Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Born to Kill (1947)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Born to Kill (1947)

Robert Wise's dark, racy, cynical, amoral and noirish crime melodrama was based on James Gunn's novel Deadlier Than the Male, with themes of rampant criminal behavior, jealousy, deceit, selfish social-striving, greed, temptation, and infidelity. Forces of censorship at the time (the Breen Commission) were upset by the film's story - "a story of gross lust and shocking brutality, and ruthlessness." One of the film's taglines described the two despicable and unredeemable main characters - a homicidal maniac and a promiscuous, danger-loving female:

"Bullet-Man and Silken Savage!"

The morbid story opened in Reno, Nevada, with the just-announced divorce of wealthy, worldly and beautiful socialite Helen Brent (Claire Trevor). She was renting a room from Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), the elderly, card-cheating, alcoholic landlady of the establishment, owned by young Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell).

Four Main Characters Introduced Early
Helen Brent (Claire Trevor)
Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney)
Laury Palmer (Isabell Jewell)
Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard)

Laury bragged to Mrs. Kraft and Helen about her new "young squirt" dating prospect Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) on the side. She was dating him only to make her regular boyfriend Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) jealous. She described Sam as a brute: "He's the quiet sort, and yet you get a feeling if you stepped out of line, he'd kick your teeth down your throat...He knows he's got me all wrapped up. So I've got to start him worryin'. It's a bore but that's the way you got to handle men." (Later, feeling humiliated and manipulated, Sam mentioned that Laury was "makin' a monkey outta me...I never let anybody cut in on me on anything!")

On her last night in Reno at the Northern Club casino, Helen flirted unknowingly with another craps-dice table customer (Sam Wilde) while betting. Helen greeted Laury and her date Danny, within view of Sam. Upon Laury and Danny's return to the boarding house, Danny was alone in the kitchen where he was awaited and confronted by jealously-enraged bad guy Sam with a hair-trigger temper - they engaged in a brief fistfight before Sam bludgeoned Danny to death. When Laury walked in on the scene, she was also murdered.

[Note: Megalomaniacal and violent Sam was an irresistible male homme fatale with an insane killer instinct - an obvious reversal of the typical noir pattern.]

Later upon her return home (Sam watched her from the bushes), Helen discovered the cold-blooded, double-murder - the two bodies on the kitchen floor. The self-centered Helen remained calm and although she considered calling the police to report her grisly discovery, she instead called the railroad station - she had immediate plans to travel to San Francisco to marry wealthy fiancee Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). Meanwhile, Sam returned to his apartment and admitted his crimes to his close-friend and understanding confidante Marty Waterman (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who immediately questioned his sanity:

"...the way you go off your head! And it's been worse lately. Ever since that nervous crack-up last summer. Honest, Sam, you go nuts about nothin'. Nothin' at all. You gotta watch that. You can't just go around killin' people whenever the notion strikes ya. It's not feasible."

When Helen and Sam fled town separately, they found themselves on the same night-time train and became reacquainted in the closed club-car. He knowingly told her: "I know what I want when I see it." She complimented him on his straight-forward manliness: "You're not a turnip, are you?" On the Berkeley ferry shuttling across the Bay to the city, she was intrigued by his comment about their common destination:

"We're going in the same direction, you and I."

In San Francisco, Helen joined up with her wealthy fiancee Fred Grover (Phillip Terry) (of the Grover Steel Co.) and her pretty half/foster-sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), an affluent newspaper heiress. Sam located Helen in Georgia's mansion, and became acquainted with Georgia. Knowing that Helen was already 'taken' (although she was acting coy and playing a continual game of cat-and-mouse with him), and that single and available Georgia also had wealth and status, he flirted with her and after a few weeks of courtship, they were married.

Still, Helen craved Sam's attention and was strangely drawn to and thrilled by the repellent Sam - she engaged in an illicit relationship with him (never fully sexually portrayed on-screen due to censorship guidelines), while jealously resenting him for marrying her sister. She allowed herself to be kissed by Sam immediately after the wedding.

