Born to Kill (1947 film)

Born to Kill is a 1947 American film noir starring Lawrence Tierney and directed by Robert Wise. It was the first film noir to be directed by Wise, who later directed The Set-Up (1949), The Captive City (1952), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). The film also features Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak, and Elisha Cook Jr.[2]

Born To Kill
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Wise
Produced byHerman Schlom
Screenplay byEve Greene
Richard Macaulay
Based onDeadlier than the Male
1943 novel
by James Gunn
StarringClaire Trevor
Lawrence Tierney
Walter Slezak
Phillip Terry
Audrey Long
Music byPaul Sawtell
CinematographyRobert De Grasse
Edited byLes Millbrook
Distributed byRKO Pictures
Release date
  • May 3, 1947 (1947-05-03) (U.S.)[1]
Running time
92 minutes
CountryUnited States

The film was released in the U.K. as Lady of Deceit and in Australia as Deadlier Than the Male.


Selfish psychotic Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), who reveals she is "rotten inside," has just received a divorce in Reno, Nevada. That night she goes to a casino and makes eye contact with a man who, though she does not know it then, is Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), the other boyfriend of Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell), who has been her neighbour during her stay in Nevada. Wilde, an insanely jealous man who won't abide anyone cutting in on him, spots Laury in the casino with her gentleman caller, Danny (Tony Barrett), and then lies in wait at her house to murder Danny. Laury sees Wilde at the murder scene and Wilde kills her also. When Helen returns home, she finds Laury's dog loose outside and puts it back inside, discovering the bodies of Danny and Laury.

Helen starts to call the police, but instead decides to go to the train station, expecting the killer will go there. She's planning to leave town for San Francisco anyway (since she has her divorce). As she expected, Sam is at the train station too. He follows her onto the train. A Pullman porter tells her there are no more rooms on the train. Sam disregards him and they make their way on, nonetheless.

Helen is instantly attracted to his self-confidence and brutality, but she is engaged to marry a wealthy boyfriend, Fred (Phillip Terry), in San Francisco. Sam wants to call on her there; he arrives at Helen's residence and meets Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), Helen's foster sister, also rich. Sam soon shifts his attentions to her and, after a whirlwind romance, marries her for her money. Helen sees this clearly, but neither this, nor Helen's engagement, nor Sam's realisation that she has learned the truth about the murders, is an impediment to their having an affair.

Meanwhile, back in Reno, Mrs Kraft, the owner of the boarding house where Helen lived, has hired a mercenary, verse-quoting detective, Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak), to find out who killed Laury. The detective follows Sam's friend, Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.), to San Francisco. Marty attends Sam's wedding; Arnett invites himself into the kitchen, where he begins asking the staff questions about Sam. Helen speaks to Arnett, who will not reveal who hired him but suggests that Sam is responsible for the Reno murders.

On the phone, Sam overhears Helen making a call to Arnett and begins to suspect she is "against him”. Arnett and Helen discuss her paying him to keep quiet Sam's involvement in the murders; when she gets home, Sam confronts her. She tells him about the detective and insists she believes nothing of the accusations. Marty is there during this conversation, so he learns who hired Arnett. Marty meets with Mrs Kraft and convinces her to meet him in an isolated area that night, where he will reveal to her information regarding Laury's murder. He intends to murder the woman, as he and Sam have apparently decided this is the best course of action. Before he leaves to carry out this plan, Marty calls on Helen in her room room to suggest that she should end her affair with Sam. Sam sees Marty coming out of Helen's room; later, as Marty is attempting to murder Mrs Kraft, Sam shows up. He suggests Marty is trying to cut in on his action with Helen, and kills him.

For a while, Fred has been troubled by Helen's increasingly cold demeanour, "especially since Sam came into this house". Despite her pleas he calls off their engagement. Arnett makes one last stab at blackmailing Helen and, upon her refusal, advises her that the police will be there in an hour. Helen confesses all to Georgia. When Sam arrives, she tries to manipulate him into killing Georgia, but the police arrive. Georgia remarks that it was Helen who called them, so Sam turns his murderous rage on her. He fatally shoots her before he is slain by police.



Box Office

The film recorded a loss of $243,000.[3]

Critical response

At the time it was released, the film was condemned by The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. He called it "a smeary tabloid fable" and "an hour and a half of ostentatious vice." His review concluded: "Surely, discriminating people are not likely to be attracted to this film. But it is precisely because it is designed to pander to the lower levels of taste that it is reprehensible."[4]

In 2006 critic Fernando F. Croce wrote of the film, "The usually meek Robert Wise trades his chameleonic tastefulness for full-on, jazzy misanthropy in this nasty melodrama ... Wise swims in the genre's amorality, scoring a kitchen brawl to big-band radio tunes, terrorizing a soused matron at a nocturnal beach skirmish, and leaving the last word to Walter Slezak's jovially corrupt detective."[5]

More recently, critic Robert Weston said, "This was the first and the nastiest of the noirs directed by Robert Wise ... Wise came to the genre with a background in the Val Lewton horror team and the expressionistic films of Orson Welles, so he was the right tool for the job when it came to film noir ... As the title suggests, Born to Kill is a film about the grimmest corners of the human condition, the wicked place where sex, corruption and violence join hands and rumba round in darkness. Director Robert Wise suggests that we all share a collective dark side, that one way or another we are all 'born to kill,' and in the final throw of the dice, only the incontrovertible laws of chance can set the record straight."[6]


  1. "Born to Kill: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved April 30, 2014.
  2. Born to Kill at the American Film Institute Catalog.
  3. Richard B. Jewell, Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures, Uni of California, 2016
  4. Crowther, Bosley (May 1, 1947). "Review of Born to Kill". The New York Times. Retrieved July 30, 2013.
  5. Croce, Fernando F. Slant magazine, film review, 2006. Last accessed: January 27, 2008.
  6. Weston, Robert. Film Monthly, review, October 2, 2001. Last accessed: December 1, 2009.
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