A Movie A Day: BORN TO KILL (1947) Life is very much like coffee. The aroma is always better than the actuality.
Published at: June 24, 2008, 8:29 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
We follow the lovely Claire Trevor over from yesterday’s MURDER, MY SWEET to 1947’s BORN TO KILL where she stars opposite Lawrence Tierney, Walter Slezak and Elisha Cook Jr.
This is also an early film from Robert Wise who, four years later, hit us with an instrumental classic in the sci-fi genre THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. We have a few Wise flicks on the list, including tomorrow’s biggie, but I like setting in with a nice little noir number before singing in Technicolor with Julie Andrews.
If you ever doubted Lawrence Tierney was a badass then look no further than this RKO noir. As crazy brutal as Lee Marvin was in POINT BLANK a couple weeks back, Mr. Tierney’s Sam Wild from this film could go toe to toe with Lee Marvin’s Walker… okay, that sounds like an old age home showdown, but you know what I mean.
There’s a scene early on in this film where Tierney follows his sweetheart home… she’s trying to make him jealous by courting a sleazeball… Bad. Idea. Period. Tierney pops up in the kitchen and when he beats this guy, I’m not entirely sure he didn’t put him or his stunt man in the hospital.
You can tell fake hits… John Wayne stuff. But what I love about Marvin and Tierney is when they put a foot or a fist to some poor schmuck’s midsection you can read the Umph in the slump and tremble of that dude’s body.
Essentially, that sequence starts the story. Sam Wild isn’t so bright, but he’s unscrupulous, knows what he wants and has the looks to woo any dame he wants. He ends up killing his girlfriend and her would be suitor and runs from Reno to San Francisco.
Coincidentally, Claire Trevor’s Helen Trent ran into him earlier that evening while placing bets on the craps table. This was a wonderful scene as well, Wise giving us an introduction to these two characters completely without dialogue. At first she mimics Tierney’s bets, putting her money on the pass line (betting he’ll win). She makes money, he gives her the eye. She looks back. He lets it ride. She follows suit, but (never taking her eyes off of Tierney) pushes her stack to the Don’t Pass line (betting on him to lose).
Turns out Trevor is a roommate of Tierney’s obsession. She’s on her way North, fresh from a divorce, up to her already lined up replacement. On her way out she discovers the bodies left in Tierney’s wake.
But Trevor’s got a dark side to her. Maybe darker than anybody else in the film. She doesn’t tell the police and just leaves, having an idea it was Tierney. When she finds him on her same train she’s both attracted to a man as strong and dominant figure and not wanting to ruin the good thing she has going with her new rich fiancée.
Esther Howard plays the always drunk landlady and one of the more enjoyable characters of the tale. Ms. Howard was also in yesterday’s AMAD, playing a very, very similar character. She’s really impressing me with these performances… funny, drunken and cock-eyed. She adored her tenant, Laury Palmer (hrmm... think Lynch saw this movie?)... kind of lived vicariously through her. You get the impression that Laury was Howard's character about 40 years ago.
She hires a private dick to investigate the murders.
Now this is a very interesting twist and one of the reasons I love running these kinds of movies together in groups. You couldn't get any more different than Philip Marlowe with Walter Slezak's Detective Arnett. Slezak's chubby, he's poor and his moral compass doesn't always point north if you know what I mean. The line in the subhead comes from Slezak, who plays the role almost like a mastermind, seeing through each and every character and knowing where to be and where to not be depending on what the situation calls for. I looked him up on IMDb and was shocked to see that he killed himself in the early '80s, apparently very ill and wanting a way out.
At any rate, he's fantastic in the movie, a perfect opposite to the usual hard boiled gumshoe.
Also of note in a supporting role is the wonderful character actor Elisha Cook Jr. He had a very long career spanning everything from BLACULA to STAR TREK to HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL to THE MALTESE FALCON to ALF. He’s one of those faces you just instantly warm to when you see pop up in a film or TV show. Here he plays Tierney’s stooge, essentially, but the way Cook portrays the character there’s a heart and a couple of added dimensions to the archetype.
If you only know Lawrence Tierney for RESERVOIR DOGS you owe it to yourself to see some of his younger work. I have his debut gangster flick on the list, too, DILLINGER and I hear he’s outstanding there, too.
Damn fine movie with a quick pace and some very memorable characters.