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Warner Home Video presents

Born to Kill (1947)

"You can't just go around killing people when the notion strikes you. It's just not feasible." - Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.)

Stars: Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak, Elisha Cook Jr.
Other Stars: Philip Terry, Audrey Long
Director: Robert Wise

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:31m:56s
Release Date: 2005-07-05
Genre: film noir

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A BC+C+ B-


DVD Review

When the work of Robert Wise comes to mind, it's not necessarily as a director of film noir—we associate him more often with great big movies like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, but earlier, in movies like this one and The Set-Up, he proved that he could make pulpy, streetwise pictures just about as well as anyone. Born to Kill has enough plot twists and improbable coincidences to pad out a couple of silent movies or a few months' worth of a daytime soap opera, but we come to accept that this is the world we're in pretty quickly, and Wise and his collaborators take us along on a moody, suspenseful and stylish ride.

The action starts in Reno, with the ink on Helen Brent's divorce barely dry; she's ready to leave town as soon as she can, finally a free woman. Helen gets a glance at the aptly named Sam Wilde at a local casino; he's at the craps table, and she unwisely bets against him. But she's just a temporary distraction for Sam, whose eye is on Laury Palmer, a boozy divorcée of rather easy virtue; Laury's next-door neighbor and frequent drinking buddy is Mrs. Kraft, who runs the rooming house where Helen stays during her necessary stint in Nevada. (Yeah, you can't tell the players without a scorecard with this one.) Sam sees Laury taking home a man, and before they can get horizontal, Sam kills them both—unfortunately for her, Helen discovers the bodies, but decides to get out of town before saying a word.

And wouldn't you know it, but they become a couple of strangers on a train—Sam, the murderer, and Helen, the witness, find themselves on the same railroad car going from Nevada to San Francisco. We learn all sorts of things about them, good and bad, depending on your perspective—Helen has a fiancé, who's rich; also a foster sister, also rich and single; and Sam has Marty, his apologist and enabler for Sam's unfortunate habit of killing people who set off his temper. The plot turns here can be truly dizzying—have I mentioned the private detective that Mrs. Kraft hires to track down the murder of her friend? (Perhaps David Lynch is a fan, because the question that everyone but Sam, Helen and we are asking is: Who killed Laury Palmer?) Wise keeps these many balls in the air, and he's blessed with a gifted and mesmerizing cast. Lawrence Tierney is equal parts menace and charm as Sam; he's dashing, but he's a psycho, and we believe him in both aspects. Claire Trevor is called upon to do quite a bit of lip quivering as Helen, but she pulls it off with aplomb; there are some great smaller performances, too, especially from Elisha Cook Jr. as Marty, who seems half in love with Sam himself, and Esther Howard as Mrs. Kraft, as devoted to drinking beer as the most ardent fraternity brother.

And as is typical in film noir, there's no shortage of deliciously juicy dialogue—Mrs. K has Helen's number when she says, "You're the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, and the rottenest inside," for instance, and Sam sums up his dilemma succinctly: "I got a dame on my mind and she's dead. That's plenty for me." (What he doesn't say, of course, is that he's the one who killed her.) The plot is too Byzantine to make this a paradigm of the genre, but this one makes for a great guilty pleasure. 

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Some of the images are sharp, but there are resolution problems—plaids on the ladies tend to shine, and there are occasional shots that look a whole lot worse, the victims of bacterial decay.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Audio quality is uneven and frequently raspy; lots of static on this track, too.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+ 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Eddie Muller, with Robert Wise
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Noir historian Eddie Muller provides a strong and informative commentary track, in which he talks us through his obligatory nine classic stages of noir, and is especially good on the history of RKO, where this film was produced; he even includes a jokey story about Lawrence Tierney, later in life, taking a shot at him. Occasionally intercut with Muller are observations from director Robert Wise, who frequently sounds short of breath, though he remembers this picture with fondness. Also, the running time listed on the back of the DVD case is off by about ten minutes.

Extras Grade: B-

Final Comments

A labyrinthine noir plot with style to burn makes up for some of the technical deficiencies of the print—Robert Wise and his cast seem to have had a hell of a fun time making this one, and watching it, you will too.

Jon Danziger 2005-07-04