If I had to describe 1947’s noir thriller Born to Kill in a single sentence, it’d probably be “Sociopath meets psychopath and sparks fly.”
The plot is typical noir. [SPOILER] Claire Trevor’s recent divorcee Helen is determined to marry a nice rich guy to have the wealth and security she craves. Laurence Tierney’s Sam has desires that are equally gender, class, and era stereotyped: he wants power and respect, on his terms. When he fears his girlfriend is cheating on him, he kills her and the guy he mistakes for her lover. Helen comes upon the scene on her way out of Reno and opts to keep her life simple by not telling anyone what she saw, even though she knows the victims. Killer and witness then meet on the train out of town, and there’s instant attraction. Helen is drawn to Sam’s working-class bad boy dominance, and Sam is lured by Helen’s upper-class cool. A one-night stand ensues. Helen feels no guilt as she returns to the arms of her fiance, but Sam shows up, wanting more. When he doesn’t get it, he seduces and eventually marries Helen’s wealthy sister, Georgia (Audrey Long). An escalating battle of wills and desire ensues, with predictable noir results. [/SPOILER]
Most simply put, neither Laurence Tierney’s Sam nor Claire Trevor’s Helen are sympathetic characters. The title gives that away for free, even before Sam murders and Helen fails to report it. Both are headstrong, fierce, and obsessed with control. For Sam, it’s all about projection, blaming the world and everyone in it. His temper is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, despite the unceasing efforts of his sole friend Marty (Elisha Cook, Jr.) — queer interpretation fans will find plenty to read in Marty’s self-destructive devotion, though whether Marty wants to be Sam or do Sam is up for debate.
By contrast to hot-headed Sam, Helen endeavors to be cold, doing all she can to shut off her emotions to attain the status she seeks. She uses her sister as Sam uses Marty, without conscience. But where Sam destroys himself by attacking everyone and everything around him, Helen self-destructs, lying to others and herself and protecting Sam when she knows she shouldn’t.
So, with all the white, middle-class gender stereotypes on parade and characters so flawed they’re arguably beyond redemption before the film’s halfway point, why am I talking about Born to Kill for a SEX! Blogathon? The answer is simple: chemistry.
Even as the feminist in me rages at Sam’s sadism meeting Helen’s masochism, my reptile brain adores every ruthless embrace. Trevor is a fantastic actress and, if the tales I’ve read are true, Tierney does a fantastic job of ramping up his sexist off-screen behavior. Even as I warn myself about how Hollywood too often rests its romances on women-are-from-venus/men-are-from-mars bullshit, I fall prey to the myth’s raw power in this film.
Maybe Born to Kill is sexy because I enjoy it as a D/s (Dominance/submission) fantasy.
Maybe it’s sexy because I do feel sympathy for these poor fools, despite themselves, so unable to see what they could be together if pathological insecurity over financial and social status didn’t wreck them.
Maybe I’m rationalizing because I hate falling prey to Hollywood’s sexist constructions of gender and desire.
Or just maybe, for a Blogathon like this, explanations don’t matter. Born to Kill is just hot.