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Tag Archives: Esther Howard

Born to Kill (May 3, 1947)

Born to Kill
Born to Kill (1947)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill has never been one of my favorite noirs. It regularly tops “best of” lists, and many film noir enthusiasts whom I respect love it, so I was hoping a fresh viewing would reveal something new to me.

Alas, for me it was still the same old flick. It’s an enjoyable picture, but it’s wildly melodramatic, there are subplots that never really go anywhere, and its over-the-top characters are mostly two-dimensional. The key to a great noir, like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), is the sense that it could happen to you, or to someone you know. No matter how outlandish the schemes in a film are, if they’re carried out by believable characters then I’m usually able to go along for the ride without asking too many questions.

Born to Kill tells the tale of a pair of sociopathic social climbers, the recently divorced Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and the recently paroled Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). Their paths cross in Reno, the biggest little city in the world. Helen is there for a quickie divorce and Sam is there with his reedy little sidekick, Mart Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.). Helen is staying at a boarding house run by the slovenly Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), who, when we first see her, is getting lit up on beer in the middle of the afternoon with the adenoidal tart Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell).

After Laury goes on a date with dapper Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) just to make the big lug she’s dating jealous, she invites Danny inside for a nightcap. When Danny goes to the kitchen, he finds Laury’s big lug waiting for him. It’s Sam Wild, of course, and his brutal killing of both Danny and Laury is the film’s high point. (Or the lurid low point, if you’re a prissy scold.) The sound of crickets in the background, the neatly manicured suburban lawns surrounding Mrs. Kraft’s boarding house, the dog barking in the background, and the uptempo swing music playing on the radio in the kitchen all lend a sense of immediacy and familiarity to the murder.

The rest of the film, however, just doesn’t hang together for me. Sam’s little buddy Mart tells him, “You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It just ain’t feasible.” I feel the same way about the plot of Born to Kill. It just ain’t feasible.

After the murder, Sam blows town. He and Helen meet again on the train to San Francisco. When they disembark, Sam suggests splitting a cab, but Helen tells him she’s going in a different direction. He responds, “That’s where you’re wrong. We’re going in the same direction, you and I.”

Sam insinuates himself into Helen’s life. They are clearly drawn to each other, but she tells him that nothing in the world will stop her from marrying her fiancé, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). So Sam moves in on her sister, wealthy heiress Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), or, to be more precise, her foster sister, as Helen bitterly reveals to Sam. Not only is Georgia a beautiful blonde, but — as Sam tells Mart — “Marrying into this crowd will make it so’s I can spit in anyone’s eye.”

Meanwhile, back in Reno, Mrs. Kraft retains the services of a sleazy, corpulent private investigator named Matthew Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak). Mrs. Kraft is played by Esther Howard, and her bizarre, bug-eyed performance in this film is nearly identical to the “Filthy Flora” character she played in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

Helen and Sam pursue their doomed, twisted love affair. (“Fred is peace and security,” Helen moans. “You, you’re strength, excitement, and depravity. You’ve a kind of corruption inside of you, Sam.”) Arnett sniffs around. Sam and Georgia quarrel after she refuses to let him run her family’s business. Mart Waterman shows up in San Francisco and starts living with the unhappy foursome. (Is he Sam’s partner or his secret lover? The film is never completely clear.) Slowly but surely, the plot threads of the film intertwine, culminating in an orgy of murder and betrayal.

This is the second or third time I’ve seen Born to Kill. While I’ve griped about the ridiculously melodramatic plot, maybe I just want it to be something it’s not. I could certainly see myself watching it again in the future and loving its over-the-top characters, unrealistic scenarios, grotesque supporting players, and generally high level of camp.

I think my biggest problem with Born to Kill is the relationship between Sam and Helen. Claire Trevor is a wonderful performer, but I was never able to accept that she’d love Sam enough to give up everything for him. Helen’s histrionics in her scenes in tastefully appointed drawing rooms with Fred, Georgia, and Sam seem more scripted than natural, and Claire Trevor’s performance as Helen seems too intelligent and composed for the debased character she’s playing.

