Helen (Claire Trevor) has just received her divorce in Reno, and returns to the boarding house where she is staying to settle her bill. The owner of the boarding house, Mrs Kraft (Esther Howard), is merrily chatting away to one of the tenants, Laury (Isabel Jewell), who is telling her about her new boyfriend - her second new boyfriend, in fact. Later that night, Helen visits a casino, where one of the punters catches her eye; she doesn't know that he is Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), Laury's other boyfriend, who is getting worked up into a jealous fury which will see him murder both Laury and the other man, and it's Helen who finds the bodies. However, she doesn't call the police...
This twist on the film noir genre was written by Eve Green and Richard Macaulay from James Gunn's novel, and gave both tough guy Tierney and bad girl Trevor some great opportunities which they seized with aplomb. Instead of the traditional hero being drawn into a criminal underworld by a femme fatale, Born To Kill reverses the genders with Helen pulled down into depravity by the psychopathic Sam, finding herself both repelled by and sexually attracted to him, as most women seem to be in this film. You have to agree with the filmmakers that Sam, who anyone with any sense could tell is an extremely dangerous man, would have the ladies falling at his feet, which makes for a curiously artificial experience. The tension, on the other hand, makes up for it.
Leaving Reno by train, Helen and Sam meet by chance, and get to talking. Helen is the foster sister of Georgia (Audrey Long), a tycoon's daughter who has all the money, while Helen has to rely on her charity. Helen is engaged to Fred (Phillip Terry), a rich businessman who she is marrying for his fortune, even if she can't admit this fact to herself, but when Sam follows her home and invites himself to dinner, she grows torn between doing the right thing for her family and friends, or following Sam's wicked lead. See how intimidating Tierney is while dancing with Georgia, and you will have trouble accepting that she would want to marry him, but in a matter of weeks that is precisely what she does.
Meanwhile, Mrs Kraft is bitter about Laury's death, and hires a seedy private detective, Arnett (Walter Slezak) to track down the killer. Insinuatingly played by the portly Slezak, the Bible-quoting Arnett becomes an unlikely force for good and in some ways the conscience of the movie, showing up at the wedding to ask pertinent questions until he is thrown out by Helen. Sam has an accomplice, Marty (regular film noir fall guy Elisha Cook Jr) who tries to reign him in, and moves in with Helen and Georgia in their mansion (just about all the main characters end up moving in together, and you half expect Arnett to join them).
All the while, Helen and Sam are carrying on a lustful relationship behind everyone's back, with Helen disgusted with her passion but giving in to it anyway: see the scene where they embrace each other in the kitchen one night to rhapsodise over the details of the double murder for gleefully sick melodrama. As Mrs Kraft gets too close, Helen tries to bribe Arnett, which he accepts, but her corrupt side is her downfall and Fred, who would have provided the money, pushes her away. And the vicious Sam isn't having much more luck, as there's a great sequence where Marty attempts to kill off Mrs Kraft on the sand dunes one night, only to be violently prevented by his friend who believes he's making moves on Helen. Unremittingly dark, Born To Kill is a fine example of the kind of thriller where you get your kicks from seeing the characters going straight to Hell. Music by Paul Sawtell.