Friday, May 9, 2008

Born to Kill

"Born to Kill" (Robert Wise, 1947) Pot-boiler based on James Gunn's "Deadlier Than the Male." Set in Reno and San Francisco it tells the story of Helen Brent, a "cold iceberg of a woman," who's "rotten inside" and thinks "most men are turnips," becomes attracted to a brick-wall of a psychopath named Sam Wild ("What I want, I take and nobody cuts in") who after killing two people in Reno, follows her like a bad stink all the way to 'Frisco, where he starts to horn in on her society pals, and eventually marries her foster-sister. It all sounds nice n' cosy, don't it?

But mokes like Sam (Laurence Tierney) are never satisfied. As one character says, he lets "every mad whim that enters (his) brain, whips (him) around." Once he gets a taste for the good life, he wants more. Pretty soon, Sam is pushing his wife to get him a job running her father's newspaper because "he can do it better" and once he gets real power, "I can spit in anybody's eye! I'll make 'em and break 'em!" Helen would only like Sam to get caught in his bull-headed machinations, but she's conflicted. Something inside her "right down to her roots" makes her want Sam for herself. This can't come to good. No way. No how.

Now, if only they'd listened to lumpy, aphorism-spouting private eye Albert Arnett (Walter Slezack) who, almost as soon as he's introduced, says, "As you grow older, you'll discover that life is very much like coffee - the aroma is always better than the actuality." Arnett is soon hired to find out who killed those two kids in Reno (one of whom is called "Laury Palmer"). Arnett's ethics are situational as far as his business is concerned, but his quoted philosophies come from the Bible and other Good Books. But in a town full of moral lepers (as the line goes in "The Two Jakes"), he's the guy with the most fingers.

Things get so triangulated in "Born to Kill" that the interlacing motivations resemble nothing so much as a spider's web, with Wild and Mrs. Brent being the two oddly-matched spiders--one cold and calculating, the other hot and bothering, and not thinking much. Wild's partner, Marty (the always reliable noir-second banana Elisha Cook, Jr.) "You can't just go around killing people when the notion strikes you. It's just not feasible!." He keeps saying that word a lot. I don't think he knows what that word means. Anything's feasible to Sam as Marty finds out to his regret. As everybody finds out.

The flowery noir dialog is there, but it's tamped down with issues of right and wrong, and there are less shadows in "Born To Kill," than there are in most film noirs, but it's directed to a finely crossed shadow by ever-tasteful Robert Wise ("The Sound of Music," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "West Side Story"), here at the beginning of his career behind the camera, who could tackle any genre and make it seem like it was his specialty. Here, Wise rivals Michael Curtiz in filling his shots with odd details, and then, in momemts of high impact, dousing the screen in black simplicity. Wise pulls off the murders, evoking a building horror on the part of the audience, and he's ably abetted by a idiosyncratic cast of character actors who straddle the fence of right and wrong. Slezak, playing Arnett, is a rumpled dough-boy of a man who always cleaned his plate. His moral compass is more finely attuned despite appearances, and certainly more than those folks in their sharp suits and designer gowns.

But the two stars are Claire Trevor, who made a career and won Oscars for playing "bad" women, and Lawrence Tierney, in what amounted to his first starring role, and his last. Tierney was a rough character, who might have been the nastiest guy in Hollywood, when Otto Preminger wasn't in town. On the commentary track, noir student Eddie Muller talked about how, for most actors, stunt-men replaced them in fights to keep them from getting hurt. With Tierney, you replaced him because he didn't know when to stop (Muller has an amusing article on the evening he spent watching this film next to Tierney who, old and crippled, was even more feisty than in his youth). Tierney, the actor, had all the mannerisms of a silent-film star--not for the good, but you couldn't deny when he got angry he could provide an authentic "prison-yard stare." You may remember Tierney for his last major role--the concrete-voiced Joe Cabot in "Reservoir Dogs."

I remember him as Sgt. Jenkins, the night-watch commander of "Hill Street Blues." He has the last shot and the last words of the series finale.

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