"Born to Kill" is probably the second-greatest film noir on the "amour fou" motif, next to 1949's "Gun Crazy". Two lovers' irrational infatuation lead them to depravity, madness, and eventual self-destruction. "Born to Kill" is not as persistent in its sexualization of violence as "Gun Crazy", but it's there. Based on the novel "Deadlier than the Male" by James Gunn, this is outwardly a twisted melodrama. Robert Wise directed the film with his characteristic decorum, which disappointed some European critics who would have preferred a more explicit exploration of the film's psychological and sexual aberration. The production code would not have allowed that, but I still find "Born to Kill" one of the darkest and most satisfying film noirs.
In Reno to get a quickie divorce, Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) stumbles upon 2 bodies in the kitchen of her boarding house. Instead of calling the police, she decides to return to San Francisco immediately to avoid publicity. On the train, Helen keeps the company of Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney), a tough drifter to whom she finds herself attracted. Helen knows that Sam was the beau of the murdered woman in the kitchen, but she is unaware that Sam was her murderer. Sam is leaving town on the advice of his friend Mart (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who stays behind to keep abreast of the murder investigation. In San Francisco, Sam discovers that Helen is engaged to be married, so he sets his sights on Helen's rich foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long). But Helen and Sam's mutual infatuation, his compulsive violence, and a dogged private detective (Walter Slezak) threaten their plans.
"Born to Kill" was a big-budget noir with high-power stars and box office success in 1947. The sparks that fly between Sam and Helen were more than worth the price of admission. These two people are compelled by a perverse and inexplicable infatuation to destroy the security, the money, the freedom that they want so desperately. Helen and Sam may hate as much as desire one another, but they are two of a kind: deliberate, ruthless, ambitious, and somehow innately corrupt. Watching them dance around one another and go at each other is at once incomprehensible and completely fascinating. Sam is a rare "homme fatal" in classic film noir, suitably embodied by bad boy Lawrence Tierney. Claire Trevor looks stylish in her most complex noir role. "Born to Kill" is a real treat for film noir fans.
The DVD (Turner Home Enter. 2005): There is a good audio commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller, with some archival commentary by director Robert Wise that is barely audible. Wise talks about his experiences at RKO and with this film. Muller provides information on the actors, analysis of characters, scene-by-scene analysis of staging, tone, themes, and takes us through the stages of "amour fou" noir. Muller has interviewed both Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney, so he gives us the benefit of their recollections as well. Muller's story about "babysitting" Tierney at a screening of "Born to Kill" in 1999 is priceless. Subtitles are available for the film in English, French, and Spanish.