But maybe that’s the point. Lawrence Tierney is a powerful presence, but he isn’t a particularly gifted actor, especially when either subtlety or range is called for. Not only does Sam Wild commit murder whenever the notion strikes him, he can bend others to his will, getting his friend Mart to kill for him and getting Helen to provide him with an alibi for murder at the drop of a hat. He’s a brutal alpha male, and loving him may go against all reason and sense, but that never stopped anybody before.

Born to Kill is directed by Robert Wise with vigor. The cinematography, by Robert de Grasse, is great, especially in the nighttime exteriors. Paul Sawtell’s music is exciting. I found the plot ridiculous, but that shouldn’t stop any noir fans who haven’t seen Born to Kill from seeking it out.

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Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (Dec. 18, 1946)

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball begins with a montage of Dick Tracy and his rogues’ gallery from the Sunday funnies — B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie, Vitamin Flintheart, Flattop, etc. — and ends with a face that Chester Gould never drew. He’s a chrome-domed, pug-nosed bruiser called Cueball, and his cartoon image eventually dissolves into the visage of the character actor who plays him, Dick Wessel, looking menacing as all get-out as the recently paroled thug.

In the opening scene of the film, Cueball sneaks onto an ocean liner that has just docked, forces his way into the compartment of a passenger named Lester Abbott (Trevor Bardette), and demands he hand over his diamonds. When Abbott fights back, Cueball wraps a braided leather strap around his neck and strangles him to death. It’s not as shocking as the murder that opens Dick Tracy (1945), but it’s still fairly gruesome by ’40s standards. (We see it in silhouette, and Cueball even drives his knee into the small of Abbott’s back as he garrotes him.)

Police detectives Dick Tracy (Morgan Conway) and Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) run down clues and question Abbott’s employer, jeweler Jules Sparkle (Harry Cheshire). Pat trails Sparkle’s diamond cutter, Simon Little (Byron Foulger), to a meeting with his hideous assistant Rudolph (Skelton Knaggs), while Tracy follows Sparkle’s secretary, Mona Clyde (Rita Corday), to a rendezvous with antiques dealer Percival Priceless (Douglas Walton).

Meanwhile, Cueball seeks help from Filthy Flora (Esther Howard), the proprietor of a waterfront dive bar called “The Dripping Dagger,” and it becomes clear that he is a pawn in a game he doesn’t fully understand. He’s a pawn who kills as easily as other men breathe, however, and before the film is over, he’ll have murdered three people in his quest to get $20,000 for a score of diamonds worth $300,000.

Like Morgan Conway’s previous outing as Dick Tracy, this picture is a solid, unpretentious police procedural that moves at a nice clip. Many of the characters never appeared in Chester Gould’s comic strip, but they’re crafted in the right spirit. Gould’s bad guys may have been grotesque caricatures with ridiculous names, but he treated them with dead seriousness. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball does the same thing. There’s plenty of comic relief whenever the pill-popping Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) is onscreen, but there’s nothing funny about Cueball slapping Filthy Flora across the face with his leather braid before he chokes her to death with it.

Gordon M. Douglas directs with energy and élan. His camera setups are utilitarian, but the angles and lighting create a dramatic noir atmosphere. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is a violent B mystery thriller with 0% body fat and a lot of muscle.

Detour (Nov. 30, 1945)

Detour
Detour (1945)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
P.R.C.

There should be a picture of Tom Neal from the first few minutes of Detour next to the word “dejected” in the dictionary.

Unshaven, tie loosened, hat and suit rumpled, he walks along a California highway with his hands in his pockets, looking as though he just watched the world burn down to a cinder and he doesn’t know why he’s still standing.

Like a lot of film noirs, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is told through flashback and voiceover narration. Sitting at a counter, a cup of coffee in front of him, Al Roberts (Neal) recalls his nothing-special but decent job playing piano in a Manhattan nightclub called the Break o’ Dawn, back when he had a clean jaw, a sharp tuxedo, and brilliantined hair.

“All in all I was a pretty lucky guy,” he says, recalling his romance with Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), the singer in the club. Al has dreams of Carnegie Hall that he downplays with cynicism, while Sue dreams of making it in Hollywood. When she leaves New York to fulfill her dream, Al is still stuck in the club, performing virtuoso pieces for the occasional sawbuck tip from a drunk.

