There’s no denying either the chemistry or the treachery of Sam (Lawrence Tierney) and Helen (Claire Trevor) in Robert Wise’s 1947 Born to Kill.
Wise went on to direct (and win Oscars for) West Side Story and The Sound of Music, but he’s also known for The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sand Pebbles. Nearly his last experience at the helm was directing Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
Born to Kill is a taut post-war thriller, featuring one of Hollywood’s most ruthless duos. Tierney’s Sam is a textbook sociopath, pursuing power, fortune, and women with single-minded determination. His love is lethal, for it’s matched by a toxic jealousy that reveals Sam’s pathological insecurity.
Trevor’s Helen, by contrast, has been described as a desperate woman who falls for the wrong guy. But I find her a near match for Sam, his feminine opposite. Early in the film, she matches him in claims of self-assurance and in icy detachment. But soon she falls prey to a very Hollywood feminine kind of inadequacy. Where Sam is outwardly destructive, Helen is self-destructive. If she is a femme fatale, she does herself more damage than anyone else — which is not to say she doesn’t hurt others with her blind desire and her own deep-seated sense of unworthiness.
The pair’s increasingly ruthless entanglement alternates between a raging fire and an ice storm. And as murder plots are hatched and both Sam and Helen fall prey to their worst instincts, it’s impossible to look away.
Secondary characters are also compelling in the film. Elisha Cook, Jr. is his usual weaselly sidekick, in this case doing all he can to save Sam from himself, with a fervor that has more than a hint of queer idolatry in it. It is Esther Howard who earns my best supporting actor/actress award. Her embodiment of a beer-loving landlady, bent on avenging her beloved neighbor’s murder, is arguably the most sympathetic character in the film.
See Born to Kill, in all its vivid bleakness, with the live-tweeting gang at #bnoirdetour, Sunday 3/22 at 9pm EST