Born To Kill (1947)

Born To Kill (1947) is a savage psychopathic murder female seeker hero thriller noir, from the height of the classic film noir period, displaying virtually every noir vice and virtue in a brutal and thrilling tale of toxic male psychopathy and female resilience.

The opening minutes of Born To Kill are a quick and quiet succession of some of noir's best idiomatic themes and settings. All taking place in Reno, these scenes kick off with first the independent women, and then the suburban setting. Within that setting are more independent women, and plenty alcohol. 

The next scene is in a casino, not a likely setting for an innocent divorcee perhaps, but a great place for Americana to wash up against itself - - and the scene right after that is back into perfect suburbia, where it's all iceboxes and radio sets, a friendly doggie and a double murder out of nowhere.

The three women of the first suburban scene make up the bones of the case, insofar as they are victim and seekers. It was one of the marvels of film noir that brutal and cold murders, and acts of extreme violence, could somehow be presented and tamed as entertainment, and acts of interest and fun, with the gravity of reality removed in its entirety.
Esther Howard in Born To Kill (1947)

Two of these women, played by Claire Trevor and Esther Howard, are destined to be the crime solvers. While Esther Howard as Mrs Kraft is the highly entertaining and boozily loyal friend to the young murdered woman, using what resources she has to crack the crime, Claire Trevor plays a much more traditionally conflicted film noir hero.

Lawrence Tierney in Born To Kill (1947)

Born To Kill in fact truly rolls on the conception that mysterious Claire Trevor (as Helen Brent) has a true dark side to her that is drawn to the overt dark side of the ultra-villain and noir psychopath killer played by Laurence Tierney. As a social theme, the attraction of the bad man to the ladies is firm footing for classic film noir, and her conflict - - to kiss him! and then to not kiss him - - to run to him! and then to run away from him - - is the see-saw that keeps a certain part of the action swinging.

Clare Trevor in Born To Kill (1947)

It also works because we don't know if Helen played by Claire Trevor is really bad or not. Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wilde is bad to the bone, and this is fairly manifest, even when Claire doesn't suspect him of murder. But we don't know about Claire. Born To Kill begins in fact with her leaving divorce court, and we don't know anything about that process, or whose fault-line this divorce was a part of.

Even as a divorcee we side with Helen Brent, especially as she enters suburbia. Enjoyably suburbia, which appears as its tap-water dull self, neat and tidy on the exterior, is a place of drunken sorority, where women can be safe and equal in each others' company, enjoying the sharing of advice and laughs, uninterrupted by the murderous males which prowl every other local venue. 

Lawrence Tierney in Born To Kill (1947)

The emphasis on the notion of the independent woman is not overplayed for critical comment but is a key phrasing in the film noir laboratory, as social storytelling emerged from beneath the censorious Hayes Code, to present heroic modes that were not entirely focused on women as sexual objects, nor just victims. 

A film noir enthusiast, keen to dip to the bottom of the perilous thematic barrel, might well ask who it is that is exactly born to kill, in the context of this story. The grim and complex surroundings and changes of heart, and the coldness of the hearts that change so fast, probably suggest that the fate of being born to kill is that of the psychopath.

The complications of Born to Kill (1947) are diverse however, and it turns out, or as suggested to the max, that Helen Brent, the hero of the piece played by Claire Trevor, with whom we have all sympathy for her intelligent, independent and bold personality -- is a psychopath also. 

It's suggested in her manipulation and it's suggested in her inability to keep her hands off the man she knows is a brutal and heartless killer. Worse, it's suggested that she also might well belong with him, and Lawrence Tierney's Sam Wilde is at least a psychopath with self knowledge -- suggestive that he may well therefore have knowledge of who the other psychopaths in the room are, too.

Walter Slezak in Born To KIll (1947)

Robert Wise, the director of this classic slice of noir had previously worked with Orson Welles and Val Lewton at RKO Radio Pictures. The idea that this RKO house style of film noir -- which was certainly the most attractive, faithful and dominant strain of pure-bred noir in the 1940s -- might well have been a composite of the baroque and expressionistic fantasy of Welles, with the mood and gloom of Lewton moderating the mood to a cold and foggy brutality that leaves little room for much other than horror.

Born To Kill (1947) also plays on another major film noir riff, detourning the popular notion of the female seeker hero, and pointing it due south.

Born To Kill is not so rare among film noir in that it is shown through a woman's eyes, but what is more unusual is that we can't trust those eyes. From one angle this may be seen as more nuanced view of the femme fatale, and Claire Trevor as Helen Brent is in no way typical of the idea of the femme fatale. Yet at the same time she is a femme fatale, fatal to many including herself.

She is in fact fatal to men and women alike, and it is not because of her sexuality or desirability. Throughout, she remains unprovocative, does not usually smoke cigarettes, and  appears conservatively dressed, never trying to win someone into the darkness by sexual deceit.

Helen Brent (Claire Trevor)'s fatality as a women arises entirely from her credibility, and because people have always trusted her, they continue to do so. Helen is drawn to Sam's brutality although she is also interested in Fred's money. So instead of leading the male protagonist into darkness and ruin, she is compromised by Sam, whose tastes for sudden violence and blood shed prove too alluring to her.

