Noir greats Trevor and Tierney flirt with doom in ‘Born to Kill’

Trevor and Tierney are perfectly matched.

Born to Kill/1947/RKO/83 min.

Most men are turnips.

So says soigné and sassy femme fatale Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) in RKO’s “Born to Kill” from 1947, directed by Robert Wise.

Most men, perhaps, but not the homme fatale she falls for. No, strapping tough-guy Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) isn’t a turnip. What’s the word I’m looking for? Parsnip? Potato? I know: Psycho! And in Helen he finds his ideal match.

This damned and dirty pair meet on a train from Reno to San Francisco. Helen’s just gotten a divorce (as her lawyer puts it, the bonds of matrimony can weigh heavily on one’s soul). Sam’s a little stressed as well, having just murdered his girlfriend du jour Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell) and her date in a fit of jealousy.

Look good or report some “messy” murders? Helen knows what’s important.

In San Fran, Sam shows up uninvited (well, sort of) at her place. Helen neglected to mention that she’s engaged to boring but wealthy and well-bred Fred Grover (Phillip Terry, married to Joan Crawford from 1942 -46 and stepfather to Christina Crawford). So Sam pursues Helen’s upper-crust foster sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long).

They’re joined in San Francisco by Sam’s sidekick, Marty Waterman (the ever-eerie Elisha Cook Jr.). Also stirring things up is delightfully sleazy private eye Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak) who’s been hired by Laury’s friend, Mrs. Kraft (the always-great Esther Howard as the hard-drinking floozy), to investigate the murders.

Helen and Sam make no pretense of actually loving Fred and Georgia – they want to share their partners’ wealth and keep their secret lust alive. “Your roots are down where mine are,” Sam tells Helen. So they flirt, fight, and play games, natch. For example, after Helen figures out that Sam killed poor Laury and her hapless date, they share a passionate embrace in which they exchange grisly details from the crime, clearly a turn-on for them both. Of course, a relationship this demented is bound to burn out sooner rather than later and their road to self-destruction makes a pretty good yarn.

Cook and Howard round out a great cast.

Produced by Dore Schary and written by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay from James Gunn’s novel “Deadlier than the Male,” the movie failed to impress American critics upon its release. Wise, who also directed the noirs “The Set-Up” and “Odds Against Tomorrow” along with many other films (most notably Oscar winners “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”) started as an editor (“Citizen Kane”). He does not show enormous visual flair in “Born to Kill.”

But on the plus side, the characters and cast along with a sharp dialogue, make this worth watching. (It’s also a good example of a film noir title that explores American class tensions, something that most Hollywood movies consistently overlooked.)

Noir stalwart Trevor (perhaps most famous for her similar role in “Murder, My Sweet”) shines here as Helen, lavishing her lines with comely cynicism. Tierney’s a bit one-note as the cold-blooded killer but he brings a riveting intensity and realness to the part. Apparently, Brooklyn-born Tierney, son of an Irish cop, was known as a bit of a thug offscreen as well, prone to heavy drinking and fighting, which damaged his career. On the DVD commentary, director Wise describes him as a “good actor but a rough character.”

Still, Tierney didn’t vanish into the Hollywood mist and he continued to act in smaller roles. Quentin Tarantino recruited him for “Reservoir Dogs” and he showed up on “Seinfeld” as Elaine’s father. Time didn’t do much to mellow him – he was reportedly difficult and belligerent.

But it’s Esther Howard who steals the show. My favorite scene comes when Marty tries to put her out of the picture by luring her out to a remote sand dune. Mrs. Kraft might be sloshed a lot of the time but Marty learns the hard way that she’s no pushover.

At a mere 83 minutes, “Born to Kill” is crisp, fast and fun.

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‘Born to Kill’ quick hit

Born to Kill/1947/RKO/83 min.

When the sole witness to a double murder, Claire Trevor as Helen Brent, decides not to report the crime because it would be “messy and a lot of bother,” you know you’re dealing with a chilly lady. She’s looking for a man who can match her heartlessness and finds him in mixed-up tough guy Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney).

They sizzle in their own warped way, but Esther Howard as the beer-chugging landlady steals the show in this early work by director Robert Wise. Also stars noiristo Elisha Cook Jr.

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Raymond Chandler on the big screen: ‘Brasher Doubloon’ and ‘Murder, My Sweet’ to play this Thursday at the Aero

I’ve never seen “The Brasher Doubloon” but I love the name! This 1947 film, directed by John Brahm and starring George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe, is based on a Raymond Chandler novel (“The High Window”). “The Brasher Doubloon,” on a double bill with “Murder, My Sweet,” starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, 1328 Montana Ave.

Also, three excellent neo noirs are coming up in Los Angeles. Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) in a double bill with “Blood Simple” (1984) by the Coen brothers plays at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Aero. Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) will show at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.

Murder, My Sweet/1944/RKO/95 min.

Dick Powell as Marlowe tells the story, in flashback, to police.

One of these days, I’ll get around to compiling my list of the Top 10 classic film noir movies. When I do, “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, RKO) will be on the roster because it’s a superb flick and a defining work of the genre, thanks to Edward Dmytryk’s directorial flair, top-notch acting and a terrific script (based on Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell My Lovely”) full of choice one-liners.

“Murder, My Sweet” stars Dick Powell as private eye Philip Marlowe, perhaps Chandler’s most famous character and one of the best-known screen detectives. The movie opens with Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) showing up at Marlowe’s office, wanting him to find his old girlfriend, Velma. Marlowe looks for clues at Florian’s, a dive bar, and at the home of widow Jessie Florian (Esther Howard). How to describe Mrs. Florian? Well, it’s hard to beat Marlowe’s take: “She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”

Meanwhile, Marlowe agrees to act as a sort of bodyguard for another client, fussy and effete Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) who must deliver a ransom for stolen jewels. The exchange doesn’t go well – Marriott is murdered and Marlowe takes a crack on the head. Once back at the office, Marlowe is visited by a reporter asking questions about a stolen jade necklace. The “reporter” turns out be Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), a cute, feisty Girl-Scout type from a wealthy family. Pretty quickly, Marlowe meets Ann’s cootish Daddy (Miles Mander) and her femme fatale stepmother Helen (Claire Trevor).

The introduction of Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) and Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is one of film noir's great meetings.

And a great meeting it is, a bit like Stanwyck and MacMurray in “Double Indemnity,” but here Trevor, dressed to the nines and sporting ankle-strap chunky heels, can’t really be bothered with coy flirtation. World-weary and blasé, she gives Marlowe the once-over without a word, just a great look of “another day, another guy.” A few minutes later she does fight the ennui enough to say pointedly, “Let’s dispense with the polite drinking, shall we?”

Besides drinking and shopping, Helen likes to dance and has no shortage of partners – guys who take her out on the town because Mr. G isn’t quite up to it. Turns out, Marriott was one of Helen’s companions and had been trying to help her buy back a stolen jade necklace. Now she thinks Marlowe might be up to the task.

But Marlowe isn’t easily seduced, even though he pretends to be if he thinks it will yield a clue or two. As he figures out who’s guilty of what, we meet Marriott’s suave, sinister chum Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) and the nefarious Dr. Sonderborg (Ralf Harolde).

Dick Powell and Anne Shirley

With its constantly twisting plot, original music by Roy Webb and high-contrast, shadow-heavy visuals from cinematographer Harry J. Wild, “Murder, My Sweet” is awfully good fun to watch.

John Paxton’s sharp screenplay honors Chandler’s wit and many lines still seem fresh today. Ann rails against “big league blondes: beautiful, expensive babes who know what they’ve got – all bubble bath and dewy morning and moonlight. And inside: blue steel, cold – cold like that, only not that clean.” Helen’s retort is simple: “Your slip shows, dear.”

The movie fared well with critics and audiences – the popular appeal was at least in part because leading man Powell was a matinée idol and musical comedy star. Financially strapped RKO signed him to a contract hoping he could pull in much-needed cash at the box office; Powell signed with the condition that he could first play a straight dramatic role. The studio changed the movie’s name from “Farewell, My Lovely” so that viewers wouldn’t mistake it for a musical.

Mike Mazurki

Edward Dmytryk

Though Dmytryk wasn’t thrilled with this casting decision, Powell did a near-flawless job, earning approval from both the director and Chandler. Trevor and Shirley match his fine work as do Howard, Walton, Mander and Kruger. And Mazurki was perfectly cast. Trevor was quite the celluloid bad girl; most notably as the cold-blooded temptress in “Born to Kill” (1947, Robert Wise). She won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role as gangster Edward G. Robinson’s moll in the classic “Key Largo” (1948, John Huston).

Dmytryk deftly balances cynicism and anxiety with acerbic humor and lighthearted romance. Gifted at creating suspense and edgy moods, he is an undisputed master of film noir. After “Murder, My Sweet,” he helmed “Cornered” (1945), “Crossfire” (1947), “The Hidden Room” (1949), “The Sniper” (1952) and “Mirage” (1965).

His career was sidetracked, however, by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and its unconstitutional efforts to eradicate a perceived Communist influence in Hollywood. Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to cooperate with HUAC. But, after spending time in prison, Dmytryk changed his mind, testified before the committee and named names of supposed Communists.

