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Nov 21, 2014

Noirvember: Femme Fatale Friday - When Claire met Lawrence, Claire Trevor in BORN TO KILL (1947)


Claire Trevor's Helen is just one of many very bad people in Robert Wise's hard-boiled and unrelenting Born to Kill. Much like Gloria Grahame in Human Desire (the subject of last week's Femme Fatale Friday post), Trevor doesn't start out with any indication of being a Femme Fatale, but it is a man - Lawrence Tierney - that brings it out in her. It is a match that won't end well for either of them.

Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney play two very rotten eggs
Lawrence Tierney is as bad as they get, probably one of the baddest that I can recall from a Film Noir and that is saying a lot given that it is a genre with some outstanding villainous portrayals from the likes of Robert Ryan and Richard Widmark. It is a one-note performance that works because it is a one-note character. You get a bad vibe from him the moment you lay eyes on him which is at a craps table making eyes with Claire Trevor. While he is visually flirting with her, he sees an ex-girlfriend happily gallivanting about the casino with a new boyfriend. His face instantly turns sour, so sour that it is unnerving. He doesn't like being made a chump of which he sees her hooking up with this new guy to be doing, so he kills them both. To further enhance his evil nature, when roommate and confidant Elisha Cook tells him he can't just go around killing people who upset him he answers "why can't I?"  Here's a guy who thinks murder is a reasonable act he is entitled to.

When Tierney gets mad, he kills
Claire Trevor is in Reno to get a divorce so she can get married to a rich man, and the murders happen on her last night before leaving town. She stops by the house and stumbles on the two dead bodies (enshrouded in deep Film Noir shadows) but instead of freaking out or going to the authorities, she quietly closes the door and goes about her business. Later in a scene later that mirrors Tierney's reaction to "you can't go around and kill people", she casually tells her foster sister about how she came across the bodies in a tone that would be more appropriate to someone finding a dead squirrel in the park and describing how she stepped over it so as to not dirty her shoes. She's a cold fish alright, a personality that is going to become more apparent the more she engages with Tierney.

Lawrence Tierney spies Claire Trevor at a craps table
Tierney and Trevor are reunited during travel back to San Francisco, with Tierney making the clam that he knows what he wants and gets it. In this case what he wants and will have - sort of - is Trevor. Even as Trevor is disgusted by this brute of a man forcing himself on her, it is obvious she is also extremely attracted to him. This is worrisome because we as an audience feel that this woman is way too refined and sophisticated for this primal animal who would probably beat or kill her for whatever reason he sees fit. What we discover though is that she is more like him than first appearances suggest, however just not so openly violent. No, she uses her brains and resources to make his and other's lives miserable in this picture. Her feelings and actions are so complex I don't even think she knows what side she is on. She seems so set on ruining, then having, then protecting, then turning in Tierney to the authorities that who knows what she intends the final result to be. She's a mess and he's a mess and everyone around them are merely pawns in a dangerous game of wills.

Lawrence Tierney is a brute force in 'Born to Kill'
While Tierney displays his brutality out in the open for all to see, Trevor has hidden her true nature well but struggles to do so once she comes in contact with Tierney. He keeps reminding her that she is exactly like him, someone pushing their way into wealth and society from the bottom ladder rung which brings out her claws. She turns him away but then gets jealous when he marries her foster sister. She looks the part of social butterfly and he doesn't. On his wedding day while everyone else is finely dressed in formal wear, he wears a common, bland, everyday suit. She wears a crown like a queen (and she's not even the bride) complete with a veil which can't be coincidental. He's a brute force, she's sneaky and manipulative and I would say her approach is much more acceptable and successful than his. She has him trapped knowing that he has committed a murder with a detective hot on his heels while he is willing to openly pull a gun or beat on anyone that crosses him or makes him look bad. She could finish this guy off and send him packing for jail anytime she wants, yet doesn't.

Tierney wears a plain suit to his wedding while Trevor wears a crown
I haven't even really gotten into too much detail on some of the other bad characters like a morally corrupt Detective willing to obstruct the murder case for the right amount of money, or Elisha Cook who is willing to kill to protect his friend. As mentioned above, it's a hard-boiled picture with a wide cast of shady characters. They barely scratch the surface though when it comes to Trevor and Tierney.

Trevor isn't above paying off a detective to obstruct justice, and he isn't above asking for more money to do so
Trevor and Tierney make the perfect lethal pair in this picture. He gets jealous and kills a man - his friend - for thinking he is two timing him when really he is about to help Tierney out of an incredible jam. When Trevor gets jealous she blocks him from making social inroads (like taking over the family business) even while carrying on a torrid love affair with him. She lures him into a situation to reveal that affair to ruin his marriage and turn him into the authorities effectively cutting them both out of their cushy social prospects. While he gets angry and acts on impulse, she uses her manipulative ways to get what she needs when the situation calls for it. They both know what they want and how to get it, she's just more smart about it but waits too long and to play her cards and everything unravels for both of them.

Lawrence Tierney with 'friend' Elisha Cook
Of course it means that both of them are doomed and only they can be the tool of the other's demise, but I'd like to think had Trevor not met Tierney she would have married the rich guy and had a good life in high society. Tierney is pure evil and that evil nature is dangerously attractive to Trevor. It brings out her inner demons that she then unleashes on everyone. Her greatest flaw is that she can't make up her mind - the safe, rich life or the dangerous liaison with Tierney. Of course this is Film Noir, so the more dangerous path is always the one taken.