, matches him. In a remarkable sequence, Elisha Cook Jr, playing Tierney's toady (he now seems like a would-be lover) in his inimitable cringing style, coaxes a blowsy landlady (Evelyn Howard) out into the desert by flirting horribly with her (he repeats the phrase 'glamour girl') but then has a terrible time trying to murder her so she won't blow the whistle on Tierney and winds up (as usual) horribly dead himself. Walter Slezak is also fun as a pudgy, corrupt, nagging private eye who works out what's going on and tries to find his own angle. Based on a novel (Deadlier Than the Male) by James Gunn, it's a strangely assembled script - which takes a lot of odd leaps between the lowlife and high society worlds, and takes a couple of plot detours (like Sam's sudden, childish enthusiasm for running his wife's newspaper) that come out of and go nowhere. Though the slouch-hatted, smouldering Tierney and the characters established in the Reno scenes are typical, vivid noir lowlifes, the San Francisco plot owes as much to the 1940s 'scheming witch' genre of women's melodrama (The Little Foxes, etc) as standard strong-arm business.
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: Crime Time.


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