As I remember it, back in high school, it was the guys with the mean cars who scored. With their souped-up automobiles, and their “duck’s ass” hairdos, and their collars turned up like Fabian, they attracted attention. The school I was at was heavy on trades – welding, auto, carpentry, machine shop – and that was fine, but I just wasn’t the type. I’d somehow stumbled into the wrong school.
But that’s a whole other story.
Wrong school, wrong everything. I didn’t know it then, but the study of these interesting characters would provide me with useful research in my future as a writer.
I always thought that girls liked bad guys, but I didn’t know for sure. Back then, there was no Internet to inform us at the touch of a button. We had our theories, of course, but information wasn’t so easily available as today. And pop psychology had yet to surface.
Do Girls Dote on Bad Guys?
Yes, they were drawn to bad guys like flies to garbage. Now, I’m not saying all these fellows at my school were garbage – some of them were regular students anxious to get a career in one of the trades. All guys who took shop didn’t fit this category, just the ones who exhibited those personality traits specific to “bad boys:” Narcissism and disrespect for authority, and at times, unfortunately, violence. Their behavior seemed to indicate that they were heading nowhere, or possibly straight to prison.
What was it about girls going for nasty guys who could’t spell or write, who sat at the back of the room in every class, balancing themselves on the back legs of their chairs, chewing gum and making snarky comments, that attracted females like flies to honey, or lemmings hurrying to an appointment with death? What did these guys have going for them? I really wanted to find out.
Was there scientific evidence that girls prefer naughty boys? There is now.
But what I was really interested in was how bad guys were portrayed in the movies particularly in my field of interest, the Noir films that Hollywood churned out like canned goods back in the ’40s. As Robert Mitchum pointed out in an interview with Dick Cavet, back in 1971, they were just “B movies” that nobody thought much about. To me the genre was a document of those times, but more than that they provided a window on our collective souls. Showing us our darkest nature, they represent the very best of what was the worst about America, and in a larger perspective the entire world.
A Really Bad Guy
The movie is called, Born to Kill (1947), based on an equally shocking novel at the time entitled, Deadlier Than the Male, by James Gunn, published in 1943. The New York Times review at the time of the release of the movie found it “a smeary tabloid fable” and “an hour and a half of ostentatious vice.” His review concluded: “Surely, discriminating people are not likely to be attracted to this film. But it is precisely because it is designed to pander to the lower levels of taste that it is reprehensible.”
He seems to be missing the point.
In 1947, it was undoubtedly shocking, but we’ve moved forward with depictions of violence to the point where we’re numb. And we’ve opened too many Pandora’s Boxes to ever be able to close them again. By the middle class standards of the 1940s, being confronted by a portrait of life in the raw, with no happy ending, must have been disconcerting, What the NY Times interview is implying is that it’s “bad” to depict degraded themes at a time when the country was looking forward with optimism to a bright future, full of “discriminating people (no doubt after the HUAC witch hunt was over). The last thing anybody wanted to be exposed to was the underside of American life.
What Was So Bad?
The movie is still relevant today. The settings are dated, as is the morality, and often so is the language: hip jargon fades with the succeeding generation. Born To Kill is relevant today because it shines a spotlight into the dark corners of human nature. The characters in this world aren’t that much different from real people we see on live television every day. Domestic violence, love triangles that explode into murder, or suicide. Jealous rages and revenge killings – you’ve seen it all, if you watch any investigative reality programs.
Helen Brent, played by Claire Trevor meets Sam Wilde, played by Lawrence Tierney and becomes infatuated with him; she is mesmerized. Her husband Fred Grove, played by Phillip Terry, is the picture of the mild-mannered, socially responsible member of society; he represents the safe harbor for her, and the good life she hopes to have when they marry.
But when Sam Wilde steps in, Helen’s inner conflict between her good side and her bad side places her in an impossible situation. She wants to be good, but she can’t help being bad, a common theme in Noir. In a scene fraught with sizzling subtext, Helen confesses to Wilde that she craves his depravity. They kiss greedily after succumbing to a moment of lustful abandon, as if trying to devour each other. It is a significant scene because it’s Helen’s moment of synchronicity in which she melds mind and soul with her lover.
A Love-Hate Relationship
Sam Wilde and Helen Brent are locked in a love-hate relationship. Helen is torn between her two diametrically opposed personalities. Fred is the good man, her security. His money promises to give her a place in society. He’s decent, and she hopes he can protect her from herself, from those evil urges that invariably lead her down the path to destruction. Her fascination with Wilde’s narcissism, his total selfishness, his reckless disregard for human life, mesmerizes her and ultimately falls into his trap. Throughout, she tries to walk the tightrope playing both sides against the middle.
What was so bad, then? The NY Times article condemns the movie, which is “designed to pander to the lower levels of taste,” and, “it is designed to pander to the lower levels of taste that it is reprehensible.” But Born to Kill proves that it is a timeless issue.
However, fictional characters though fascinating to us because they’re a little screwy, or just plain nuts, don’t represent the majority of ordinary people (that’s us) in the real world. Though these issues touch base with the real world, it’s tangential and rarely affects us, for which we should be grateful.
If you have a comment, please post one. Thanks. I’d be interested in hearing your views.
If you’re a writer interested in this genre, please contact me as well, at