Born to Kill (1947)
Born to Kill (1947)

Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hrs. 23 min.

Release Date: May 3rd, 1947 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Robert Wise Actors: Claire Trevor, Lawrence Tierney, Walter Slezak, Phillip Terry, Audrey Long, Elisha Cook Jr., Isabel Jewell, Esther Howard




n Reno, Mrs. Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) finalizes her divorce, with a distinct lack of concern. She heads to the Northern Club to celebrate, though she doesn’t seem in a particularly celebratory mood. There she meets acquaintance Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell) with her new boyfriend Danny (Tony Barrett), each clearly more willing to party. Just before, at the house Helen rented, Laury had spoken lightly about juggling more than one beau and having great successes with the opposite sex (Danny is merely a tool to spice up the interest of her other, more exciting man).

“Ain’t that wonderful!” exclaims Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), after Laury joyfully suggests that her broad-shouldered original boyfriend is the type that might kick her teeth down her throat if she got out of line. Elderly Mrs. Kraft never could snag such a “winner”; all her previous companions were “turnips.” That other man, Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), is certainly no turnip, and follows Laury home to swiftly murder her fling – as well as Laury herself when she witnesses the killing. Although Helen discovers the bodies, she doesn’t want to get wrapped up in the mess, and so heads to San Francisco rather than alerting the police. Sharing the train with Sam proves to be a coincidental yet enlightening journey, especially when Helen suggests that she wouldn’t mind seeing him again. And matters become even more complex when Helen’s rich fiancé Fred Grover (Phillip Terry) is introduced, along with her equally wealthy – and available – foster sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long).

All of the film noir elements are present in this late ’40s entry, though they’re clearly shifting into increasingly dark, morbid territory. The sharp dialogue, the amusing frankness of every conversation, the chiaroscuro lighting, and the mean-spirited violence are each more potent than in the films from earlier in the decade. Plus, the promiscuity of the women, their attraction to danger, and their intent on controlling every situation crafts notably more cynical and conniving personas. And that’s saying nothing of the fact that the leading man is a cold-blooded, homicidal maniac.

Based on the book “Deadlier Than the Male” by James Gunn, “Born to Kill” undoubtedly satisfies both titles with ease. The main characters are absolutely evil, doing whatever pops into their heads to climb social ladders, gain advantages and knowledge over one another, or to stay in dominant positions of authority. Class divisions, sketchy accomplices, manipulation interchanging with abusiveness, and literal knife fights are always at the forefront to keep the antagonists perpetually more prominent than the protagonists (of which there are virtually none). In the world of “Born to Kill,” stabbing an old lady doesn’t require a second thought.

Tough, depraved people, unsure of whether or not money and security will keep them honest or motivate them to become even more savage, can only end up one way (in its fatalistic finale, life is as cheap and worthless as a newspaper thrown unceremoniously right into the street, just paces away from where it was purchased). It’s a venomous competition of backstabbing, side-swapping, insult-spewing, jealousy, lies, temptation, infidelity, and uncontrollable criminality (when anyone displeases Sam, he immediately plots an untimely demise), where even the shamus trying to solve the murders (Walter Slezak as Albert Arnett) is corrupt, the elderly landlady drunkenly cheats at cards, and faithful pals come in the shape of Elisha Cook Jr. (one of the very best character actors to consistently portray amoral little thugs). “Born to Kill” is, by far, one of the most acerbic of all films noir, boasting essentially no redeemable characters (or a wealth of deliciously evil villains) while also being utterly enthralling in its catastrophic, downward spiral of murder and mayhem.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10