Things I Love About “Born to Kill”
I find that I frequently write about this movie being one of my “favorite” noirs, or that line being my “favorite” quote, or this actress being among my “favorite” femme fatales. But don’t be too hard on me. There is so much to love about so many noirs – I simply can’t help myself. Which brings us to Born to Kill. It’s one of those noirs that I count as one of my favorites, for so many reasons, from its bright and sunny beginning to its dark and deadly end. And because I have just popped the movie into my VCR (yes, I still have one and use it daily!) for the umpteenth time, I thought I’d list some of the many things I love about this fabulous noir. Here goes . . .
- The deceptively upbeat musical strains that open the film. If you didn’t know the name of the movie, or anything about it, you’d think you were about to see a delightful, lightweight comedy set in a quaint western town. It does open in Reno, but that’s where the delight ends and the darkness begins.
Claire Trevor’s outfits. In the first scene, for example, she is wearing a hat with a chest-length veil and a purse that not only matches her smart suit, but is actually made as part of it. And that’s just the start. In nearly every subsequent scene, she shows up in some visually stunning number that can’t help but catch your eye.
- Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell). She’s in only three scenes in the film, as she meets with an untimely and grisly end, but she makes for a memorable character – full of life, sexy but high-spirited, and well aware of her own charms. Although we only get to spend a few minutes with her, we can well understand why Mrs. Kraft loved and missed her so. (Incidentally, in her will, she left her house and a “great deal of money” to Mrs. Kraft.)
- The scene where Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) kills Laury and Danny. I found it interesting that Sam wasn’t in Laury’s home with a plan to commit murder – he actually gave Danny not one or two, but three chances to leave. It was just Danny’s bad luck he imagined that, to paraphrase Phillip Marlowe, a knife in the hand meant he had the world by the tail (“You’re kind of abrupt, ain’t ya? I came here for a drink and I’m going to have it,” he says.) It was a great scene – brief, but frighteningly riveting in its little touches: Mrs. Kraft’s little white dog backing away from Danny’s dead body. Laury reaching back in fright and encountering Sam’s menacing presence. The relief in Laury’s eyes when she first sees Sam, which quickly turns to horror. The sounds we hear as Sam beats them both to death. The fact that Sam never loses his hat during the entire ordeal. The jazzy big band sound that plays throughout. Whew.
- Helen’s response to finding the dead bodies of Laury and Danny: “What’s the number of the railroad station?” (When you gotta go, you gotta go.)
- Marty Waterman (Elisha Cook, Jr.). Could you ask for a better friend? Consider this. You tell him that you’ve killed two people. Does he call the police? Chastise you? Disappear? Nope. Although he does gently remind you that “you can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you,” he then comes up with a plan to spirit you out of town, promising to stay behind “until this dies down.” He even offers you dough! Need another example? Marty was the kind of pal who would be willing to kill for you. Literally. It’s a shame that his efforts were so woefully – dare I say, fatally – unappreciated by Sam.
- The telling expressions of the principal players at the wedding of Georgia and Sam. Sam looks like the cat that swallowed the canary. Georgia appears to be filled with a sort of apprehensive adoration. Marty looks uncomfortable, and Helen’s fiancée, Fred (Phillip Terry), looks as pleased as a proud father (which is the only odd note, since minutes later, we learn that he doesn’t hold a very high opinion of Sam). And finally there’s Helen, who presents a stony countenance that doesn’t quite succeed in masking her complete revulsion.
- The cinematography. A great example is the scene that shows Sam lying on his back in bed, alone, in his hotel room. Throughout, the point of view is above Sam, shot from the ceiling, as we look down on him. We first see Sam, along with the table beside him, the telephone, lamp, pack of cigarettes, lighter. He never moves except to bring his lit cigarette to his lips, his gaze barely wavering. Then slowly, purposefully, the camera closes in on the bed, focusing only on Sam as he answers a call from Marty and coolly discusses his plan to marry the wealthy orphan he just met. You can’t take your eyes away. The camera won’t let you.
- Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard). She loved two things – beer and Laury Palmer. With her timeworn face, raucous laugh, and clothes that only your local Goodwill store would love, she was, for me, the film’s most interesting and well-rounded character. She seems like the kind of person you’d love to hang out with, downing a few beers and dishing about the neighbors – entertaining, and irreverent, and just plain fun. But she also displayed a capacity for deep loyalty and love – she seemed to view Laury like a daughter (and, given Laury’s will, she apparently returned the affection), and was willing to spare no expense to ensure that her killer was found. She also had guts – which she demonstrated most unmistakably during Marty’s attempt on her life. Despite her age and girth, she fought valiantly, first delivering an unexpectedly accurate head butt, and then skewering him with her hatpin before escaping. After this harrowing experience, she is seen as defeated and overwhelmed, her vibrant spirit crushed by her brush with death, only to receive yet another blow when Helen shows up to warn her against any continued attempts to bring Sam to justice. But although she is reduced to tears by Helen’s chilling assurance that she will die unless she concedes, Mrs. Kraft manages to summon one last morsel of gumption – insisting on being a “good hostess” by walking Helen to the door, she spits on her and slams the door behind her. What a gal.
- And finally, the lines – oh, the lines!
- Laury Palmer: “If you’re glad about the divorce, you ought to celebrate. And if you’re sad and wanna forget about it, you ought to celebrate. So either way, you ought to celebrate.”
- Albert Arnett: “As you grow older, you’ll discover that life is very much like coffee. The aroma is always better than the actuality.”
- Helen Brent: “I’m just warning you. Perhaps you don’t realize – it’s painful being killed. A piece of metal sliding into your body, finding its way into your heart. Or a bullet tearing through your skin, crashing into a bone. It takes a while to die, too. Sometimes a long while.”
- Albert Arnett: “In that case, I shall have to forge ahead with my inquiry. And may I remind you that Nevada courts have rather puritanical views. Why, some of our more impassioned juries even insist that a man who commits murder pay with his life.”
- Albert Arnett: “Has it occurred to you? Neither of us looks like a scoundrel, do we?”
- Mrs. Kraft: “You’re the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, and the rottenest inside. I’ve seen plenty, too. I wouldn’t trade places with you if they sliced me into little pieces.”
- Helen Brent: “Do you want to live, or die?”
Born to Kill. It’s a good one. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. And if you have – follow my lead, and watch it again!