The CMBA “Femme/Homme Fatales of Noir” Blogathon — Sam Wild in Born to Kill (1947)

Sam Wild.

If that isn’t a fitting name for a homme fatale, I just don’t know what is.

Wild, a psychopathic drifter played with panache by Lawrence Tierney, is the title-referenced subject of the 1947 noir Born to Kill. In this first-rate, wholly riveting feature, Wild is a cool-minded serial killer, but this fact doesn’t at all serve to deter the ardor of Helen Brent (portrayed by the always awesome Claire Trevor), who discovers the bodies of his two first victims. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let me give you the plot in a nutshell. (Watch your step – there are spoilers ahead!)

The film opens with the successful Reno, Nevada, divorce of the aforementioned Helen, who is celebrating her newfound freedom with Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), owner of the boarding house where Helen has taken up temporary residence, and Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell), Mrs. Kraft’s friend and neighbor. Unfortunately for Laury, she’s not long for this world – she and her date are killed by Wild (who Laury had also been dating, and who she’d dreamily described in an earlier scene as “the quiet sort – and yet you get the feeling if you stepped out of line, he’d kick you in the teeth”).

Run, Laury, run!

After finding the bodies of Laury and her date, Helen hightails it back to her home (and her goody-goody fiancé) in San Francisco – but on the way, she meets and falls for Wild, who is also, wisely, putting distance between himself and Reno. Once in Frisco, there’s lots more action – Wild woos and marries Helen’s dripping-with-money foster sister, Georgia (Audrey Long); Helen and Sam embark on a passionate, obsessive affair; Mrs. Kraft hires a private detective (Walter Slezak) to find Laury’s killer; and Sam’s best friend (Elisha Cook, Jr.) arrives on the scene to lend a helping hand with the general goings-on. By the film’s end, practically everybody is dead, or comes close to it, and you’ll be left breathless with your head spinning.

One of the main reasons for Born to Kill’s visceral impact is Tierney’s Sam Wild – for my money, he’s one of noir’s most memorable and menacing characters. On the favorable side, he’s undeniably sexy and unquestionably ambitious. Conversely, he’s also as nutty as a Snickers bar. Regardless of his clear shortcomings, however, Sam is near the top of my list of the homme fatales I love to hate to love – here are some of the reasons why:

Sam definitely knew his way around a good line.

Memorable lines:

Early on in the film, after Laury’s murder, Sam’s clear-headed and loyal pal, Marty, warns him to say away from women when he travels to San Francisco. Sam rejoins, “I’ve got a dame on my mind and she’s dead. And that’s plenty for me.” Later, after encountering (and decidedly not steering clear of) Helen, Sam tells her that he’s not a big fan of gambling: “I don’t like being at the mercy of those little white squares that roll around and decide whether you win or lose,” he says. “I like to have the say-so myself.” He also confidently shares his philosophy: “Know what you want, be sure you’ll get it, and you can’t miss. I found that out early.” And then, after he marries the very-wealthy Georgia, Sam tells his new sister-in-law: “I’m nobody much. But I’ll make myself a lot more than I am. I can do it, too.”

Numerous notches on the kill belt:

Sam’s first murders were the hapless Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) and Laury Palmer. To his credit, Sam didn’t start out planning to kill these two; after letting himself into Laury’s home and encountering Danny in the kitchen, he simply tells Danny to leave. Unfortunately, Danny doesn’t follow directions (“I came for a drink and I’m gonna have it,” he says. These are pretty much his last words.) And when Laury stumbles upon Danny’s body, Sam lets her have it as well. Next up (I told you there were spoilers!) is none other than Sam’s bosom buddy and lifelong pal, Marty, who Sam mistakenly suspects of having the hots for Helen. And speaking of Helen . . . well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Everybody loves Sam. (Or wants to.)

Loved by all the ladies:

Sam not only attracts the attention of both Helen and her sister Georgia, but his unique appeal also entices the kitchen staff. One of them sighs, “His eyes get me. They run up and down you like a searchlight.” And according to another one, “That Mr. Wild, he just makes me water at the kneecaps.”

He’s no dummy:

When Helen grouses that Sam isn’t paying her enough attention (incidentally, this complaint comes just minutes after he marries her sister), Sam appropriately offers up a quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible’s Old Testament: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

Mysterious character, mysterious past:

Given Sam’s penchant for violence, it’s entirely possible that he’d committed murder before we meet him at the start of the film. But his kill quotient isn’t the only thing that’s not quite clear about Sam. After he marries Georgia, he expresses his desire to take over the newspaper empire that’s operated by her family. Georgia’s not in favor of the idea, citing Sam’s previous experience as a prizefighter and manager of a “cattle ranch or two.” But are these vocations truly a part of Sam’s resumé? Or are they just career-related figments of Sam’s active imagination? We’ll never know.

If you’ve never seen Lawrence Tierney’s Sam Wild in action, track down Born to Kill. And if you’re already acquainted with this scary dude, why not pay him another visit?

You only owe it to yourself.


This post is part of the “Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir” blogathon, presented by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click the pic to read the great posts offered during this event! You’ll be glad you did.

~ by shadowsandsatin on April 19, 2019.

17 Responses to “The CMBA “Femme/Homme Fatales of Noir” Blogathon — Sam Wild in Born to Kill (1947)”

  1. Born to Kill is one of my favorite noirs. It’s too bad that Laurence Tierney allowed some of his own violent tendencies to sidetrack his career because he is magnetic on screen. The fact that Claire Trevor is his match is a testament to her own acting abilities. Great choice for an homme fatale.

  2. “Undeniably sexy” and “nutty as a Snickers bar” is the most accurate description of Sam ever put to print! I envision t-shirts with your quotes.

    Helen should know better. She does know better, but she doesn’t care. Part of the Homme Fatale’s success is the foolishness of others.

  3. This is a great film and Tierney is a pure noir devil. A terrific choice and thanks for participating.

  4. I love Born to Kill. Tierney was perfect for the role. I like to call him the Prince of Darkness. I think the menace he portrayed on screen was so convincing simply because he was a bit crazy in real life too.

  5. When I first read that the blogathon topic included hommes as well as femmes, Lawrence Tierney was the first baddie that came to mind. Oh how I hate him – and boy, was Claire Trevor a dummy! Great post – I loved it!

  6. I gotta watch that !

  7. You’ve made me want to watch this one again!

  8. Was there a meaner homme fatale than Lawrence Tierney? I certainly hope not. A great take on a classic film.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: