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Born to Kill (1947)

Approved | | Crime, Drama, Film-Noir | 3 May 1947 (USA)
A calculating divorcée risks her chances at wealth and security with a man she doesn't love by getting involved with the hotheaded murderer romancing her foster sister.


Robert Wise


Eve Greene (screenplay), Richard Macaulay (screenplay) | 1 more credit »


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Complete credited cast:
Claire Trevor ... Helen Brent
Lawrence Tierney ... Sam Wilde
Walter Slezak ... Albert Arnett
Phillip Terry ... Fred Grover
Audrey Long ... Georgia Staples Wilde
Elisha Cook Jr. ... Marty Waterman
Isabel Jewell ... Laury Palmer
Esther Howard ... Mrs. Kraft
Kathryn Card ... Grace
Tony Barrett ... Danny
Grandon Rhodes ... Inspector Wilson


In Reno a man kills a girl he likes and her boyfriend out of jealousy; it may not be the first time. A woman whose divorce has just come through finds the bodies then decides not to become involved. The two meet next day on the train to San Francisco unaware of this link between them. They are attracted to each other, and the relationship survives his marriage to her half-sister for money and status. It even survives the woman discovering that he was the murderer, though she may not realize how easily someone who has killed this way before can do so again. Written by Jeremy Perkins {J-26}

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


RELENTLESS SUSPENSE! (original ad - all caps) See more »


Approved | See all certifications »






Release Date:

3 May 1947 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Deadlier Than the Male See more »

Filming Locations:

Reno, Nevada, USA See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

RKO Radio Pictures See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (RCA Sound System)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


The French film maker Jean-Pierre Melville was influenced by the movie. He borrowed the lost, isolated house settings at night; the same kind of settings used in his movie Le Doulos (1962). See more »


They took a train from Reno Nv. to San Fransisco Ca. but the shot of the train coming at the camera head-on is a Pennsylvania RR streamlined K4 locomotive on their 4 track mainline in Pennsylvania. See more »


Fred: You never see a thing except what you want to see, do you?
See more »


Referenced in Pretty Little Liars: Stolen Kisses (2012) See more »


I Haven't a Thing to Wear
Music by Harry Revel
Tune on the radio when Helen discovers the bodies
See more »

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User Reviews

"Neither of us looks like a scoundrel"
14 March 2009 | by Steffi_PSee all my reviews

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.

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