Despite his decision to testify and the enmity it earned him, Dmytryk remains one of noir’s best directors.

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‘Murder, My Sweet’ quick hit

Murder, My Sweet/1944/RKO/95 min.

“Murder, My Sweet” is a superb flick and a defining work of the film noir genre, thanks to Edward Dmytryk’s directorial flair, top-notch acting and a terrific John Paxton script (based on Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell, My Lovely”). Musical star Dick Powell took a gamble by playing private eye Philip Marlowe and the risk paid off.

Tracking down a showgirl for an ex-con ignites the action in a complicated plot; Chandlerian weirdos, well dressed hustlers and eloquent thieves abound. Also starring Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Mike Mazurki, Esther Howard and Otto Kruger.

 

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Ann Savage in ‘Detour’ is the ultimate ‘dame with claws’

Detour/1945/PRC/67 min.

Edgar Ulmer

Luck so bad it borders on absurd, a story as flimsy as cardboard, a femme fatale who’s downright feral. That would be 1945’s “Detour,” a B classic that director Edgar Ulmer shot in less than a month for about $30,000.

Despite these limitations (or maybe because of them) Ulmer manages to work some visual miracles. Those foggy scenes where you can’t see the street? He didn’t have a street so he filled in with mist. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Ulmer came to the US in 1923. He brought a high-art, painterly disposition to this tawdry little flick, as he did to most of his work. (Ulmer’s “The Black Cat” from 1934 is a must-see.)

With a screenplay by Martin Goldsmith (he also wrote the source story), you might say “Detour” is Ulmer’s meditation on Fate. As the film’s doomed hero puts it: “Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” And later: “Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

The doomed hero Al Roberts is memorably played by rugged, slightly boyish Tom Neal. Al plays piano in a New York nightclub; his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings. Sue is the most wholesome nightclub singer you can imagine and maybe that’s the rub – they find it hard to make ends meet. She decides to leave New York and try her luck in Hollywood, only to end up slinging hash. (Look out for Esther Howard as a diner waitress; Howard played the haggard Jesse Florian in “Murder My Sweet” from 1944.)

To reunite with Sue, Al heads to California, hitching a ride with smug and chatty Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), whose hands are mysteriously scratched. “There oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” says Haskell.

Ann Savage

When Haskell suddenly dies during Al’s turn at the wheel, Al panics and takes off with the car. Next, Al meets the striking but cheap Vera (Ann Savage), also thumbing rides and in need of a shower. (The hairdresser slathered her hair with cold cream to make it look dirty and stringy.)

Vera happens to know Haskell and she knows a good chance for blackmail when she sees one. She works one angle after another, including a scheme to steal Haskell’s inheritance money.

She. Runs. The. Show. As director Wim Wenders says in Michael Palm’s “Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen” documentary: “she’s 30 years ahead of her time … a revolutionary female character.” In the same documentary, actress Savage (who made five films with Neal) says of Vera: “She’s mean to the extent that she wants to be boss. She’s a real b-i-t-c-h.”

True, Vera is not the most complex character – she’s short on nuance and dimension. But then, Vera herself would sneer at the mention of nuance and complexity, and snipe something like, “Do I look like a dictionary to you?” And as a ruthless, conniving, raw femme fatale, Savage’s Vera is hard to match.

Ulmer amazes with his deft and daring handling of the material. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to unleash his imagination and talent on higher-level projects. Though he worked with directors such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinneman and Billy Wilder, he was never part of the Hollywood elite.

Ulmer has said he would’ve been unhappy with the constraints of mainstream, commercial productions, but it’s likely he still craved the recognition and respect that A-list status confers. Also, Ulmer was ostracized from the in-crowd when he fell in love with the wife of an independent producer. She left her husband, Max Alexander, the nephew of Universal president Carl Laemmle.

Barbara Payton

Still, it seems Ulmer fared a bit better than his leading man Tom Neal (1914-1972) whose off-screen life would be good fodder for a noir. Neal was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Ill., and attended Northwestern University and Harvard Law.

In 1951, he attacked fellow actor Franchot Tone in a jealous fit over actress Barbara Payton, inflicting broken bones and a concussion, and damaging his own reputation to the point of ending his career. In 1965, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his third wife; he was paroled after serving six years of a 10-year sentence.

“Detour” was remade in 1992, starring Tom Neal Jr.

The original is recognized as corner stone of the noir genre. Filmmaker Errol Morris counts it as a favorite film, noting that: “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.”

Ann Savage photo from AP/Ann Savage Archive

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