Born to Kill

Released May 3, 1947: BORN TO KILL, starring Claire Trevor, Lawrence Tierney, and Walter Slezak.  Directed by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound of Music).  Claire Trevor meets Lawrence Tierney on a train ride home from Reno to San Francisco.  BornToKillShe just finalized her divorce and has a bitterly dark edge to her personality, while Tierney is an emotionless sociopath who, in a jealous rage, murdered two people the night before and is fleeing town.  As they converse, a subtle attraction forms between them.  Once in San Francisco, Tierney looks Trevor up at her sister’s (Audrey Long) lavish home, where Trevor is living, only to discover that Trevor is engaged to be married.  Undaunted, Tierney sets his eyes on Long, so he can stay close to Trevor and also get his hands on the family fortune.  Tierney eventually marries Long and moves in, causing the underlying attraction between him and Trevor to go from a simmer to a boil.  Meanwhile, a friend (Esther Howard) of one of the murder victims (Isabel Jewell), hires a private detective (Walter Slezak) to track down the killer.  With these elements in place, what follows is dark tale of passion, deceit, betrayal, and of course, some more murder.  The film takes its time establishing the relevant character relationships, so with the exception of the opening sequences in Reno, the first two thirds of the film are rather talky and take place almost entirely in Long’s home.  During this time, not much of anything happens and the story is more akin to melodrama than noir.  Albeit a very dark melodrama.  But once all the characters’ trajectories are set in motion, the story heats up considerably and events hurtle towards an inevitable conclusion.  Tierney and Trevor are one of the darkest couples to ever grace the silver screen.  They don’t connect with the world like most people, but seem to exist on their own plane, driven by inherent aberrant cravings.  Tierney’s darkness is externalized, manifesting itself through an intimidating presence and murderous actions, while Trevor’s malevolence runs deep within her, masked by beauty and charm, making her by far the more dangerous of the two.  They are two sides of the same coin, and each is drawn to the other like a moth to a flame.  Indeed, their most passionate moment occurs when Tierney realizes it was Trevor who discovered the bloody murder scene in Reno, and yet was unphased by the gruesome sight.  While the overall story of the film is grimly fascinating, it does have some noticeable problems, the most troublesome being Trevor’s ambiguous motivations.  She flop-flops between wanting to protect Tierney and wanting to turn him over to the police, and just when you think you understand why she chooses a particular course of action, a few minutes later, she does the opposite for no apparent reason.  These gaps in motivational logic are the weakest aspect of the film and make full immersion in the story a challenge.  But despite her character’s lack of motivational clarity, Trevor is absolutely superb in this role.  She imparts a dispassionate coolness and confidence that enables her to stand toe to toe with Tierney’s overwhelmingly intimidating presence in a completely believable way.  For his part, what Tierney lacks in emotional range, he makes up for in pure single-minded focus, to create a truly frightening on-screen presence.  The supporting cast is excellent all around.  Elisha Cook Jr. is perfect as Tierney’s hopelessly loyal companion and Esther Howard is thoroughly delightful as an aging booze-addled floozie.  The casting of Walter Slezak as the private detective is an interesting choice.  Instead of the typical hard-boiled wise-guy, we get a resourceful, but rather meek opportunist, who is eminently corruptible.  He becomes a pawn in a game of influence that ultimately leads to a momentous confrontation between Trevor and Esther Howard.  Born to Kill is ultimately a character study about two darkly reprehensible people who are on a collision course with destiny.  The slow melodramatic unfolding of the story and the lack of well-defined motivations for Trevor keep it from being a perfect film, but it is nonetheless a fascinatingly dark tale with an excellent cast.  We give Born to Kill 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

3.5 Fedoras

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