Born To Kill –– directed by Robert Wise. Noir. An ambitious sociopath charms his way into high society where he comes up against the fatal lady. 92 minutes Black and White 1946.
Hollywood Crisp is a style of acting which most of the actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood employed. In this style, emotional action is internalized and stilled, as is bodily tension; cues are picked up; lines are generally delivered without breaks or hesitation; actors with unusual voices prevail; subtext is rare.
Hollywood Crisp actors often monotonize lines; Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Joel McCrae, Barbara Stanwyck do this. The range of Hollywood Crisp actors is usually narrow, but effective within that range.
The Golden Age (1930-1950) of Hollywood Crisp was called the age of the Personality Actor, but when Marlon Brando appeared in A Streetcar Named Desire, a new era in human consciousness is born along with a new era in histrionics and craft. Method acting, however, in its insistence on lower class dramas, encouraged actors of a limited range and vocal type. Kim Stanley and Karl Malden are personality Method actors; what they are doing is identical from role to role. As a rule, the Method Actor also comes into the craft of acting and practices it lifelong with no vocal training, whereas Hollywood Crisp actors have well trained listenable voices, some of them, such as Joan Crawford’s, actually studio-confected.
The craft of Method acting is also identical to Hollywood Crisp in that in any scene the actor enters, he must know where he is coming from and what he wants.
In all periods and styles of movie acting, certain actors appear who belong to no category at all. Some because they are forces of nature, such as Anna Magnani and Katina Paxinou. Others because their talent lies in the ability to allow personalities not their own to inhabit them: Daniel Day-Lewis is one such; Meryl Streep another. As Personality actors in leading roles, they have no power. Lacking an arresting particularity, they are uninteresting as leading lady and leading man. Daniel Day-Lewis has no sense of humor; how could he be Cary Grant? Meryl Streep has no inner resistance; how could she be Jean Arthur?
The Hollywood Crisp actor had the ability to play characters of all classes. The Method actor, no: only working class. So Katharine Hepburn could play Alice Adams and also Tracy Lord. Kim Stanley could not play anything above the waitress-class. Both Julie Harris and Geraldine Page could play a range, but neither had voices trained for the classics. And, after all, think of it: would you really want to see Steve McQueen as Macbeth?
In any case, these categories are not hard and fast, and there are actors who are just actors who are just actors. Some come from the stage, like George C. Scott and carry the big animal voice and temperament of the stage actor onto the screen. Others wander into film from TV, like Clint Eastwood, and bring to film the necessities of the miniaturist which TV work generally fosters: whispers, minute facial registration, and single simple intent. And then there are the English actors, and so on and so forth.
But it’s fun to consider these categories for what they reveal about the craft these actors pursue, the craft that movies demanded of them. And certainly, more than any other category perhaps, the Hollywood Crisp actor was deliberately at the service of the story: here to tell a story, be part of a story, and there are many anecdotes of the generosity of these actors helping novice actors do just that. Watch Katharine Hepburn in the exposition scene with Judy Holiday in Adam’s Rib, just listening in order to focus attention on a newcomer and her story. In movies, the audience’s drama consists of the tension of the division of loyalty between how this story will turn out and what the actor is. Actor and story — that’s the task and danger for the innards of the audience. For the Hollywood Crisp actor, essence and response to essence is everything; for the Method actor what the actor is is not everything; what the actor is driven to do is.
Claire Trevor was an actor of the Hollywood Crisp style, and, boy, was she good. Her voice, a low alto, has a catch to it, a vibrato in the interstices of which you sense a vulnerability impossible to resist. You always want to side with her. And you always understand how the hero would be drawn to her even when, as in this case, she is more deadly than the male. Her face is a visage, across whose steady surface a breeze of doubt or uncertainty will twitch from rare time to time, so that you know, because you can see, the suffering she cannot help but endure: a crack, a weakness; it is very endearing. It is an acting strength. She brings to all her parts an inherent ambiguity – not an ambiguity of performance, but something already belonging to her – with which she is at home – along with a capacity for secrecy and humor, to confound all who behold her.
All this holds us in good stead as we watch her in this film, originally titled, More Deadly Than The Male, and these qualities ground the suspense of the tale in character rather than in action, movement, plot. We never know what she is destined for until the fadeout. Because of her, we never know how this movie will end.
She is playing opposite an actor of no ambiguity at all, Lawrence Tierney, who brings to the screen a mien of menace unique in movies. I found him terrifying. He is the only actor I have ever seen who actually made me want to leave the room. Not because of what he did or said, but because of his personal emanation. Of course, he does the cruelest things, and if we have never seen them before, we have seen them since, and they are not what is so frightening about him.
We know from his notorious personal life that he was a maniac, violent, drunk, frequently jailed, and that he beat up his brother, Scott Brady, and that he was out of films soon enough. But we also know that he had to have his personal portable toilet brought to the set because he was so frightened of acting he could not make it to the common stall. He’s a good actor — and a trained one — but too difficult to be around: he went on in smaller and smaller roles, belligerently, until age 82. Here he is 26 and just starting. His face is a mask of sensitivity about to be violated. Just don’t be the one to do it.
So we can see in these two performances, Trevor and Tierney, the subtle gradations of a flat affect and how well they serve the material, Noir. That is to say, it is the story of so many disempowered post World War II women who cannot make a living one the men came back, and so seeks riches without love by lust without love. Pulp film was perfected by Hollywood Crisp acting, and pulp is what most Golden Age movie drama was.
Highly entertaining if you love pulp – and I do – which is what Noir is, and Born To Kill a first class example of one.