Born to Kill (Robert Wise, 1947)
Journeyman Exrtraoirdinaire, Robert Wise
“(A)n hour and a half of ostentatious vice. Surely, discriminating people are not likely to be attracted to this film.(..) it is precisely because it is designed to pander to the lower levels of taste that it is reprehensible.” – Bosley Crowthers, New York Times review, 1947
Ah, Bosley, don’t be so uptight. You just explained everything that is so right about this film! Following an insanely jealous and dangerously hot sociopath, with a razor sharp, cold ambition, appropriately named Sam Wilde (played with a coiled murderous intensity by Lawrence Tierney) and the quickly-divorced and just as quickly re-engaged (to a very wealthy man, and there is nothing that’s gonna stand in the way of that as far as she’s concerned, even if she has to step over and ignore a couple of corpses she stumbles across along the way) gold digging Helen (Claire Trevor) Wilde just shared a recent attraction with (after having coincidentally brutally murdered her neighbour and the boyfriend Wilde felt was cutting in on his action), Born to Kill is a no-nonsense and unremittingly tough slice of quality B-movie noir (just as it should be!).
Adding immeasurably are the colourful character actor turns including the seemingly film noir-ubiquitous Elisha Cook Jr, who never fails to convince as a creepy low-life, in this case, as Marty, the ex-con hanger-on to Wilde (in which they share an amazing ‘You fuck my wife?’-style scene straight out of Raging Bull, with the ever-paranoid Wilde suddenly sure that Marty is now stepping in on his action with Helen’s innocent sister). There’s also Walter Slezak who adds a deeply helpful sense of amusement (to balance the bleakness) as a mercenary, literature-quoting private detective hot on Wilde’s tail, not above a little blackmail himself, while taking great relish in negotiating the seedy terrains fomented by the dark machinations of those he follows. Last, is the lonely alcoholic Mrs. Kraft, played by Esther Howard, who has no idea of the danger she’s placing herself in by hiring the Slezak detective.
The film kicks almost immediately into gear with a shocking pair of surprise murders and stays on course all the way through, guided by Tierney’s scarily single-minded focus and shaded by the various character actor turns. Its simple and direct presentation (punctuated with some brilliant expressionistically created moments, such as the scene of Helen finding the bodies of her neighbors) is perfectly realized by director Robert Wise, who would also create a number of other important noir gems along the way (including the just as powerful and tough boxing noir The Set-Up with Robert Ryan). With his stand-out work across so many genres, from science fiction (including that inaugural feature film Enterprise voyage, the surprisingly transcendent Star Trek: The Motion Picture) to horror (working in that suggestive Val Lewton style with The Body Snatcher) to musicals (West Side Story) to war films (The Sand Pebbles) and even big budget 70’s disaster pics (The Hindenburg), over a 60 year plus (!) career (starting as an editor with little achievements like Orson Welles’ masterpieces Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, no less), Wise has to be considered one of, if not the, greatest journeyman directors America ever gave us. Hell, I’d gladly call him an auteur in his own right if someone ever did the research to uncover, if not a full body of thematic concerns, at the very least a Wise ‘touch’, but until then, nothing wrong with being the best of the journeyman.