Born to Kill (1947 film)
|Born To Kill|
Theatrical release poster by William Rose
|Directed by||Robert Wise|
|Produced by||Herman Schlom|
|Screenplay by||Eve Greene|
|Based on||Deadlier than the Male|
by James Gunn
|Music by||Paul Sawtell|
|Cinematography||Robert De Grasse|
|Edited by||Les Millbrook|
|Distributed by||RKO Radio Pictures|
|May 3, 1947|
Born to Kill (released in the U.K. as Lady of Deceit and in Australia as Deadlier Than the Male) is a 1947 American film noir costarring Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor and Walter Slezak with Elisha Cook Jr., Phillip Terry, and Audrey Long in supporting roles. Directed by Robert Wise for RKO Pictures, the feature was the first film noir production by Wise, whose later films in the genre include The Set-Up (1949) and The Captive City (1952).
The story opens in Reno, Nevada, where Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) is leaving the courthouse after getting a divorce. To celebrate her new-found freedom, that evening she goes to a casino and at the craps table she makes eye contact with a man who, though she does not know him yet, is Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney). Helen soon sees at the casino Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell), a young woman who lives next to the boardinghouse where Helen has been staying while awaiting her divorce. Laury is also Sam's girlfriend, but she is on a date with another man, Danny (Tony Barrett). When Sam sees his girlfriend with Danny, he is obviously furious about someone "cutting in on him", although he does not confront her and her male companion. Instead, the insanely jealous Sam goes immediately to Laury’s house, where he waits in her kitchen to exact his revenge when she and her date return.
After the couple arrives at the house, Sam murders Danny and then Laury. Later, as Helen is approaching her boardinghouse, she finds Laury's dog wandering outside near the street. Helen takes the dog back to Laury's home and discovers the two corpses. Helen starts to call the police but decides instead not to get involved since she is planning to leave Reno the next day and travel by train to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Sam's friend Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.) tells him to get out of town, while Marty will stay behind and monitor the murder investigation. When Helen arrives at the train station, Sam is there too, and he follows her onto a Pullman car. A porter tells them there is no more room on that part of the train, but Sam ignores him and they go to the club car even though it is closed for the night.
Helen, who views herself as "rotten inside", is instantly attracted to Sam's self-confidence and aggressive manner, but she is engaged to marry a wealthy boyfriend, Fred (Phillip Terry), in San Francisco. Sam wants to call on her there. Later, when he arrives at Helen's impressive residence unexpectedly and meets Fred as well as Helen's very rich foster sister, Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), who actually owns the home. Sam soon shifts his attention to Georgia and, after a whirlwind romance, marries her for her money. Helen sees this clearly, but neither this, nor Helen's engagement, nor Sam's realization that Helen 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 notices Marty attending Laury's funeral and otherwise acting suspiciously, and follows him 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 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 believes 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 Helen's pleas, Fred calls off their engagement. Arnett makes one last attempt to blackmail Helen and, upon her refusal, informs 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.
- Claire Trevor as Helen Brent
- Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wilde
- Walter Slezak as Albert Arnett
- Phillip Terry as Fred Grover
- Audrey Long as Georgia Staples
- Elisha Cook Jr. as Marty Waterman
- Isabel Jewell as Laury Palmer
- Esther Howard as Mrs. Kraft
- Tommy Noonan as bellboy playing cards with Mrs. Kraft
- Kathryn Card as Grace
- Tony Barrett as Danny
- Grandon Rhodes as Inspector Wilson
- Martha Hyer as kitchen maid (uncredited)
- Ellen Corby as second maid (uncredited)
Pre-production on the film began more than two years before its release. In early February 1945, Thalia Bell of Motion Picture Daily and Irving Spear for Boxoffice reported that RKO had hired author Steve Fisher to begin writing the screenplay for James Gunn's 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male. By April, however, the studio had replaced Fisher and enlisted freelance screenwriter Eve Greene and later Richard Macaulay to prepare and manage the script's development. Cast selections began in August with Lawrence Tierney being RKO's first choice due to his rising popularity after his powerful performance in Metro Pictures' Dillinger, which had been released four months earlier. After announcing the casting of Tierney in August, film-industry publications in September and October 1945 reported that Tallulah Bankhead was RKO's top pick for the role of Helen Brent, but according to the Film Bulletin the "timing was bad for Miss Bankhead" to join the project, so the part went to Claire Trevor, whose work the previous year in RKO's Murder, My Sweet had impressed studio executives. Trevor in January 1946 signed the contract to costar in the "psychological mystery" Deadlier Than the Male, which continued to be the working title for the production, as well as the title used later in the year in a series of official release charts. RKO would not officially change the title to Born to Kill for domestic release until December 1946.
