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Born to Kill (1947)

Albert Arnett: “It’s quite all right, Mrs. Brent. I am a man of integrity, but I’m always willing to listen to an interesting offer.”
Helen Brent: “Well, I’m prepared to pay handsomely.”
Albert Arnett: “Good. Obstructing the wheels of justice is a costly affair.”
Helen Brent: “Five thousand dollars should do it.”
Albert Arnett: “Fifteen thousand dollars should do it.”

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947), starring Lawrence Tierney, Elisha Cook Jr. and Claire Trevor is one of the most perverse of all 1940s noirs; Tierney stars as Sam Wild, a sociopath who thinks nothing of killing anyone who causes him even the slightest annoyance. Fleeing town after another senseless killing, he picks up Helen Brent (Trevor) on a train to San Francisco, and despite their differences in social class (an important point in the film), the two form an unholy alliance to claw their way to fame and fortune, using and discarding people at whim. Sam quickly realizes that Helen is “slumming,” and immediately calls her on it:

Sam Wild: “Oh, I see. You cross the tracks on May Day with a basket of goodies for the poor slum kid, but back you scoot – and fast – to your own neck o’ the woods. Don’t you?”
Helen Brent: “I wouldn’t say that.”
Sam Wild: “No, you wouldn’t ’say’ it… but that’s the way it is.”

On their trail is Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak), who, upon confronting Helen about Sam’s homicidal activities, dryly observes that “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.” And yet Arnett is just as crooked as Sam and Helen; his silence can be obtained, for a price.

Tierney’s sidekick, Mart (Cook Jr.), has a rather peculiar arrangement with Sam, functioning not only as an enabler in Sam’s schemes, but also as an oddly “spousal” figure, lending cash, arranging cover-ups and alibis, and scaring off witnesses to Sam’s numerous transgressions. As directed by Wise with ferocious intensity (it’s really hard to square this film with The Sound of Music [1965], much later in Wise’s career), Born to Kill is one of the most brutal and unyielding films ever made, of which the title says all; Sam Wild is “born to kill.” Or, as Sam bluntly puts it, “I’ve got a dame on my mind – and she’s dead. That’s plenty for me.”

Here’s an excellent essay on Born to Kill by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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