A beautiful woman watches a tall, brooding man playing a game of craps at a casino. She watches him out of the corner of her eye as he rolls the pair of dice. When their eyes eventually meet, the man’s mouth lifts into a tiny smile. This wordless exchange lasts only a couple of moments, but the powerful connection between the two leads at the centre of Born to Kill is undeniably palpable.
Based on the James Gunn pulp novel, Deadlier Than The Male, this oft-overlooked noir is arguably one of the nastiest incarnations of the genre. Adapted for the screen by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay, Born to Kill goes against type by featuring a female in the lead – a woman just as despicable as her male counterpart. This unconventional noir doesn’t rely on the familiar tropes of the genre. The film is devoid of any flashback narratives or voice-overs provided by a down-on-his luck private eye. Instead, the plot revolves around the two villains at the centre, one of whom happens to be a man with a seductive edge.
Beautiful socialite Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) finds her soul mate in the form of a psychotic murderer named Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). After her first glimpse of him at the casino, she’s drawn to his dark good looks and finds his grim persona irresistible. When she discovers that Sam is behind the grisly murder of an acquaintance, Helen keeps her lips sealed, preferring instead to recount the bloody scene with him privately, with breathless passion. It’s violence as foreplay for Helen and Sam. In a reversal from the traditional femme fatale seducing the lead male, it’s actually Helen who can’t help but get caught up in Sam’s tangled web of violence and deceit. There’s just something about Sam that immediately draws a person to his side – everyone agrees to help him get away with murder, from his loyal friend Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.) to Helen’s own foster sister, Georgia (Audrey Long).
Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor
Despite its stationary camera, the visuals in Born to Kill create a compelling, sometimes haunting, atmosphere – whether it’s a shot of dark shadows obscuring the corpse of a young woman or the image of Sam menacingly crouched in a corner of the room only moments before committing a double murder. Such visuals serve only to heighten the tension, more than making up for the films often-static camerawork.
As Helen, Claire Trevor is nothing short of a revelation. Her barely concealed desire for Sam and her flippant attitude towards his violent nature touch on the dark recesses of her own soul. She hides her true nature beneath a warm and welcoming exterior, a façade that only begins to crack when her own freedom, or that of Sam’s, is under serious threat. As one character tells her: “You’re the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw.” Shrewd and manipulative, Helen takes what she wants and it’s a pleasure watching Trevor triumph in the role. She’s so good that you’ll catch yourself rooting for Helen.
Despite not being a strong enough actor to bring out the smaller nuances in the character of Sam, Lawrence Tierney is still strangely alluring in the role. We don’t know why Sam is so angry, only that he’s a hardened sociopath who can “make people or break them.”
In the minor role of private investigator Matthew Arnett, Austrian actor Walter Slezak excels as portraying the sleazy underbelly of a man less interested in justice and more interested in monetary gains. Although the role is under-written, Slezak succeeds at portraying yet another loathsome character in a film full of such types.
With two mesmerizingly evil lead characters, Born to Kill manages to wade through its melodrama to present an exciting and unconventional noir that is both dark and deliciously wicked.