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Tag Archives: Phillip Terry

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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The Lost Weekend (Nov. 16, 1945)

In the decades since Billy Wilder made The Lost Weekend, an entire vocabulary about alcoholism has entered the national consciousness through self-help books, 12-step programs, and daytime talk shows, such as “codependency,” “enabler,” “denial,” “intervention,” “addiction,” “recovery,” and “relapse.” None of these terms are heard in The Lost Weekend, but the film depicts the concepts they represent with grim thoroughness. (At the time of the film’s release, even the widespread understanding of the term “alcoholic” was fairly new, since Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935.)

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a handsome, intelligent, and charming man who shares an apartment in Manhattan with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry). After receiving praise for his short stories during his time at Cornell University, Don dropped out before graduation and moved to New York to pursue his dreams of becoming a famous and respected author. Now in his 30s, Don has finished nothing and published nothing in all his time in New York. He has no money and no prospects. He survives on handouts from his brother, and he is an alcoholic.

As the film begins, he has supposedly abstained from drinking for several weeks, and is packing for a long weekend in the country with Wick. What his brother and his long-suffering girlfriend, Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), don’t know is that he has a bottle of cheap rye cleverly hidden. It’s hanging out his bedroom window on a string. Wick and Helen are optimistic about Don’s progress, but like so many people who love alcoholics, they are deluding themselves. Although perhaps only partly. When Helen says, “You’re trying not to drink, and I’m trying not to love you,” it encapsulates years of sadness and betrayal. In preparation for the getaway, Helen brings Don a care package with a new James Thurber novel, two Agatha Christie books, cigarettes, and chewing gum. Don is irritable and evasive, however. When Wick talks about looking forward to apple cider in the country, Don snaps, “Why this emphasis on liquids? Very dull liquids?” Wick eventually discovers the bottle of rye hanging out the window and pours it out. Don weasels out of the situation by claiming it was something he hid weeks ago, during a binge, and forget about. He then convinces Wick and Helen to go to the symphony without him, telling them he just needs a few hours to clear his head before they catch their train.

His denials and his lies are classic alcoholic behavior, and it comes as no surprise when, as soon as they leave, he turns over the apartment looking for money and anyplace he might have hidden liquor and forgotten about. He finds $10 intended for the cleaning lady and goes to the liquor store to buy two bottles of rye. The proprietor (Eddie Laughton) initially refuses to sell them to him, but it doesn’t take long for him to cave in.

“Your brother was in,” he says. “He said he’s not gonna pay for you anymore. That was the last time.”
“Two bottles of rye!” Don says, showing his money.
“What brand?”
“You know what brand, Mr. Brophy, the cheapest. None of that twelve-year-old aged-in-the-wood chichi. Not for me. Liquor’s all one anyway.”
“You want a bag?”
“Yes I want a bag.”
“Your brother said not to sell you anything even if you did have the money to pay for it, but I can’t stop anybody, can I? Not unless you’re a minor.”
“I’m not a minor, Mr. Brophy. And just to ease your conscience, I’m buying this to refill my cigarette lighter.”

Milland’s performance as an alcoholic is masterful. Before The Lost Weekend drunks in Hollywood movies were all bums on skid row or comical, hiccupping buffoons who saw pink elephants. No matter how drunk Birnam gets, he never slurs his words. He simply becomes more grandiose and irrational, and more desperate to keep drinking. After he hides his booze at home, he stops in at Nat’s Bar for a few shots before the weekend. After Nat (Howard Da Silva) pours him his first glass of rye, he moves to wipe up the bar.

“Don’t wipe it away, Nat,” he says. “Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning. What time is it?”
“Quarter of four.”
“Good! We have the whole afternoon together. Will you let me know when it’s a quarter of six? It’s very important. I’m going to the country for a weekend with my brother.”

Don then delivers a monologue about his plan to smuggle rye on his weekend. He plans to hide one bottle in a copy of The Saturday Evening Post, so his brother can discover it, which will set his mind at ease. The other will be hidden in his brother’s luggage, and Don will retrieve it and hide it in an old apple tree. He doesn’t need it, he says, he just needs to know that it’s there if he needs it. When the scene ends, Don lifts a glass to his lips, and the camera shows that there are five “vicious circles” in front of him; five rings of booze on the surface of the bar.

Back at home, Wick and Helen give up on waiting for Don to arrive, and Wick leaves without him. Helen pleads with him and defends Don. “He’s a sick person,” she says. “It’s as though there were something wrong with his heart or his lungs. You wouldn’t walk out on him if he had an attack. He needs our help!” But both of them–the two people in the world who really care about Don–are at the ends of their ropes.

The rest of the film alternates between Don’s nightmarish bender that eventually finds him in the alcoholic ward of a hospital with no memory of how he got there, and flashbacks to his corrosive relationships with Helen and his brother. We see Wick make excuses for Don and even lie for him, and we see Helen fall in love with Don, lie to herself about the depth of his problem, and struggle to help him. “But there must be a reason you drink, Don,” she says. “The right doctor could find it!” “The reason is me,” he responds. “What I am. Or rather, What I’m not. What I wanted to become, and didn’t.”

Wilder does not depict Don’s descent into delirium in a purely subjective fashion, but there are a lot of brilliant little moments in the film that put us inside Don’s head. The extreme close-up on Don’s eye as it slowly opens while a phone rings in the background will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had a crippling hangover, and Miklós Rózsa’s brilliant score, which incorporates haunting melodies played on a Theremin, mirrors Don’s altered mental states. The Theremin would become ubiquitous in science fiction films in the ’50s, but in 1945, most Americans had never heard the instrument before, and it must have sounded incredibly eerie. The rubber bat that Don imagines he sees in his apartment is less effective, however.

But The Lost Weekend is still a brilliant film, and remains one of the most honest portrayals of addiction ever put on film. When I first saw it years ago, I thought it had a happy ending. Watching it now, I’m not so sure. Don’s promise to stop drinking and finish his novel could just be one more lie; one that the audience itself wants to believe because the alternative is unbearable, that Don’s life is the vicious circle he referred to in Nat’s Bar, and that there is no hope for him. After all, Charles R. Jackson, whose semi-autobiographical novel was the basis for this film, did eventually commit suicide.

Paramount Pictures was initially reluctant to release The Lost Weekend. They were encouraged to bury it not only by the liquor industry, but also by temperance groups who felt the film would only encourage drinking. Critics loved it in limited release, however, so Paramount released it in theaters nationwide, and it went on to win numerous awards. The Lost Weekend is the only film to win both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix du Festival International Film. Milland won the Academy Award for Best Actor, Charles Brackett and Wilder won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and Wilder won the Academy Award for Best Director.