Regular news notices document that filming of the production began on May 6, 1946, with exterior scenes being shot first on location at El Segundo Beach, situated about 25 miles southwest of Hollywood. Additional location work was done in San Francisco as filming continued into the latter half of June. As early as July, it was reported that the film was ready to be scheduled for release. Those notices proved to be premature, for problems evidently arose with generating a satisfactory final cut of the film, problems that persisted into October 1946, when RKO announced that scheduled November 7 previews of "Deadlier Than the Male" at a national trade show and at exchange centers were being postponed. In updating the status of the film, the Hollywood news journal Box Office Digest revealed that the picture was still being edited in October and was on a list of productions identified to be on RKO's "Back Log In Cutting Room". A general release date of November 10, 1946 published earlier for the film was postponed as well. Given those high-profile postponements, it is likely that RKO ordered a series of reshoots, which required revisions to the script and substantial recuts. The film was being cited again in release charts during the closing days of 1946 but as "Born to Kill (formerly Deadlier Than the Male)" with only the notation "Not Set" in the space where a specific release date should be given. Finally, by February 1947, the new release date of May 27 was set and published, although that day too would be revised to May 3 in the final weeks leading up to the film's distribution to theaters.
Reception in 1947
At the time of its release in 1947, RKO's production was panned by Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, who 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." Cecelia Ager of PM, another New York newspaper, was equally blunt in expressing her utter contempt for the new feature. Portions of her assessment are quoted in the May 26, 1947 issue of the Independent Exhibitors Bulletin:
"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.
Irving Kaplan, the reviewer for the trade journal Motion Picture Daily, found "weaknesses in several departments" of "the heavy-handed melodrama", although his appraisal of the film was far less severe than either Crowther's or Ager's. Instead of vilifying and generally dismissing the release, Kaplan focused his attention on the performances of the "tough and ruthless" Tierney and the "captivating and calculating" Trevor:
The picture itself is one of those affairs which winds up with five corpses...Portrayals generally betray a tendency toward over-acting and grotesque emphasis, perhaps to achieve over-all melodrama, while the dialogue, in spots, appears forced and weighted with flourishes.
After previewing the picture two weeks prior to its release, the trade paper The Film Daily cautioned theater owners about the "homicidal drama", describing it as "a sexy, suggestive yarn of crime with punishment, strictly for the adult trade." Other reviewers in 1947 also recognized the "yarn" as adult fare, but some still commended various elements of the film. William R. Weaver, the critic for the Motion Picture Herald, watched a final cut of Born to Kill in mid-April at RKO and rated it "Good". He found the film's overall look "painstaking and polished" and Robert Wise's direction successful in maintaining "a steady pace". Weaver did, though, find fault with what he viewed as a distinct imbalance between the motives and actions portrayed in the story. "Produced for melodrama fans," he noted, "[the film] contains enough killing for anybody, but furnishes less than adequate reasons for it."
Adverse publicity and efforts to ban the film
In the weeks before and after the film's release, RKO faced two significant public-relations problems in promoting and distributing Born to Kill: widespread news coverage of the ongoing turmoil in Lawrence Tierney's personal life and actions by some state and local authorities to ban the film's presentation within their jurisdictions. On May 2, 1947—the day before the film's official release—newspapers across the country were reporting yet another arrest of Tierney for his involvement in a "drunken brawl" and for violating probation on an earlier conviction for public drunkenness. The Los Angeles Times that day informed its readers in detail about the 28-year-old star's "bloody" fistfight with his younger brother Edward. The newspaper also reported the legal consequences of that confrontation for Lawrence, who was sentenced to serve 90 days at a work farm, where he would be "swinging a pick and shovel in a county road gang." That same day, in a front-page news item boldly titled "'Dillinger' Tierney In Trouble Again", The Atlanta Constitution shared further details about the incident: "After neighbors complained that the brothers Tierney were slugging it out in the street and using 'loud and profane' language as they fought over an unidentified girl, police hustled them off to City Jail." Other newspapers were reporting that the actor had already been spending his weekends in a Los Angeles jail as punishment for three earlier convictions for public intoxication. For the remainder of May and into June 1947, RKO advertisements for Born to Kill had to contend with additional newspaper reports with titles such as "Tierney Fights Brother; Gets 90 Days In Jail", "Actor Tierney Must Sleep on Jail Floor", "Lawrence Tierney Fined $25 For Intoxication", "Tierney Draws New $25 Fine", "Board Grants Parole To Film Actor Tierney", and "Bad Man Tierney Granted Freedom".
