Nastiness can take on all sorts of shapes and sizes. Brute force comes to mind immediately, but so do emotional and psychological abuse. The venues through which human beings can torture, corrupt, and even kill are endless. Humans can truly be quite creative when it comes to sowing the destruction of others, matched only by the determination with which they harbor their impure thoughts. Film noir, in all its glory, is regularly a platform for filmmakers to explore the depravity inherent in each and every one of us, from those that have been pushed to the brink one time too many, to those that would never be suspected of hurting a fly. As much the male characters tend to come to the forefront of the conversation, noir makes it abundantly clear that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Case in point, Robert Wise’s 1947 thriller Born to Kill., starring Claire Trevor.
Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) has just divorced her husband in Reno, Nevada. Free from the shackles of marriage (the reasons for which she left her husband are left obscured), she plans to hop on the train to San Francisco the next day and leave the past behind. Her last night in Nevada proves chillingly eventful, as she makes the acquaintance of Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), the man currently going out with her boarding house neighbor, Laury. Sam is tall, very handsome, and looks to be chiseled like a Herculean statue. He is also an extremely intense personality, mistrusting of anyone that looks at him crookedly. Following the encounter at the casino, Helen returns to the boarding house for the last time when she discovers the bodies of Laury and another man she was seeing! Rather than alert the authorities, the protagonist immediately skips town, but Sam is heading in the exact same direction. Thus begins a tormenting misadventure pitting Sam, extraordinarily jealous and clearly a sociopath, against Helen, no angel herself, and she knows exactly what buttons to push.
Anyone that has enjoyed a handful of movies that fall under the noir umbrella can attest to the fact that many of the folk that dwell in its shadows are nasty. The films themselves go about several ways to demonstrate it, but some are more direct about it than others, to the point where they steam with anger and mean-spiritedness. Robert Wise, a chameleon-like director comfortable working in a variety of genres, goes the whole nine yards as far as aggressiveness is concerned in Born to Kill. This is a bitter, vindictive film in which both of its lead roles sharpen their knives, readying themselves to poke at any opportunity, always aware that a coup de grâce (or coup of dis-grâce) might arrive at any moment. What strikes the viewer is the dichotomous exposé on display, as Sam Wilde and Helen Brent are remarkably different insofar as how they exercise their power, making their tit-for tat, tenuous relationship all the more perversely engaging.
On the one hand, Sam is a brute. Few would make the case that he is the brightest tool in the shed, yet he has somehow managed to elude the authorities up until now, so he obviously isn’t a complete idiot. When in San Francisco, he meets Helen’s foster sister, Georgia (the delightful Audrey Long), with whom he strikes up a fake romance. With his looks, it doesn’t take long for Georgia to be wooed by the hulk. His tactic, not the least bit subtle, is to get to Helen through Georgia, especially after discovering that the apple of his eyes is to wed a wealthy, upper class boyfriend, Fred (Philip Terry). Sam exudes forcefulness, dangerous sexuality, as he is incapable and, frankly, probably unwilling to camouflage his dark side. In fact, one wonders if he even has a lighter side at all. He seems hellbent on getting his way, irrespective of the risks he takes. He is a blunt instrument, no more no less.
Make no mistake about it, Lawrence Tierney owns the role. A talented actor, Tierney made a name for himself early in his career by playing villains, such as in Dillinger (1945). There is an aura about him that keeps the viewer’s eyes glued to the screen. His strength, his confidence and his squared-jaw good looks are enough to get anyone to pay attention. On the flip side, his side of the equation is fairly one note. His friend, Marty (the inimitable Elisha Cook Jr. in another of his inimitable supporting roles), briefly mentions that he hasn’t been the same since snapping a short while ago, but that throw-away alone is insufficient to make Sam more than what he on the surface level: a loon. Tierney plays the part very well, but the script fails to provide any deeper layers.
In the other corner, and ruling the roost in Born to Kill as far as complex nastiness is concerned, is Claire Trevor’s Helen. From the outset, it is abundantly clear that her path is one paved with uncertainty. The mere fact that she filed for divorce entails admission of error, at least partially, on her part. She opts to build a new life for herself in San Francisco, and while she demonstrates a certain level of affection towards Fred, one cannot help but discern a lack of anything particularly deep. It greatly helps that both he and Georgia are incredibly wealthy, so perhaps Helen is merely looking for security whilst embracing her wilder side in Sam’s presence. Said wild side proves Machiavellian, as she keeps just enough strings attached to Fred while teasing Sam, luring him into false pretenses of possibly running away with her. At no point does she outright refuse his advances, advances that continue behind the curtains even after he weds Georgia. Even so, she plays mind and heart games with him, practically relishing the image of his growing frustration. Helen is a wild thing, only the channels through which she exerts her passions involve more subtlety, more mind games, more play-acting, whereas Sam comes across as a brute force. As such, Claire Trevor dominates the picture. Her Helen displays both frustration and an air of superiority, reinforcing the notion that she is a sadly complex character, sometimes difficult to ascertain, yet always magnetic.
Even the film’s few lighter characters are consumed by its dark overtones. The boarding house’s alcoholic owner, Mrs Kraft, played with terrific gusto by Esther Howard, hires a well-spoken private detective (Walter Slezak) to found out who murdered her dear friend Laury. Both make the trek to San Francisco when the clues point them in that direction. Each exudes more jovial personalities than anybody in the picture, yet each is afflicted by a terrible handicap. Mrs. Kraft, at first a lively, devil may care creature, quickly turns to the bottle for the wrong reasons, enraged by the murder of her friend. Arnett, whilst regularly sporting a huge grin and dropping little nuggets of literate culture onto his acquaintances, fiendishly extracts exorbitant amounts of money out of those that have no other choice but to resort to his services. That’s the sort of film viewers are dealing with. The most sophisticated character is a money monger and the one with the most spunk is a raging alcoholic.
The unfiltered moral filth on display in Born to Kill is one of the reasons why it has stood the test of time. It showcases some of the worst traits plaguing humanity. It’s also a very angry movie. It feels as though director Robert Wise and everyone involved was piping mad for unexplained reasons and all came together on this project to vent their frustrations. Given the more puritanical tendencies of both critics and audiences back in the 1940s, it comes as no surprise when learning that the film was torn to shreds upon its release. Today, in the early 21st century, and especially in our age when gender politics and the conversation surrounding gender have taken societies by storm, it works both simultaneously as a time capsule, but also as reminder of how certain aspects of gender politics have changed and others remained the same. Some might feel a little dirty after watching it.