Thursday, March 19, 2009

Born to Kill (RKO, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Born to Kill is a 1947 RKO film noir which featured Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wilde, a psychopathic killer who, as the movie opens, is living in Reno and dating Grace (Kathryn Card), the “fast” woman at the boarding house owned by Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell). When Grace decides to go on a date with a milquetoast, Danny (Tony Barrett), and lets him into her home where — unbeknownst to either of them — mean ol’ Sam is waiting and ultimately kills both of them. Then he high-tails it to San Francisco on the same train as another of Laury Palmer’s former roomers, the former Mrs. Helen Trent (Claire Trevor, top-billed), who is immediately attracted to him.

She lives in a big house in San Francisco in which way too much of the film takes place — these people don’t ever seem to work, go out or have any sort of life outside of their home — along with her foster-sister Georgia (Audrey Long) and her fiancé Fred (Phillip Terry, the third Mr. Joan Crawford). Sam ends up romancing both Helen and Gloria, in the process trying to get appointed to run the newspaper chain Gloria inherited from her father (since this is an RKO production one half expects Lawrence Tierney to snarl, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper”), and in the end Fred breaks off with Helen, Gloria has the good sense to get away from this situation and Helen ultimately gets killed by Sam, who is then gunned down by the police.

Walter Slezak is billed third and plays Arnett, a spectacularly incompetent private detective hired by Laury — who also comes out to the San Francisco locations and is nearly killed by Marty Waterman (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who’s listed as Sam’s “henchman” but almost seems like his Gay lover — they sleep in the same bed and Marty literally fusses over Sam, lecturing him like a long-suffering wife and telling him that he needs to stop killing so many people because “it’s not functional.” It’s about the one degree of subtlety in an otherwise incredibly obvious script by Richard Macaulay (former collaborator with Jerry Wald on quite a few of Warners’ best films of the 1930’s) and Eve Greene, based on a novel by one James Gunn (a pseudonym?) called Deadlier Than the Male, which was also the working title for the film — and which leads one to expect a far edgier battle-of-the-sexes drama and an ending in which Sam would get his from one of the female characters, instead of the rather wimpy story we do get in which the women are merely victims.

For something that’s supposed to be a thriller, Born to Kill is surprisingly boring — the long scenes inside the San Francisco house are sleep-inducing and Lawrence Tierney’s growling act gets tiresome really quickly. I suppose part of the problem is that since Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins jointly revolutionized the movie portrayal of psychopathic killers in the 1960 classic Psycho, we have a harder time accepting a movie sociopath who so bluntly and unmistakably wears his pathology on his sleeve that he might as well be wearing a tattoo on his forehead reading “PSYCHO.” The director is Robert Wise, who already had some important films under his belt (notably his two for Val Lewton, The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher) and a year later would make the superb noir Western Blood on the Moon with Robert Mitchum and go on to a major career (including The Sound of Music, about as different a script from Born to Kill as one could imagine!), but coming from a man whose other movies show off a major talent, this film is even more of a disappointment than it would have been if the name on the directorial credit had been William Berke or another of RKO’s “B” hacks (though at least there's the amusing coincidence that the director’s name is Robert Wise and his assistant’s is Robert Weiss!).