Everything about the Sam Wild character in Robert Wise’s 1947 “Born to Kill” says “run, right now, as fast as you can.” Yet, two women in the movie fall in love with him and one even stumbles upon two of his murder victims. Clair Trevor plays Helen Brent, who meets Wild (Lawrence Tierney) on a train trip from Reno to San Francisco. She knows what’s bad about Wild, but becomes entranced by his animal magnetism. Although Helen plans to marry a nice, respectable and rich man, she allows the barbarous Wild to infiltrate her circle, where Wild quickly proposes to Helen’s rich but naive sister, Georgia Staples (Audrey Long). Wild plans to run off eventually with the vulnerable Helen, so he romances her under the nose of the clueless Georgia.
Director Wise opens the film in a boarding house in Reno, where Helen awaits a divorce decree. The brassy landlady, Mrs. Kraft, played by Esther Howard, loves to have a good time and drink beer. Her friend and pseudo daughter, Laury, also a good-time girl, tells her about her date for the evening. The scene seems long and expository, especially since the story would move shortly to San Francisco. But then Laury shows up dead, and the grief stricken Mrs. Kraft hires a private investigator named Arnett (Walter Slezak) to find her killer.
Arnett works fast, crashing Georgia’s wedding to Wild and asking the servants a lot of questions about the couple. Helen quickly intervenes, telling Arnett to mind his own business and get lost. Meanwhile, Wild sends his creepy friend Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.) to find out who hired Arnett. Such complications set up Mrs. Kraft’s visit to San Francisco, and Wild’s determined effort to eliminate anyone who is on to him.
Wise and cinematographer Robert De Grasse photograph everything vividly; it’s not a cheap production. The actors must have loved working on this film, because it features so many interesting characters. None of the characters, except for Mrs. Kraft, seem to have much integrity. The surprising Arnett acts like an incompetent con man at first, as he takes Mrs. Kraft’s money for the investigation but all but promises that he’ll find nothing. Helen, an excitement junky, takes her chances no matter what the consequences. Marty, who fancies himself as a smarter version of Wild, carries his blind loyalty to Wild to extremes. In other films noir, Helen would be the heroine, but in Born to Kill, she willingly and convincingly aids Wild throughout. Her bad decisions lead to the final and tragic showdown.