Classic Film Guide

Born to Kill (1947) - full review!

Directed by Robert Wise, with a screenplay by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay that was based on a novel by James Gunn, this average over dark film-noir crime drama features Lawrence Tierney in the title role, as Sam Wilde, who's physicality and go-getter personality makes him desirable to women who aren't satisfied by ‘turnips’. Claire Trevor plays Helen Brent, who meets Sam while returning from a Reno divorce to San Francisco. Unbeknownst to Helen, who'd discovered the bodies but selfishly not reported it so as not to get involved, Sam had murdered Laury Palmer (Isabell Jewell) and her date (Tony Barrett) in Reno because he'd thought of her as his girl. Helen, who's engaged to wealthy Fred Grover (Phillip Terry) is (barely) able to resist Sam's advances before she inadvertently introduces him to her wealthy stepsister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), whom Sam soon marries. However, Helen and Sam, being from similar poorer backgrounds, are seemingly soul-mates for one another. Private investigator Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak), hired to find the murderer by Laury’s friend and neighbor Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), has trailed Sam's friend Marty ‘Mart’ Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.) from Reno, arriving just in time for the wedding (where Ellen Corby appears uncredited as a maid).

The film is really about Helen's struggle to be good against the temptations of bad Sam; she tries desperately to use her fiancé Fred to avoid Sam to whom she's irresistibly drawn. Helen's conflicted as to whether to help Arnett or not. The investigator, however, is not troubled with ethical trepidations; his motivations are financial, and he's willing to accept $15,000 from her to suppress any evidence he has gathered which implicates Sam in the murders. Sam can't figure Helen, and becomes less sure of himself and his ‘control’ over her when he learns of Arnett. He uses Mart to snoop out the investigator's client; the alcoholic Mrs. Kraft is far too trusting, and appears to be an easy execution even for the slight Waterman. However, Sam is so maniacal that his seeing Mart exiting Helen's room, where he'd tried to advise her to keep away from Sam, causes the brute to kill his own friend before he could do the same to Mrs. Kraft on a remote beach. Meanwhile, Helen's relationship with Fred comes to an abrupt end and she calls the police about Sam, who arrives before they do. After Helen's confession and demonstration of Sam's love for her to a heretofore clueless Georgia, an enraged Sam starts shooting at Helen as she flees for the safety of her bedroom. He shoot through the door and mortally wounds her before the police arrive to stop him, killing him in the process. Arnett reads about the whole mess the next day and waxes poetic about the whole affair and his ‘easy come, easy go’ windfall.

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