14 March 2009 | Steffi_P
"Neither of us looks like a scoundrel"
Many of our finest pictures revolve around a single captivating performance, and this is especially true of B-pictures which can less afford to rely on pyrotechnics. In the case of Born to Kill, a dark little drama from RKO, all eyes are on Lawrence Tierney. You know Lawrence Tierney he is the bald, mountain-sized mob boss from Reservoir Dogs. Here, forty-five years earlier, he is thinner and has hair, but he is nevertheless just as menacing.
The director of Born to Kill was Robert Wise. Wise cut his directorial teeth at Val Lewton's horror B-unit, and although his only full-length horror for Lewton, The Body Snatchers, was not brilliant, he still carried with him much of the atmospheric technique that characterised Lewton films. Simple things like an open doorway in the background of the shot, or placing the camera at waist height (often more effective than low angles) convey to us a sense of unease. And what is so great about Wise's formal style is that it is always subtle he never calls attention to any shot, but if you pay close attention his craftsmanship is on display. For this reason Wise is rarely remembered as a great director, although he did leave a legacy of many great films behind him.
Among Wise's greatest assets was his ability to define character and bring out the best in performance through space and framing, and this brings us back to Mr Tierney. Tierney was not the best at vocal delivery, but he had amazing presence. I sometimes think Born to Kill would have been even better if they had stripped out all his dialogue and just told him to look mean for ninety minutes. Take his opening scene at the casino; there is no dialogue, and in fact he barely moves. Wise cleverly emphasises Tierney's stillness by having a lot of bustle going on behind him. This wordless scene establishes Tierney's character better than any expository dialogue could, and gives the brutality of his next appearance all the more impact.
But Wise was not just a director who focused on looks and technique. He had previously been an editor and, conscious of his lack of first-hand experience with a cast, went to lengths to learn about acting and coaching. Apparently Wise often encouraged his actors to slow down their performances, allowing time to bring out character and emotional weight. Sometimes this leisurely pacing would be lost in the editing of the cheap quickies he was making around this time, but here and there you see it. Despite Tierney being at the centre of things, he is not the only member of the cast to shine. Claire Trevor manages something very tricky she convincingly plays a bad actress when her character unconvincingly acts nice. Walter Slezak a supporting player who could successfully tread that line between character actor exaggeration and naturalistic depth is perfect as a sleazy detective. Elisha Cook Jr., who is almost as much part of film noir furniture as Venetian blinds, gives one of his more believable performances. Philip Terry on the other hand is a little wooden, and Esther Howard is a little overstated, but you can't always have a full flush of aces.
Another weak link is Paul Sawtell's backing score, which is at best mediocre and at worst inappropriate. He appears to have misunderstood the elements of the story, for example playing sad, romantic music when Claire Trevor's fiancé walks out on her. Anyone who has been paying attention should realise her character and their relationship don't merit that especially in a picture as cold and cynical as this.
All in all though, Born to Kill is a treat. It's probably Robert Wise's first really accomplished film, and is actually better than many of his later A-pictures. The script, considering it's for a B-picture adapted from a pulp novel, is unusually intelligent and full of nifty dialogue. There are plenty of great little touches (which may be from the script, or ideas of Wise or the actors themselves), such as Slezak carefully placing his half-smoked cigarette between two bricks before entering a building. And you get to enjoy Lawrence Tierney when he was still handsome enough to be kissed (albeit with his eyes scarily open), and still lean enough to swing a blunt instrument. This picture is well worth discovering.