Thursday, March 06, 2008

Movie: Born To Kill (1947)

Noir withdrawal. It’s no laughing matter.

After seeing two movies a day for a week, I needed a booster shot. Might as well go with the concentrated form. Born To Kill, directed by Robert Wise, scripted by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay from James Gunn’s novel Deadlier Than The Male, delivers everything you could want from a film noir, pitched at delirium levels.

Femme fatale? Check, in the form of personal fave Claire Trevor decked out in a procession of impressive hats.

Doomed passion? Double check, because Claire hooks up with trouble personified: certified bad-ass Lawrence Tierney. He’s a post-crackup quick-tempered killer who insinuates his way into Claire’s clan by romancing her wealthy kid sister. But Tierney and Trevor are the ones made for each other, because they’re both schemers, dreamers, and batshit crazy to boot. Murder is their lovemaking!, as the poster should have said. Lousy Hays Office.

Plot twists? Fire it up and hang on.

Juicy character roles are another staple of noir, and again Born To Kill comes up aces. Walter Slezak as a genially corrupt private eye. Elisha Cook, Jr. as Tierney’s pal, always concerned about what’s “feasible.” Esther Howard as the bibulous old woman who can’t leave well enough alone.

Great scenes abound from the opening, a sharply observed look at the culture of soon-to-be divorcees’ rooming houses in Reno. A dazzling POV shot when Tierney’s first victim is discovered shows how much Wise drew from his experience with horror legend Val Lewton. And a confrontation between Cook and Howard in the blasted hellscape of sand dunes outside San Francisco is not to be missed.

Wise’s reputation has suffered over the years. Plenty of critics will never forgive him for his role as the perceived hatchet man on Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Others just hate The Sound of Music. I say to hell with them. Wise knew how to tell stories, and he told them like an editor.

Born To Kill is mainly Tierney’s show. It was his one chance at a (sort of) conventional leading man role. Eddie Muller, in a terrific commentary track, provides the full sweep of the man’s career. He recounts the first time they met, at a screening of this movie, a saga involving profanity, headbutts, and unauthorized uses of promotional merchandise. It seems that Tierney – why don’t I let Eddie tell it?