When Al decides he’s going to travel to Los Angeles to marry Sue, he has so little money that the only way he can do it is by thumbing rides. Hitchhiking in Detour isn’t the transcendent experience Jack Kerouac described in On the Road, it’s a grim necessity. “Ever done any hitchhiking? It’s not much fun, believe me,” Al says. “Oh, yeah, I know all about how it’s an education and how you get to meet a lot of people and all that, but me? From now on I’ll take my education in college, or in P.S. Sixty-Two, or I’ll send a dollar ninety-eight in stamps for ten easy lessons. Thumbing rides may save you bus fare, but it’s dangerous. You never know what’s in store for you when you hear the squeal of brakes. If only I’d known what I was getting into that day in Arizona.”

What’s in store for Al is one of the most brilliant film noirs ever made. The plot of Detour is not that different from any number of 30-minute radio plays produced for Suspense or The Whistler, and any devotee of the pulp novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson will feel right at home while watching this film. So what is it that makes Detour so unique?

First, it’s phenomenal that such a finely crafted film was produced in just six days, and mostly in two locations; a hotel room and a car in front of a rear projection screen. Furthermore, it’s stunning how easy it is to suspend one’s disbelief during all of the driving scenes. Usually rear projection is a technique that draws attention to itself, and looks incredibly fake, but in Detour it’s just part of the background. It helps that the performances in the film are hypnotic. When Al is picked up by a man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), Haskell pops pills from his glove compartment and tells Al the story of how he got the deep scratches on his hand. “You know, there oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. “I tossed her out of the car on her ear. Was I wrong? Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don’t you? After all, what kind of dames thumb rides? Sunday school teachers? The little witch. She must have thought she was riding with some fall guy.” As Haskell speaks, Al responds with noncommital little “Yep”s in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s hitchhiked, or who’s had to sit next to a talkative creep on a Greyhound bus.

When Haskell drops dead under mysterious circumstances, Al is convinced he’ll be blamed for the murder if he reports it to the police, so he hides the corpse, switches clothes with Haskell, and takes his identification and money. His luck goes from bad to worse when he picks up a slovenly hitchhiker the next day named Vera (Ann Savage), who looks as if she’s “just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” Despite her plain looks, Al is immediately attracted to her. Unfortunately for him, Vera turns out to be the woman Haskell threw out of his car. She doesn’t recognize the car at first, and takes a nap after exchanging a few sullen words with Al. But after a minute or two, she bolts awake and says, “Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? You’re not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That’s not you, mister.”

The heartless Vera blackmails Al, forcing him to give her all of Haskell’s money and promise to get his hands on more, or she’ll turn him in to the cops. The two of them hole up in a lousy hotel room with a bedroom and a living room with a Murphy bed. Vera plays Al like a fiddle while getting drunk off cheap liquor and flinging abuse at him. Even so, the sexual tension between them is unbearable, which is even more remarkable considering that Savage is no great beauty, and plays the scene in which she attempts to seduce Al while wearing a bathrobe and a headscarf.

Like everything else in Detour, Neal and Savage’s performances are not Oscar-caliber, but they have an eerie power that can’t be fully explained. Neal, who was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Illinois, was a former boxer with a Harvard law degree who played mostly tough guys in the movies. A troubled man, he was blackballed in Hollywood in 1951 after beating Franchot Tone to a pulp and giving him a concussion in a quarrel over the affections of Barbara Payton. And in 1965, Neal was tried in the shooting death of his wife Gale, and did time in prison for manslaughter.

Neal’s performance in this film is haunting, and invites a subjective judgment from the viewer. Are the things Al tells us about the deaths in the film accurate? Were they, as he claims, purely accidental? Or is he like every other murderer who pleads for clemency because it “wasn’t really my fault”? How real are the things we’re shown? Is Al really the unappreciated piano virtuoso he seems to be, or is this just another part of an elaborate fantasy world in which life refuses to hand him any breaks? This sense of nightmarish uncertainty and the pervading sense of doom make Detour one of the all-time great noirs. Edgar G. Ulmer was probably the best director who made films for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but Detour is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve ever seen of his.