While Tierney's off-screen behavior drew additional public attention to Born to Kill, his frequent troubles with law enforcement also attracted greater scrutiny of his screen projects by state film-review boards and local censors. The actor's "bad boy" reputation proved to be especially helpful to authorities who in the spring of 1947 advocated banning Born to Kill in their communities. Such notoriety only bolstered their reasons for doing so. Among other publications, The Film Daily in its April 8 issue reports that Ohio's board of censors had rejected the film and banned it from state theaters. In that same news item, The Film Daily announces as well that Chicago's police censor board had "declined to pass" the motion picture. The trade paper then reported in subsequent issues that censors in Tennessee had "cracked down" on films they deemed unacceptable and had also banned all presentations of Born to Kill in theaters in Memphis or anywhere else in Shelby County. Then, in mid-May, The Motion Picture Herald disclosed that the National Legion of Decency had not condemned the film outright for its depictions of violence, although the Catholic organization had rated it "Class-B" or "objectionable in part, because it 'reflects the acceptability of divorce.'"
Box office and the film's effect on future RKO productions
In the weeks leading up to the film's release, some industry publications predicted that the crime drama would be "a strong draw at the box-office"; nevertheless, RKO reported after the film's run a net loss of $243,000 on the production. The veracity of that publicized financial summary by the studio and to what extent the problems in Tierney's personal life negatively impacted box-office revenue remain open to additional interpretation and debate by film historians. In 1947, however, the controversies surrounding Born to Kill did force Dore Schary, RKO's executive vice-president in charge of production, to distance the company publicly from the film just days after its release. Schary in assorted interviews with reporters in early May insisted, "As a result of unfavorable reaction to 'Born to Kill', RKO will cut down on the arbitrary use of violence in its films." The Hollywood executive at a motion-picture conference in New York City on May 5 was even more emphatic in his statements about production changes, vowing that "gangster pictures" such as "'Born to Kill' will no longer be produced by RKO Radio".
Barred from re-release by MPA
Negative reviews and unfavorable public reactions to Born to Kill and to another 1947 release, Shoot to Kill, prompted the Motion Picture Association (MPA) before the end of the year to revise its Production Code to strengthen restrictions relating to the content of crime-related films. Additions were also made to the Code's guidelines under Section XI for judging and rejecting unacceptable titles given to studio productions. Following a meeting of its board of directors in New York City on December 3, 1947, the MPA announced to the press that its members had voted unanimously to bar 14 "'objectionable and unsuitable'" films released between 1928 and 1947 from ever being reissued to theaters, including Born to Kill. The association also approved the immediate deletion from its official title registry more than two dozen films with names deemed "salacious or indecent". The day after the New York meeting, the Los Angeles Times summarized the board's decisions in a front-page story headlined "Film Heads Vote Ban On Gangster Pictures" and reported that the American film industry was ceasing the "distribution of new and old pictures glorifying gangster names or criminal practices".
Film showcased in murder trial, 1948
While Born to Kill faced multiple problems in 1947 with regard to its reception and distribution, RKO's production had to contend with even worse publicity in 1948, most notably with news coverage of the film's alleged connections to a homicide in Illinois. The case involved 12-year-old Howard Lang, who was charged with using a switchblade and a heavy "chunk of concrete" to kill a seven-year-old boy in Thatcher Woods outside Chicago in October 1947. At the time, Lang was the youngest person ever to be arrested and formally tried for murder in the "Windy City". The boy's initial trial, which drew widespread media attention, occurred in February 1948. Lang was convicted of the crime, and on April 20 he was sentenced to 22 years in the state penitentiary. As part of Lang's overall defense and during the successful appeal of his conviction, his lawyers informed the court that their client had seen Born to Kill less than three weeks prior to the homicide. The attorneys insisted that the violent, morally destructive aspects of the film "had affected the boy because of his emotional instability", impairing his judgement and fostering in him a form of temporary insanity. They petitioned the presiding judge to view the film himself so he could appreciate the substance of their allegation that the gangster film was a contributing factor in the crime. In their ongoing updates on the murder case, newspapers reported that allegation in articles with titles such as "Movie Blamed", "'Born to Kill' Movie Cited In Mitigation For Boy Slayer Lang", and "Court Refuses Plea of Lang Attorney To View 'Killer' Movie". Less than a year later, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the grounds that Lang was too young to understand his actions. The boy was then acquitted of the murder in a second trial held in Chicago. The end of the case, however, did not erase the additional negative attention that the trial had focused on Born to Kill and on RKO Pictures itself. In acquitting Lang in April 1949, Judge John A. Sbarbaro recommended the enactment of several new laws to help prevent such ghastly crimes by children, two of those recommendations being to restrict the content of comic books and "to censor movies to the extent of holding theater managers liable for exhibiting 'harmful pictures'".
Later assessments of the film
In his 2003 reference Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959, Michael Keaney describes Born to Kill as compelling despite its "hard-to-swallow plot". "This one is all Tierney", Keaney states. "He's outstanding as one of the most violently disturbed psychos in all of film noir, giving even Robert Ryan in Crossfire a run for his money." Reviewing the film in 2006 for Slant Magazine, critic Fernando F. Croce focuses on the production's director rather than on Tierney:
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.
In 2009, writing for Film Monthly, critic Robert Weston also focused his attention on Wise's directorial work:
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.
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