BORN TO KILL is a dark and twisted film, made with a great deal of polish by future Oscar-winning director Robert Wise and a fine cast.
Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), a new divorcee, returns to her temporary quarters at a Reno boarding house only to discover two bodies in the kitchen. Not wanting to be bothered with messy publicity, Helen simply hops on a train back to her home in San Francisco without calling the police. This is the audience's first clue that there is something a little abnormal and self-centered about Helen...
At the train station Helen runs into Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney), a man she had noticed with interest while gambling earlier in the evening. What Helen doesn't know is that Sam is leaving town because he committed the murders she had discovered earlier that night.
Sam and Helen are attracted to one another, but Helen -- who doesn't have money of her own -- is engaged to wealthy Fred Grover (Phillip Terry), and Sam courts and soon marries Helen's rich foster sister, Georgia (Audrey Long, DESPERATE). Despite their other relationships, Helen can't help the pull she feels towards Sam, even after she suddenly realizes he committed the murders in Reno. In fact, the knowledge that Sam is capable of murder seems to give Helen a strange thrill.
Needless to say, things just get messier from there.
This movie about two very bad people could be a real downer, but instead it's rather fascinating watching the twists and turns as Sam and Helen head for their seemingly inevitable bad end. The movie doesn't always make complete sense and relies rather heavily on coincidence, but the performance of Trevor, in particular, makes up for that.
Trevor is outstanding in a multifaceted performance which captures both the revulsion and the thrill Helen feels when dealing with Sam. She has enough insight to realize she's bad, latching on to Fred as someone who will help keep her on the straight and narrow, but when it comes to Sam, she just can't help herself.
Helen starts out as someone who is willing to ignore an inconvenient murder or two, but the longer she's around Sam, the worse she becomes. Helen finally lets loose with her malevolent side when she intimidates the landlady (Esther Howard) who wants justice for the friend (Isabel Jewell) who was murdered in her home. Helen, it seems, may have the potential to match Sam in committing acts of evil.
Tierney isn't an actor with a lot of range, but he's scary as heck and completely believable as a psychopathic killer. He and Trevor make quite a disturbed and combustible twosome.
Terry is bland as Helen's upstanding fiance, but I very much liked Audrey Long as her sweet sister. Long retired in 1952 when she married Leslie Charteris, the author of the SAINT novels. The marriage lasted for over 40 years, until Charteris died in 1993. Audrey Long is now 91 years old.
The notable supporting cast includes Walter Slezak as a puckish detective and Elisha Cook Jr. as Sam's way-too-understanding sidekick. Look for Ellen Corby and Martha Hyer as maids in Helen and Georgia's home.
The screenplay for this 92-minute film was by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay, based on the novel DEADLIER THAN THE MALE by James Gunn.
The movie was filmed in black and white by Robert De Grasse.
BORN TO KILL is on DVD as part of the five-film Warner Bros. Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 2. Extras include a commentary track by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation; the track includes archival recordings of director Robert Wise.
The DVD can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.
This movie also had a release on VHS in the RKO Collection.
May 2015 Update: I had a wonderful experience seeing this film again on a big screen at the 2015 Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival.