Robert Wise is not primarily known for his contributions to film noir, but his 1949 film The Set-Up, a tense noir set in in a real-time narrative is fantastic. So I had high expectations for Born to Kill, his first film noir, made after working as an editor on Citizen Kane and developing his directorial skills under Val Lewton at the horror division at RKO. Actually watching the film, however, was a bit of a letdown.
The plot is pretty typical film noir fare, revolving around a woman, Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) staying at a boarding house in Reno while she waits for a quickie divorce to come through. The night before she is set to leave and go back to San Francisco, she finds one of her fellow boarders and her boyfriend murdered. Rather than call the police and possibly be detained for questioning, she hops on the train home, where she meets Sam, who, unknown to her, killed the couple. She falls for his rough handsomeness. He follows her home where he promptly meets and marries her rich sister, although that does not stop him from carrying on an affair with his sister-in-law. Meanwhile, a shambolic private detective (Walter Slezak), hired by the owner of the boarding house, trails Sam’s little thug pal (Elisha Cook Jr.) to San Francisco, and realizing that Helen is complacent in Sam’s murderous rages, begins trying to blackmail her.
The performances throughout are fine. Lawrence Tierney made a career out of gangsters and thugs, just like his role in this film, and Walter Slezak as the literature-quoting detective adds a comedic touch which is somehow not out of place in this dark tale. Although Claire Trevor was known for playing bad girls in film noir, her performance here is not especially remarkable. Maybe the weak link is Robert Wise’s direction, with his inexperience in the genre making it difficult for him to create the dark tone that the storyline requires.