Born to Kill (1947): “a violent, ironic and macabre paroxysm”

The weird story of a deranged con-artist and killer who marries into a wealthy San Francisco family, while told in the third person, reveals the thoughts and motivations of the central character, an attractive 30-something divorcee…

Born to Kill is based on the book ‘Deadlier than the Male‘, the only novel of American writer James Gunn, who wrote the book in 1943 at the age of 23. Little is known of Gunn ‘s life, and he remains a tantalizing mystery. The novel is like no other noir fiction. The weird story of a deranged con-artist and killer who marries into a wealthy San Francisco family, while told in the third person, reveals the thoughts and motivations of the central character, an attractive 30-something divorcee, Helen Brent. In a review in 2008 of the re-issue of the book by Black Mask Publishing, British academic Robin Durie said of the novel:

It’s very hard to imagine the almost hallucinatory events of the novel translating to the big screen in 1947 [in Born to Kill] – although it’s just about possible to imagine John Waters or David Lynch making some headway with it. It’s also possible that Claude Chabrol might have fancied having a go at turning it into a movie, based on his admiration for the book: “It has a freely developed plot and an absolutely extraordinary tone, pushing each scene towards a violent, ironic and macabre paroxysm…an unexpected dimension, a poetic depth… Of course, nothing like this has ever been written before. The parody is wildly inconsistent, but Deleuze is surely right when he says that, by this means, Gunn creates directions in the real which are wholly new.” … At the same time, Chabrol is correct in his capturing of the intensity of the rhythm of Gunn’s writing. Each chapter builds – or perhaps better, meanders – towards, or into, extraordinary points of what are, in effect, bifurcations. It is as if the novel is following those bifurcating pathways described by Borges.”

In 1947 RKO had a go and commissioned Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay to develop a script, with Robert Wise directing. A solid cast was assembled, and the result was a ripe melodrama that retained an aura of the novel’s strangeness. The film succeeds on the powerhouse performance of Claire Trevor as the divorcee, and (to a lesser extent) the almost dead-pan portrayal of the homicidal psycho by chronic bad-boy Lawrence Tierney. Trevor chews up the scenery with her vitriol and seething passion. A character in the movie describes her biblically: “I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets. And he who falls beneath her spell has need of God’s mercy.” Esther Howard, Walter Slezak, and Elisha Cook Jr. add value in supporting roles. Director Wise and DP Robert De Grasse take a back-seat and let Trevor’s nervous energy and sexual hunger drive the narrative. The camera and mis-en-scene literally make way for her as she struts across the screen, and Paul Sawtell’s score captures the histrionic undertow beautifully.


5 thoughts on “Born to Kill (1947): “a violent, ironic and macabre paroxysm””

  1. I think this is an awesome movie & highly recommend it. I remember the first time I watched it & the impact it had on me. This was filmed in 1947! Love to see someone like Quentin Tarantino attempt a remake.
    “You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It just ain’t feasible.”


  2. Tony,
    Just watched this the other night and was floored by the homicidal rage boiling throughout the film. And two fatales for the price of one — male and female. Plus Esther Howard as the elderly dipsomaniac out to avenge her friend’s murder!! Top-notch noir.


  3. Robert Wise’s work in noir was no doubt forged by his fruitful associations with Val Lewton and Orson Welles, with whom he developed the visual trademark that defined the RKO output of the 1940?s – moody, Gothic expressionism. BORN TO KILL is a brutal melodrama with a pronounced sexual underpinning, and a level of depravity and amorality singular in the noir cycle. Lawrence Tierney portrays one of the most heinous characters in all of cinema, a definition example of a sociopath, and the film poses the questions, ‘what happens when two sociopaths meet?’ and ‘what happens when you play ball with the devil?’ The film’s most extraordinary performance however is by Claire Trevor – her best performance in the cinema, in fact – despite her fame in KEY LARGO – and her kitchen kiss scene is stomach churning, as the battle within herself does eventually yield to her giving in to her darker nature. The always-reliable Elisha Cook Jr. again delivers the goods as the murderous Marty, and there’s a grim-laden tapestry, courtesy of the noted cinematographer Robert de Grasse, that enhances one of the darkest thematic considerations of the genre – darker even than Lang’s SCARLET STREET, where the human psyche is explored with unrelenting ferocity, exposing the worst traits humanity can ever expose. As far as Wise’s otput, this film does come within a hair of ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW and THE SET-UP, which are probably the director’s masterpieces aside from his musical triumphs, or in addition to. In any case I much appreciate the approach you took here in examining this work, and of the astute observation of Chabrol going for this, as this would certainly have been right up his alley. And yes, David Lynch and John Waters would have a good go at it as well.

    Gunn’s novel is most intriguing.


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