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Tag Archives: Kathryn Card

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.

Undercurrent (Nov. 28, 1946)

Undercurrent
Undercurrent (1946)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The next time you and a friend see a turgid, overlong thriller with too many twists and turns, bogus storytelling, and good actors wasted, and your friend says, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” you can show your friend Undercurrent and prove that they make ’em exactly like they used to.

Pound for pound, Undercurrent might have boasted more talent than any other mystery melodrama in 1946. Director Vincente Minnelli and cinematographer Karl Freund were both gifted craftsmen with numerous acclaimed films under their belts. Herbert Stothart’s music is moody and evocative, especially the film’s haunting theme. Actors Robert Taylor and Katharine Hepburn were both stars of the highest magnitude, and hadn’t been seen onscreen for some time. Taylor had just finished his term of service as a flying instructor in the U.S. Naval Air Corps and Hepburn hadn’t appeared in a movie for a year and a half.

So what’s the problem? While studio tinkering could have played some part, the problem seems to mostly be Edward Chodorov’s screenplay, which was based on a story by Thelma Strabel. In a word, it’s silly. As soon as a promising situation is established, the story goes in a different direction, which serves to undercut the tension. The review of the film in the November 11, 1946, issue of Time called the plot “indigestible,” and said it was like “a woman’s magazine serial consumed at one gulp.”

Hepburn plays a young woman named Ann Hamilton who lives with her father, chemistry professor “Dink” Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn). Ann is herself chemically inclined, and prefers to spend time tinkering in the laboratory than entertaining proposals from eligible young men. All that changes when the handsome, mustachioed, and fabulously wealthy Alan Garroway (Taylor) enters her life. Alan is the inventor of the Garroway Distance Controller, which helped win the war.

Hepburn and Taylor in the shadow of Mitchum

Alan and Ann marry, and he takes her away with him to Washington, D.C., where she feels completely out of her depth in high society. Meanwhile, Alan starts making sinister insinuations about his brother Michael, who supposedly went missing years earlier with a large sum of money embezzled from the family business, and who is offscreen for most of the picture. The film seems to be setting up “What happened to Michael Garroway?” as the central mystery, but if you’ve looked at a cast list with character names, this plot thread won’t be that mysterious for you.

When Alan takes Ann away to his lovely country home in Middleburg, Virginia, the film threatens to settle down and become a solid Gothic melodrama. The estate has no phone line, and Alan’s behavior is increasingly bizarre. And as one critic noted, the central theme of Gothic fiction seems to be, “Someone is trying to kill me, and I think it may be my husband.”

True to form, however, the film goes in yet another direction, with Ann going off to explore Michael Garroway’s ludicrously appointed mansion-cum-bachelor pad, where she explores his musical instruments and books of poetry with copious underlinings, and seems to be falling in love with a man she has never met. I’m sure a good film could be made about a love triangle with one-third of the equation missing for most of the film’s running time, but this isn’t it. As Bosley Crowther said in his review of Undercurrent in the November 29, 1946, issue of the NY Times, “And if that also sounds a trifle senseless, let us hasten to assure you that it is.”

Robert Mitchum — one of my favorite actors of all time, ever since I saw him host Saturday Night Live in 1987 and asked my mom, “Who is that?” — is also in Undercurrent, but he doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the film’s running time, and only has a few scenes.

I may have made Undercurrent sound terrible. It’s not. It’s mediocre popcorn entertainment, and I had fun watching it. And it’s no worse than most of the “neo-noirs” that littered multiplexes throughout the 1990s … it’s just not much better, either.