Written by Owen Franes, Daniel Mainwaring, Winston Miller, Kae Salkow
Directed by William C. Thomas
In mourning following the death of his brother, Tom Burling (Robert Lowery) is hoping to escape the city he calls home and write a new chapter of his life elsewhere. Shortly after taking the road, he tries to sell off his wheels to Betty (Lola Lane), a women supposedly working at a local car dealership. Seduced by the vehicle’s speed during a test drive, she asks Tom to swing by the very next day to make a deal with her boyfriend, but this is nothing but a ruse to use Tom’s car as a mean to make a getaway from their planned bank holdup, a event that results in the death of an innocent young man. Caught up as a pawn in Betty’s ploy, he causes their ride to roll over and then flee the premise. Now, believed by the police to have been a willing participant in the theft, Tom is desperate to clear his name, just as June Reynolds (Barbara Britton) is desperate to bring those that killed her brother, to justice.
Among the many goals They Made Me a Killer strives for, there is one in particular that director William C. Thomas and the squad of screenwriters get in spades. It concerns the protagonist Tom Durling, played sternly and with little flare by Robert Lowery), and is revealed at around the midway point of the picture. Tom and June have strenuously forged a partnership of sorts that should help them clear Tom’s name and earn June the justice she seeks. Thus far the male protagonist’s primary objective is deemed just and more than a little reasonable. What’s more, there exists a painful bond that ties both characters together, that being the demise of a brother. In Tom’s case, his sibling’s unexpected death prompted him to start anew, whereas June is steadfast in wanting to fix her current affairs before moving on to anything else.
However, Tom, while musing about the satisfaction of catching up with the real villains presently on the lam, suggests that retrieving the money they stole from the bank would serve as a most satisfying bonus. This surprises June considering how much Tom has harped on the importance of honourable justice up until then. He hasn’t entirely changed his tune, but the dark clouds of greed slowly begin to guide his thought process. Even though their alliance strengthens as the plot trots along, it is evident that Tom has two things on his mind rather than one. More to the point, the protagonist is presented as a bit of a shady character at times instead of brimming with altruism. One such example comes early when the police have brought Tom to speak to June’s dying brother, the latter being the only person who can clear Tom’s name since he was present at the time of the robbery. As the injured young man expires before he can clearly say anything of worth, Tom knows full well that he is in a heap of trouble with the police, so in order to catch them off guard, he flips over the bed on which the deceased rests, carelessly even. In that instant alone, all that mattered was escaping custody. Survival instincts kicked into overdrive, poor dead innocent bystander be damned. Such nuance, however theatrical, added to the main character adds a welcome flavor to the story, reminding viewers that the heroes of certain pieces are not always angels.
It can be argued that the different sides to Tom represent that film’s greatest accomplishment. This is a terrific asset for a film to have, but it can’t be one of its only assets, which is the unfortunate reality afflicting much everything else. Generally speaking, They Made Me a Killer is a rather bland affair. Apart from the aforementioned darker side to the wrongfully accused central figure and a delightfully action packed hide and seek sequence within the confines of a hospital between Tom and the police, it feels as though not a whole lot happens in the movie. More importantly, the film suffers from a lackluster second half, which is arguably the worst type of criticism a film can receive. Finishing strong following a slow start is always the better outcome than beginning with promise only end with one’s tail sagging between one’s legs.
The dour opening featuring a profoundly melancholic Tom, the flirtatious encounter with Bunny, the high speed chase that leads to the city outskirts, the tension riddled hospital scene, the trepidatious early negotiations between Tom and June. As such the picture’s initial half does have a decent amount of stimuli in its favour, setting up for a solid conclusion. The concerning issues begin once Tom and June locate the hotel where the culprits are staking out until the heat is gone, wherein director Thomas brings the pace to a complete standstill right up until the end. There is potential for tension, as Tom finds himself in the unenviable position of being held captive by Betty and her trio of right hand men in the basement of Ma’s (Elisabeth Risdon) establishment, yet the movie stubbornly refuses to kick matters into high gear. In fact, Tom, seeing that there is little he can do until June finds a way to contact him, acquiesces Ma’s requests for assistance to clean up and repair various electrical appliances in and around the building. Yes, while the film could be tightening the screws in the leadup to a fun finale, it prefers to showcase Tom performing chores. It’s a dumfounding decision on the director’s part, killing whatever thrills the movie has succeeding in giving viewers up until that point, moderate though said thrills might have been. Bluntly put, They Made Me a Killer’s second half is an absolute dud.
The worst part of the latter half’s lack of momentum and oddly chosen plot developments is that said changes eschew the compelling debate of opposing philosophies between Tom and June. Their relationship blossoms while peppered with occasional confrontations due to Tom’s growing interest in the stolen loot, an interest that soon rivals his need to prove his innocence. The moment the two are separated, said conflict evaporates, lost in the darkness of Ma’s basement.
Speaking of darkness, the film is widely available in the public domain, thus easy to view legally online at no charge. While that makes seeking older, oft overlooked movies such as They Made Me a Killer a much simpler task than otherwise, it also means that the video quality is not always up to par with modern expectations. This aspect also handicaps the dramatically inert second half as much of it transpires either at night or in the dimly lit hotel basement. Not only is the story not as interesting from a dramatic standpoint, the movie is literally hard to look at. Viewers should therefore proceed with tempered expectations, for ‘’killer’’ this movie is not.