Lawrence Tierney in Born To Kill (1947)

Elisha Cook Jnr in Born To Kill (1947)

Lawrence Tierney himself proved to be one of the most unlikeable and violent of leading men from the film noir era, almost a living example of the style as he bad-boyed his way from woe to woe. On the day before the film's official release, Tierney made headlines for his involvement in a drunken brawl and for violating probation related to an earlier conviction for public drunkenness.

Tierney's frequent offscreen troubles also attracted greater scrutiny of his films by state review boards and local censors, some of which sought to ban Born to Kill in their communities.

Censors in Ohio, Chicago and Memphis rejected the film. The National Legion of Decency considered the film objectionable for its acceptance of divorce but did not condemn the film outright.

Walter Slezak in Born To KIll (1947)

Although some industry publications predicted box-office success for the film, RKO production head Dore Schary publicly distanced the studio from the film just days after its release. Schary vowed to lessen the "arbitrary use of violence" in RKO films and pledged that the studio would no longer produce "gangster pictures" such as Born to Kill.

The benefit of hindsight might provide a view that Born To Kill is not exactly a gangster picture -- although what is certain is that violence on screen was something central to the development of noir as a force for developing the themes of sex and violence in cinema in general -- the 1930s, 40s and 50s being a testing bed and battle ground, pushing tolerance on one hand and creativity on the other. Violence was always skated to win.

The furor regarding Born to Kill and the same year's Shoot to Kill prompted the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to revise its Production Code to strengthen restrictions relating to crime films.

At a meeting of its board of directors in on December 3, 1947, the MPAA voted to bar 14 "'objectionable and unsuitable'" films released between 1928 and 1947 from theatrical reissue, including Born to Kill. The MPAA also approved the immediate deletion from its official title registry of more than two dozen films with titles deemed "salacious or indecent." Of course the salacious and indecent title is such a staple of the classic film noir style that the very idea may likely have inspired not just creativity on set and in the script departments, but tensions also in the executive suites.

Lawrence Tierney and Elisha Cook Jnr in Born To Kill (1947)

In 1948, 12-year-old Howard Lang was convicted for using a switchblade and a piece of concrete to kill a seven-year-old boy outside Chicago the previous year. Lang's lawyers argued that he had watched Born to Kill less than three weeks prior to the homicide and that the film's violence triggered a form of temporary insanity. The Illinois Supreme Court overturned Lang's conviction, finding that he was too young to understand his actions. He was then acquitted following a retrial, but the judge recommended laws to censor violent films and hold theatre managers liable for exhibiting them.

The films which were deemed to haver titles which were in fact in and of themselves too indecent to exhibit were as follows:

  • Born To Kill
  • Shoot To Kill
  • They Made Me a Killer 1946
  • Dillinger 1945
  • Roger Touhy, Gangster 1944 
  • The Racket Man 1944
  • This Gun for Hire 1943
  • The Murder Ring 1942
  • The Last Gangster 1937
  • The Racketeers 1930
  • Me Gangster
  • Ladies of the Mob
  • Gang War 1928

All of which shows how hard the film noir stylists of the 1940s in particular worked to allow us the right today to see more and more of the most unthinkable violence imaginable, and then that only imaginable to the psychopaths the movie industry traces, or the imaginations of the writers, each mentally engaged with their own increasingly visually violent upbringings by the movies.

In a review for The New York Times upon release of Born To Kill, critic Bosley Crowther called the film "a smeary tabloid fable" and "an hour and a half of ostentatious vice," concluding: "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."

Cecelia Ager of PM wrote:

As unsavory and untalented an exhibition of deliberate sensation-pandering as ever sullied a movie screen. RKO made it, the Johnson office [in Hollywood] sanctioned it, the Palace is now playing it. It muddles them all with dishonor...Were Born to Kill merely a third rate picture hoping nevertheless to entertain, it could be passed by with a sigh. But it is third rate aiming—and with a blunderbuss—to shock, and so it provokes shudders, and not of fear.

The Film Daily simultaneously cautioned theatre owners about the "homicidal drama," describing it as "a sexy, suggestive yarn of crime with punishment, strictly for the adult trade." Reviewing the film in 2006 for Slant Magazine, critic Fernando F. Croce focused on Wise:

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.

Elisha Cook Jnr in Born To Kill (1947)

Sex and violence and corruption do all meet hand in hand in Born To Kill, and take a rumba round in the darkness, pushing taste to a surprising degree. While the notions of violence and the five murders in Born To Kill are far wilder than their execution, the turning of expectation is what can get a film into trouble. For some, interrupted expectations are one of the simplest joys of cinema, while for others this is the kind of disappointment that leads to anger, that leads to censorship.

It's a certain bet however that Born To Kill, with its amazing and truly noir-delivery title, does make an effort to warn people that the content is going to be dark and malign. 

Born To Kill (1947) at Wikipedia 
Born to Kill is shown through a woman's eyes. This female subjectivity enables a more nuanced view of the femme fatale, a central motif in film noir, rather than that which is typical of the genre.
Although the archetypical film noir femme fatale's sexuality is often merely a tool to manipulate men for material gain, Helen is a more complicated figure. She is drawn to Sam's brutality although she is also interested in Fred's money.
Instead of leading the male protagonist into darkness and ruin, she is compromised by Sam.

On the day before the film's official release, Tierney made headlines for his involvement in a drunken brawl and for violating probation related to an earlier conviction for public drunkenness.

Tierney's frequent offscreen troubles also attracted greater scrutiny of his films by state review boards and local censors, some of which sought to ban Born to Kill in their communities.

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