Born to be Bad was directed by Nicholas Ray for RKO. Ray worked for Howard Hughes between 1949 and 1953, directing six features for the studio. The picture is certainly one of the director’s lesser - and lesser-known - efforts. It has an A list cast but at its heart it’s strictly B. Hughes as always couldn’t curb his meddling. Lots of different writers and directors tried their hand at the film before Ray showed up and straightened out the mess Hughes had made. Hughes was also wooing Fontaine at the time and that muddled (production) waters even more.
Ray was an extremely versatile director able to work in a wide range of genres without dulling the sharp edge of his vision. Though Ray’s filmography spans various different genres, his work maintains a remarkable thematic consistency.
As a director Ray was drawn to complex, hopeless characters. Ray’s cinema was infused with a deep sympathy for losers, loners and vulnerable underdogs. Loneliness and loss play a big part in his films. François Truffaut called him “the poet of nightfall”.
Ray imparts his films with strong elements of sentimentality and bitter-sweet romanticism which at first seem at odds with Noir conventions, thus offering variations on well-trodden themes.
Desperate, star-crossed lovers (They Live by Night), redemption and spiritual renewal (On Dangerous Grounds) and emotional fragility and loneliness (In a Lonely Place) at first glance seem incompatible with Noir, but Ray’s interest lay primarily in his protagonists’ motivations.
Ray didn’t care for too much for Born to be Bad, but he did a competent job on a routine studio assignment. Still, coming from a man who liked his stories to have a message, this one’s a bit banal. One could say Ray had a day off when he made this melodrama but that would be a tad unfair.
For its time it’s quite frank in sexual matters and it is imbued with a cynicism that is lacking in his other movies.
Though often labeled Noir, this classification is a bit of a hard sell. If the picture is Noir then it is mostly that by virtue of a great femme fatale. There’s no grit, no desperation, no pessimism, no paranoia in this movie. Instead we get a stylish woman’s picture with occasional soap opera antics. It’s a sly melodrama that is so overheated at times it verges on campy parody, with Fontaine playing a conniving bitch to rival Eve Harrington.
Joan Leslie plays Donna, a young publishing assistant in San Francisco with filthy rich fiancé Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott). Her friends include gay painter Gobby (Mel Ferrer) who has a knack for zingy one-liners and put-downs; and Nick, a studly novelist (Robert Ryan, who else).
|So lovely...so pure...she can't be bad|
The against-type casting of Fontaine as femme fatale is quite inspired though not every viewer bought into it. Subverting her genteel on-screen persona, she gives an entertaining performance. That patrician air of hers could go either way, naughty or nice. Her character is described by Nick as "a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Peg O' My Heart".
She’s fluffy and sweet cotton candy, laced in copious amounts of deadly poison. So helpless, so sweet, so eager to please…but under a facade of simpering maidenish virtue and humility - she even clutches her pearls several times! - she is a passive-aggressive schemer and manipulator, a deceitful and calculating social climber who leaves a wake of destroyed relationships in her path.
She plays her innocent act so well that it takes people a while until they catch on to her. Always on the lookout to drive a wedge between Donna and Curtis, innuendo is her weapon. She preys on people’s insecurities. To get her way she sweetly coos poisonous nothings about Donna into Curtis’ ears to encourage him to think of Donna as a gold-digger.
Christabel’s cool turns to smoking hot whenever she’s around Nick. The scenes between Fontaine and Ryan sizzle. We get lots of steamy clinches and sexy talk. I always considered Ryan a sexy man and he was at his rugged handsome best here, spouting insinuating pick-up lines and convincing Chris with his phenomenal kissing technique.
Nick isn’t fooled by her though. He has Christabel’s number alright and he knows that his lady love is a scheming tramp with the soul of a cash register, but he doesn’t care. He wants her anyway.
Mel Ferrer is charming as gay artist Gobby, the cynical and catty Greek chorus of the film, with a penetrating insight into human nature. He’s throwing out acerbic little barbs and one-liners continually which are as razor-sharp as they are funny.
He has Christabel pegged from the start too, yet he never breathes a word. He’s almost too non-judgmental. Chris’ malicious ambition seem to amuse him more than shock him. He is contemptuous of the people he paints, but at least he’s honest about it.
Ray wrote the character as obviously gay as he could get away with, including declarations of his orientation. Christabel, who notices his lack of sexual interest in her, asks him: “You don't care very much for women, do you?” to which he answers: “My dear girl, apart from painting my major occupation is convincing women's husbands that I'm harmless.” Gobby thankfully avoids any hint of the typical effeminate stereotype so often found in older films. He doesn’t feel neutered and steals every scene he’s in.
Joan Leslie is sympathetic as Donna. Her shining hour comes when she tells Christabel what exactly she thinks of her. She may be one of Chris’ victims, but she doesn’t take it quietly.
There’s an interesting little social comment on working women in the 50s. The good woman, Donna, works for a living while the evil woman here has no interest in work, explicitly rejecting career opportunities thrown her way.
Zachary Scott has the most thankless role in the film as wooden and a bit dim-witted fiancé who wants to be loved for himself, not his money. He was so much better when playing cads.
In a nice change from the norm the ending doesn’t follow the Code-approved formula that evil must be punished. Curtis gets wise to Christabel’s shenanigans and finally kicks her out. Her world comes crashing down but Chris lands on her feet. Avoiding the cliche of the punishment scene, Christabel doesn't die as the credits roll. No professing of shame and guilt on the deathbed for her. She isn’t looking for redemption, she gets clean away with it all, no doubt looking for some other poor sap to hook. She lives to lie another day.
In an interesting side-note, there was an alternate ending shot which can now finally be found on the Warner Archive Collection DVD. It’s even better. While speeding away from the house, Christabel crashes her car. Does she die? No, she ends up in a hospital where she immediately starts to hit on her surgeon whose wife then sues her for alienation of affection. She’s created another juicy scandal that needs the delicate touch of a lawyer, also married but susceptible. Another day, another sucker, and a game that can be played endlessly. It fits the tone of the movie perfectly.
The movie is far from a masterpiece, but it's an entertaining piece of fluff nevertheless.