Meanwhile, seedy and corrupt, portly Bible-quoting private detective Matthew Arnett (Walter Slezak) had been hired by Mrs. Kraft in Reno to find Laury's killer. Arnett trailed Marty to SF, and posed as a hungry vagrant at Georgia's home before being thrown out by Helen for asking too many questions about Mr. Wilde. Sam and Georgia's honeymoon was cut short by one week when they argued about Sam's intentions to manage the newspaper that Georgia had inherited from her father.

In one repellent scene late the night after Sam's aborted honeymoon, Helen and Sam met together in the kitchen, when he called her his lustful and passionate "soulmate." He insightfully noted: "Your roots are down where mine are!" before embracing and kissing her. She mentioned that she loved Fred, mostly for his money, peacefulness and security: ("All my life, I've lived on other people's money. Now I want some of my own. But there's another kind of security that Fred can give me. Without him, I'm afraid of the things I'll do. Afraid of what I might become. Fred is goodness and safety"). And then she complimented Sam's darker nature:

"You're strength, excitement, and depravity! There's a kind of corruptness inside of you, Sam!"

Kitchen Scene Between Helen and Sam

As Sam gleefully reminisced about the murder scene in Reno and complimented her for her calm reaction to the two deaths: ("You had guts then, you didn't yell or faint...Blood all over the place and you didn't yell!"), she suddenly realized to her revulsion that he was the double-murderer. [Note: The film's tagline described their relationship: "The coldest killer a woman ever loved."]

Helen tried to notify PI Arnett by phone - while Sam eavesdropped on a different extension. He began to suspect that Helen was entrapping him with her seductive charm ("I don't get her at all...Maybe she is against me, I don't know. She puts herself in my arms and tries to trap me. She feels, digs, and looks inside of me"). Later in person, Helen vaguely told Arnett about her suspicions about Sam. However, to protect Sam and suppress Arnett's search for justice, she tried to buy off (or blackmail) Arnett for $5,000, but he tripled his demands to $15,000 to keep silent. When she refused, he said he would continue to pursue his investigation: "In that case, I shall have to forge ahead with my inquiry. And may I remind you that Nevada courts have rather puritanical views. Why some of our more impassioned juries even insist that a man who commits murder pay with his life." Helen claimed her motive to protect Sam was because he was her sister's husband, but Arnett surmised that Helen as Sam's sister-in-law had also succumbed to Sam's attractive "charms." When she returned home, Sam confronted Helen about her contact with Arnett, but was able to persuade him that she was on Sam's side.

Circumstances became more complex when Sam became unreasonably jealous of his close friend Marty's interest in Helen. He noticed them in her bedroom while they were innocently plotting to kill visiting Mrs. Kraft (who had hired Arnett to pursue Laury's murder), and suspected that they were having an affair. That evening, Mrs. Kraft was directed to a remote sandy beach-side location to meet up with Marty - his intent was to eliminate her. He pulled out a switchblade and threatened her: "The moral is, don't hire detectives." As Mrs. Kraft fought back and fled for her life, Sam appeared, grabbed his long-time pal, held the knife to his throat, and then stabbed him to death in the chest.

The next morning when questioned by the police, Helen continued to cover for Sam by perjurying herself with a false alibi (she affirmed she had played cards with Sam until midnight). After the police left, Helen prophetically expressed her intense dislike for Sam's 'thick-headed' homicidal tendencies: "You who let every mad whim that enters your brain whip you around. I'd bet you'd even kill me if I made a move that didn't meet with your approval."

Afterwards, Helen met alone with Mrs. Kraft and was able to intimidate her into abandoning her investigation of Sam for any reason - claiming that she feared for the old lady's life:

"If you go to the police, you'll see Laury sooner than you think....I'm just warning you. Perhaps you don't realize, it's painful being killed. A piece of metal sliding into your body, finding its way into your heart. Or a bullet tearing through your skin, crashing into a bone. It takes a while to die, too. Sometimes a long while."

