With a title as flamboyant as Born to Kill you’d think it was an over-the-top Wellesian exercise in gloom and doom, but the amazing thing about the movie, with one of the darkest plots in all of Film Noir, is how restrained Robert Wise remains throughout the chaos. According to Eddie Muller on the film’s commentary track, the French critics of the time didn’t think that Wise went deep enough into the nasty corners of the script, that he should have delved into certain swampy recesses of the plot with more gusto, but I think this is an insult to Wise, who is a great artist but who’s art has always been in the service of his craft. Recently Scorsese has been championing him as a true Auteur, but for the most part the critical establishment accepts him as a pure craftsman with no artistic perspective.
It’s a mistake to dismiss Wise as a mere technician; his intense loyalty to the script is evidence only of his respect for the writer, not his lack of vision as a director. He never abuses the stylistics of Noir in Born to Kill; there are no extremely canted angles, and the chiaroscuro is used sparingly in scenes of horror (there’s a clear Val Lewton influence in these compositions.) In The Day the Earth Stood Still he doesn’t fetishize the trappings of Sci-Fi like in a Forbidden Planet or a When Worlds Collide. In The Sound of Music he doesn’t linger unnecessarily on the musical numbers; in fact its a musical that is almost more interested in Architecture than music. There’s always a propellant atmosphere of movement in his work. A sense that each scene dovetails perfectly with the last, each successive shot pushing the last out of the frame.
We see this in Born to Kill particularly. There are several scenes where an action commences, the scene ends without telling the audience the significance of its occurence, and then in the next scene the results of the action are exposited. The best example of this is the meeting between Ellen and Mart. They meet, exchange snappy and suspicious dialogue, and the scene changes. We have no idea why Ellen called a meeting with Mart. In the next scene we’re with Ellen and her husband and she’s explaining that Mart will be coming to stay with them. The two scenes go together to create one plot point—but most importantly we’re given the scenes of characterization at the expense of boring exposition. This focuses the viewer’s attention on the characters like a laser beam. That is Wise’s gift; his deft hand in translating script to screen brings his characters fully to life, whereas a Welles or a Fuller would put more emphasis on the film’s themes at the expense of character. This personal vision of what parts of a story are significant is the very definition of the ‘Auteur Theory,’ and it vexes me to no end that people like Wise, Carol Reed and Michael Curtiz are all seen as somehow less “Auterurish” than a Nick Ray or a Joseph Lewis, only because they’re better pure directors.
Bringing the script to life is an artistic decision just as much as focusing your vision on particular elements of that script. Robert Wise is a great director—one of the best of all time because of his willingness to always stand aside and let his characters run the movie.