Sex. It’s a great motivator. We see it in movies all the time. A loser/cad/playboy reforms himself after falling in love with the woman of his dreams. He changes his wicked ways and learns to think of others just to win her dainty hand. I said sex though, right? Well, sex and love get blurred a bit in the movies. So, what would happen if, instead of inspiring him to be a better person, the desire for another person does just the opposite? What if pairing with just the right…or wrong person reinforces his badness or spurs him on to ever more horrifying acts?
Take Walter Neff. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Walter (Fred MacMurray) is a regular guy. He sells insurance, bowls, and goes to the track occasionally. He may two-time a girl or cheat on his taxes, but Walter never considers committing a murder. Then, he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). One look at that ankle bracelet and Walter’s a goner. He’ll do anything to get a closer look. As we discover in the film, Phyllis has a history of nastiness. All it takes is a chance meeting with her to allow Walter to access all his buried badness. Oh, it’s been in there, but without Phyllis acting as catalyst, Walter’s dark side might remain dormant forever. If it weren’t for his desire for Phyllis, Walter would keep hawking his policies and hoping to impress Barton Keyes for the rest of his life.
Barton Tare in GUN CRAZY is another example. John Dall’s Barton loves guns and shooting, but he’s not violent. He’s more interested in the mechanics of firearms and the precision of target-shooting. At a traveling carnival, Barton meets Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummings), a sharp-shooter. Annie’s lust for the fast lane and Barton’s lust for Annie lead the two lovers into a violent crime spree. If Barton had met anyone else, he might never have shot at anything but a target.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY and GUN CRAZY show femmes fatales luring men down a dark path. It’s a standard film noir element. A beautiful woman professes her love for an anti-hero and promises they’ll be together forever. There’s just one thing. She has a husband. If he can just help her jettison her pesky spouse, they’ll be free to have lots of sex and fun and money and lots of sex. What if the tables were turned? What if a woman leading an ordinary life meets a sexy bad boy she can’t resist? That’s the story in BORN TO KILL with an added twist.
In BORN TO KILL, Lawrence Tierney plays Sam Wilde, a violent, but attractive career criminal. Film noir guru Eddie Muller calls Sam an homme fatale because it’s his influence that entices Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) to sink lower than she would alone. Early in the film, Sam’s girlfriend, Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell) tells her friends about Sam. “He’s a quiet sort and yet, you get the feeling if you stepped out of line he’d kick your teeth down your throat.” Charming. The twist in BORN TO KILL is Helen. Helen’s not an innocent woman tricked into a life of depravity. She’s rotten too. That’s the fun of BORN TO KILL. Sam and Helen spend most of the film out-maneuvering each other while the rest of their friends look on, helpless. Their cat-and-mouse game serves as a dance or a kinky sort of foreplay. It’s fun to watch. Remember, RKO released this film in 1947. They couldn’t show the pair, as Joe Bob Briggs says, in flagrante aardvarkus. Despite the limitations of a film made in the 1940s, BORN TO KILL is pretty sexy stuff and Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney do a nice job of steaming up the camera lens. Trevor, in particular, conveys her craving for Tierney beautifully.
Released in Britain as DEADLIER THAN THE MALE, BORN TO KILL features a gang of terrific character actors in meaty roles. Elisha Cook, Jr. plays Mart, Sam’s partner in crime. Mart tries to keep his friend tethered, but Sam’s a sociopath with a hair trigger temper so he doesn’t have much luck. It’s a big part and Cook adds dimension to the usual cohort character. Walter Slezak has fun playing a possibly corrupt, Bible-quoting private detective. As good as the ensemble is in BORN TO KILL, the actor who steals the show is Esther Howard. Her Mrs. Kraft displays the only real conscience in the film. Howard played drunks and down-and-out people in a few noirs, but Mrs. Kraft allowed her to show a lot more range. The screenplay, written by Eve Greene and Richard Macauley is one of the best parts of the film. Based on the novel, Deadlier than the Male by James Gunn, BORN TO KILL has great dialogue and the cast, led by the thoroughly underrated Claire Trevor and the sexy Lawrence Tierney have a field day with it.
RKO assigned Robert Wise to direct one of its few A-list films noirs. A true craftsman, Wise directed THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, EXECUTIVE SUITE, THE HAUNTING, and THE SOUND OF MUSIC among many others. Studios knew he could handle any genre, but this was his first film noir. Earlier films with Val Lewton and Nicholas Musuraca taught Wise about shadows and light. Thanks to that training, cinematographer Robert De Grasse, and Claire Trevor’s gorgeous costumes, BORN TO KILL looks great. It’s a sexy, malevolent little film.