Although Helen was convincing, Mrs. Kraft precisely described how ice-cold Helen had become: "You're the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, and the rottenest inside. I've seen plenty, too. I wouldn't trade places with you if they sliced me into little pieces." As Helen left, Mrs. Kraft spit on her shoulder and warned: "You carry your own curse inside of ya!"

Helen had often confided in Sam that she was "doing it all" for him (and for the two of them) in order "to patch up (his) bungling." But she finally realized Sam's destructive influence when her fiancee Fred suddenly broke off her engagement because of her increasingly-heartless and cold behavior: ("I feel that our getting married would be a mistake...the point is Helen, you don't love me...You told me once a long time ago that you'd always land on your feet, no matter what happened. You won't always, Helen"). Her needy pleadings for forgiveness yielded no change of heart: ("I'm afraid I can't help you...You've changed so, particularly since Sam came into this house").

By phone, Arnett told Helen that he wouldn't give up his investigation, even though Mrs. Kraft had dropped him. He quoted a revealing Bible verse (Ecclesiastes 7:26) to Helen:

You remember the verse from the Bible, Mrs. Brent? "I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and he who falls beneath their spell has need of God's mercy."

After her break-up and loss of financial security with Fred, Helen schemed to warn Georgia about Sam's true criminal identity, to break up their marriage: ("Sam's going to be arrested. He killed Mart. He killed those people I found in Reno...Sam's a murderer, a maniac. How can you stand the thought of even looking at him again?"). She lied that she had known about Sam's evil deeds for only a few days, causing Georgia to suspect Helen's devious motivations for her sudden remorse: ("You won't get another nickel from me as long as I live...You're through, washed up as far as I'm concerned...All you're crazy about is money and yourself!"). To prove her assertion that Sam didn't love Georgia, Helen passionately kissed Sam when he came into the room and didn't notice Helen sitting there. She made plans to run away with Sam herself at midnight ("Things are piling up on us, Sam...I'm afraid for you. Let's go away together, you and I....Tonight, right now!"). After Georgia revealed herself in the room, Helen spitefully criticized and threatened her own sister:

"Sam, she'd never let us be happy, never while she's alive...She doesn't want us to go away. We can never be together, never til she's dead!"

An enraged Sam - who heard the police breaking into the house - suspiciously believed that it was Helen who was back-stabbing and double-crossing him. As Helen fled up the stairs to hide behind her locked bedroom door, Sam pursued her. Helen screamed back at him: "Sam, you're out of your head. I should have known that long ago!" He fatally shot her through the door with multiple gunshots, just as police confronted him and shot him dead with gunfire.

Helen - Fleeing From Sam Into Her Bedroom - Shot Through the Door
Sam's Killing by Police
Helen: "Fred was right. This time I didn't land on my feet"
Newspaper Headlines

Before she died of her abdomen wounds, she offered a final thought about how her fiancee Fred had confirmed for her that she couldn't save herself from being irresistibly drawn to Sam, her own married brother-in-law:

I did take too big a chance... Fred was right. This time I didn't land on my feet.

The film ended with the headlines from the SF Times: "SOCIALITE SLAIN!"

Laury Palmer Noticing Danny Dead on Kitchen Floor (with Sam in Shadows)

Laury About to Be Murdered by Sam

Helen's Calm Reaction in Kitchen to Double-Murder

Sam Confessing His Crime to Friend Marty "Mart" Waterman (Elisha Cook, Jr.)

Sam and Helen on the Train to SF

(l to r): Georgia Staples, Fred Grover, and Helen

Georgia Dancing with Sam

Reno PI Matthew Arnett (Walter Slezak)

Sam and Georgia's Wedding

Sam Kissing Helen After His Wedding

Sam Holding a Knife to Marty's Throat Before Killing Him

Newspaper Headlines of Marty's Murder

Helen Scaring Mrs. Kraft Into Dropping Case Against Sam

Helen - Still in Love With Sam, and Covering Up For Him

The Tell-Tale Kiss Between Sam and Helen - Witnessed by Georgia


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