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Long before he was handing out color code names in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) or playing Elaine's father on Seinfeld, Lawrence Tierney was the toughest, meanest man in film noir; he was never tougher or meaner than in Born To Kill (1947).
Tierney's portrayal of the title role in Dillinger (1945) made him first choice during the late 1940's for roles that called for unleavened brutality. With a gruff voice and bulldog features, he was a natural for the darker side of noir. Few come as dark as Born To Kill. The movie is based on Deadlier Than the Male, a first novel by James Edward Gunn that he wrote as part of a literature class assignment. He would go on to parlay his success into a screenwriting career working on such films as Lady of Burlesque (1943) and The Young Philadelphians (1959).
The story begins with the brutal murder of a woman and her boyfriend in Reno, Nevada. Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) discovers the bodies but does not want to get involved so she quickly grabs a train back home to San Francisco. While aboard she meets Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), never suspecting he is the murderer; a psychopath given to violent, jealous rages. She falls for him, attracted by his cruelty. By the time she discovers he is the real murderer, Helen realizes his evil nature genuinely excites her. Now it's her turn to be bad.
Claire Trevor is most famous for her role as Dallas in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939), but through the's and 1950's she specialized in playing tough dames in such movies as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Raw Deal (1948). Paired with Tierney in Born To Kill, however, she reaches new lows of depravity. "Perhaps you don't realize it's painful being killed," she sadistically tells one of her victims, "A piece of metal sliding into your body - or a bullet tearing through your skin, crashing into a bone."
The censors who approved movies under Hollywood's Production Code had some unkind words of their own when Born To Kill was screened for them. They called it "the kind of story which ought not to be made because it is a story of gross lust and shocking brutality, and ruthlessness." RKO cut some of the violence but nothing could change the tone of this movie in which the lead characters are completely heartless.
After Born To Kill, Lawrence Tierney showed that not all of his character's violence was just acting. In 1948 he was jailed for three months for breaking a man's jaw in a barroom brawl. From there on Tierney spent more time appearing in courts than in films with many more assault arrests, most involving heavy drinking. His career quickly sank to bit roles but he stuck around Hollywood and got work whenever there was a part that needed a big guy with a growly voice. With his appearance in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Tierney became a cult figure, getting steady work until his death in 2002. "I want to fix it so's I can spit in anybody's eye," his character announces in Born To Kill. Tierney achieved that wish in his own life by never blunting his hard edges.
Producer: Sid Rogell, Herman Schlom
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Eve Greene, Richard Macaulay, James Gunn (novel)
Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Film Editing: Les Millbrook
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Claire Trevor (Helen Brent), Lawrence Tierney (Sam Wilde), Walter Slezak (Albert Arnett), Phillip Terry (Fred Grover), Audrey Long (Georgia Staples), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Marty Waterman).
BW-92m. Closed captioning.