Born to Kill
Born to Kill

"Today's movies usually have so much blood and gore in graphic detail and slow motion, literally rubbing the audience's nose in
Born, To KILL!

Claire Trevor, Phillip Terry
and Audrey Long

this sort of gruesome stuff, that BORN TO KILL seems rather soft now."*
      --Robert Wise

Based on the book "Deadlier Than Male"—which Wise stumbled upon in the RKO story files—BORN TO KILL had a bigger budget than Wise's previous films. The story of a twisted woman's attraction for a psycopathic murderer precipated criticism from the Production Code, however, who called it "the kind of story which ought not to be made because it is a story of gross lust and shocking brutality, and ruthlessness." To win the approval of the Production Code, RKO cut some of the violence out and stressed the insanity of the main character, played by Lawrence Tierney. It is, as Wise states, tame by today's standards.

Synopsis After he discovers that Laury Palmer, the owner of a Reno boardinghouse, was romancing him only to make her boyfriend Danny jealous, Sam Wilde, a seductive but violent drifter, kills both her and Danny.  Cool, sophisticated Helen Brent finds the bodies in the boardinghouse, where she has been living during her divorce proceedings, but instead of notifying the police, she calmly boards the next train to San Francisco.  Also on board the train is Sam, who begins a rough flirtation with Helen and wisely observes that he is "going in the same direction" as she. Although Helen discourages the ambitious Sam from seeing her in San Francisco, he tracks her to her half sister Georgia Staples' mansion and there is introduced to Fred Grover, Helen's wealthy fiance.  After Helen tells Georgia about her gruesome Born To Kill discovery in Reno, she, Georgia, Fred and Sam dine together.  As soon as he is alone with Helen, Sam accuses her of wanting to marry Fred for his money, and she freely admits that she is tired of playing Georgia's "poor relation."   When Sam smugly insinuates that he could make Helen break the engagement if he wanted, she balks, stating firmly that no one can come between her and the security of Fred's money.  In response, Sam flirts aggressively with the impressionable Georgia and, later that night, telephones his confidant, Marty Waterman, in Reno to announce that he will soon be marrying Georgia.  As predicted, Sam becomes engaged to Georgia.  He is unaware, however, that a private investigator, Albert Arnett, has been hired by Mrs. Kraft, the alcoholic proprietress of Laury's boardinghouse, to discover Laury's killer, and has tracked Marty to Helen and Georgia's home.  After the wedding ceremony, a confused, jealous Helen argues with Sam about her sister, whom she both loves and resents, and ends up in his arms. She then throws out Arnett, who is posing as a hungry vagrant in order to snoop around the house, and dismisses his insinuations about Sam's past. A few weeks later, Sam and Georgia return home early from their honeymoon, having fought over Sam's desire to run the newspaper that Georgia inherited from her father.  That night, Sam finds Helen alone in the kitchen and, after describing her as his "soul mate," kisses her passionately. Sam then compliments her on the calm way she acted in Reno, and as he begins to describe the murder scene in detail, Helen realizes that Sam is, in fact, the killer.  Helen immediately telephones Arnett to arrange a meeting, unaware that Sam is listening in on the extension. To protect Sam, Helen tries to buy Arnett's silence for $5,000, but he demands $15,000.  When Helen returns home, she is confronted by a jealous Sam, but finally convinces him that Arnett is only interested in her money. Sam and Marty plot to kill Mrs. Kraft, who has come to San Francisco, but when Marty goes to Helen's bedroom to warn her about Sam's violent nature, Sam assumes he is flirting with her and kills him as he is about to kill Mrs. Kraft.  The next morning, Helen provides Sam with an alibi when the police question her about Marty, then tells Mrs. Kraft that unless she drops her investigation, she will be terrorized and killed.  Although she calls Helen the coldest woman she has ever met, Mrs. Kraft agrees to end her pursuit.  Later, Helen admits to Sam that she is "doing it all for him," but is devastated when Fred finally breaks their engagement.  A suddenly remorseful Helen then tells Georgia the truth about Sam and forces her to eavesdrop while she makes plans with Sam to run away.  Just then, the police, who have been tipped off by Arnett, arrive at the house, and assuming that Helen has double-crossed him, Sam tries to shoot her.  Helen flees upstairs and locks herself in a bedroom, but Sam shoots at her through the door as the police storm the house.  After Sam is shot and killed by the police, Helen dies of her wounds.

From the AFI Catalog of Feature Films

Wise Facts
  • Tallulah Bankhead was considered first for the role of Helen Brent.
  • Credits:92 min. RKO Radio Pictures, Inc; Distributed by: United Artists;  Directed by: Robert Wise;  Produced by: Herman Schlom;  Screenplay by: Eve Greene & Richard Macaulay;  Edited by: Les Millbrook;  Director of Photography: Robert de Grasse;  Music by: Paul Sawtell;  Production Design by: Albert S. D'Agostino & Walter E. Keller;  Sound by: Robert H. Guhl & Roy Granville;  Gowns by: Edward Stevenson.
    Claire Trevor Cast  Claire Trevor (Helen Brent), Lawrence Tierney (Sam Wilde), Walter Slezak (Albert Arnett), Phillip Terry (Fred Grover), Audrey Long (Georgia Staples Wilde), Elisha Cook Jr. (Marty Waterman), Isabel Jewell (Laury Palmer), Esther Howard (Mrs. Kraft), Kathryn Card (Grace), Tony Barrett (Danny), Grandon Rhodes (Inspector Wilson), Harry Harvey (Man outside courthouse), Sam Lufkin (Crap dealer), Sayre Dearing (Crap dealer), Sammy Shack (Crap dealer), Joe Dixon (Crap dealer), Ruth Brennan (Sally), Tom Noonan (Card player with Mrs. Kraft), Al Murphy (Cab driver), Phil Warren (Chauffeur), Ben Frommer (Delivery boy), Netta Packer (Mrs. Perth), Lee Frederick (Desk clerk), Demetrius Alexis (Maitre d'), Martha Hyer (Maid), Ellen Corby (Maid), Beatrice Maude (Cook), Jean Fenwick (Margaret Macy), Reverend Neal Dodd (Clergyman), Napolean Whiting (Porter), Perc Launders (Detective Bryson), Stanley Stone (Train conductor), and Jason Robards (Conductor).

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    1. Robert Wise On His Films, p. 76

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