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July 2011

Born To Be Bad

cast: Joan Fontaine, Robert Ryan, Mel Ferrer, Zachary Scott, and Joan Leslie

director: Nicholas Ray

90 minutes (PG) 1950
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Born To Be Bad

There was a time when director Nicholas Ray was something of a divisive figure amongst cinema enthusiasts. Ray was one of the American directors that were taken up by the golden generation of Cahiers du Cinéma critics as an example of great living filmmakers. The great poacher-turned-pheasant plucker himself Francois Truffaut described Ray as the "poet of nightfall" while his fellow grandee Jean-Luc Goddard spoke of him as one of the first directors to master cinema as an artistic form in its own right. The pushback came in the form of an article by Sight & Sound editor Penelope Houston who preferred the literary humanist sensibilities of Satyajit Ray to the genre peregrinations of the man who directed Rebel Without A Cause (1955), and The True Story Of Jesse James (1955).

Based on the novel All Kneeling (1927) by Anne Parish, Born To Be Bad is the story of a femme fatale who manipulates men into doing her bidding. So far, so film noir... but what makes this film so remarkable is the humanity and understanding that Ray lavishes upon his manipulative anti-heroine. Yes, she can make men do whatever she wants... but what is it that she actually wants? What will make her happy?

The film's story begins in a plush Californian apartment. Preparations are being made for a great ball and the beautiful and capable Donna (Joan Leslie) is in the heart of a maelstrom of attention-seekers and biddable minions. She is in this maelstrom because everyone knows that she is a capable assistant to a publisher and because she is the future Mrs Curtis Carey, a complex but charitably minded local millionaire. Donna is a pillar of the local community and, as such, she has agreed to train up the young woman who will replace her at the publishing company when she goes off to get married.

The young lady makes her entrance in a spectacular way, appearing in Donna's sitting room looking immaculate as Donna picks herself up off the floor having just fallen over the young woman's suitcase. The young woman is Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine), a na�ve young thing just up from the country and ever so eager to please. Reluctant to leave the doe-eyed innocent on her own when she goes out for dinner with Curtis (Zachary Scott), Donna arranges for the disreputable writer Nick (Robert Ryan) to come over and keep her company. After a problematic initial meeting, the group hit it off and Christabel soon finds herself at the heart of Donna's social circle.

Initially, Christabel is placed in a tug-of-love between the disreputable Nick, and 'Gobby' (Mel Ferrer), a dead-eyed and cynical artist whose charm just about manages to cover up the obvious contempt he has for the people around him. Intent upon wooing the young innocent, Gobby decides to paint her portrait rendering her in Renaissance garb prompting Nick to describe the portrait as "Lucrezia Borgia meets Peg o' My Heart"; an unlikely combination of psychopathic ruthlessness and innocent sentimentality that completely nails Christabel's personality. Indeed, while the plot may not make this immediately clear, there is a sense that Gobby and Nick both understand Christabel in a way that none of the other characters in the film ever manage to do.

Having made friends with everyone, Christabel soon finds herself being asked for gift advice by Curtis. Sensing an opportunity to drive a wedge between the wealthy man and his fianc�e, Christabel manages to convince Curtis to buy Donna an extremely expensive item of jewellery whilst also making it clear that she has no interest in money. When Curtis gives Donna the gift, Christabel immediately inserts the blade and makes it look as though Donna only likes the necklace because it is expensive. With Curtis suddenly doubting the authenticity of Donna's feelings and Donna resentful of Curtis' lack of faith, Christabel swiftly edges Donna out and lands the biggest fish in the pond. However, while Christabel's plan worked brilliantly and she now has a handsome man and more money and power than she could ever need, Christabel is not happy and it is through this plot point that the film's profound humanity reveals itself.

Six months after Christabel and Curtis are married, Christabel is using her manipulative powers to take control of every charity in the area but, despite her wealth, her power, and her position, it is clear that Christabel is not happy. Indeed, just as Curtis struggled to live with the possibility that Donna did not love him for who he really was, Christabel finds herself struggling to live with the fact that Curtis is not in love with the real Christabel but with the wide-eyed and innocent persona that Christabel created in order to seduce him. As time goes by, Christabel's thoughts are drawn again and again to the disreputable Nick who loved her with all of his heart despite not liking her at all. Restless in her triumph and isolated amidst the love and companionship that she has acquired, Christabel sets about trying to both have her cake and eat it.

At a charity ball, Christabel begins to seduce Nick whilst maintaining the impression that she continues to be devoted to Curtis. Curtis suspects as much and wants only a straight answer while Nick wants Christabel to be honest with herself but honesty is not within Christabel's nature and so she uses the illness of an aunt to try to keep both men seduced and oblivious to each other's existence. However, no matter how many lies she spins, Christabel cannot get away from the fact that when she is with Nick she thinks of Curtis and when she is with Curtis she thinks only of Nick. Obviously, this wobbly house of cards cannot stay upright for long and it soon collapses leaving Christabel both alone and unfulfilled.

Born To Be Bad owes much to its power to the humanity invested in the film's central protagonist by Ray. Indeed, though Christabel is very much a by-the-numbers femme fatale, Ray imbues her with a degree of fragility that makes her far more sympathetic and 'real' than many characters of that particular type. For example, the characters played by Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang's The Woman In The Window (1944), and Peggy Cummins in Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy (1950), serve chiefly as random chaotic elements inserted into the lives of the film's male protagonists.

Joan Bennett appears in a window and drags the upstanding Edward G. Robinson into a world of murder and amorality while Peggy Cummins preys on John Dall's obsession with guns to coerce him into killing and stealing for her. In both cases, our sympathies are supposed to sit with the men-folk who are lured onto the rocks of perdition by women that are far worldlier than they will ever be. This trope was so popular at the time that it even found its way into romantic comedies such as Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938), in which a demented Katharine Hepburn builds a chaotic fire in the heart of the tightly wound Cary Grant.

Ray uses Christabel to deconstruct this model of the femme fatale and, in so doing, paints the picture of a woman who tries in vain to get what she wants from life. The double-standard behind the femme fatale trope is made clear by virtue of the fact that both disreputable Nick and cynical Gobby use their charms to get what they want but nobody seems to think any less of them for it. Indeed, when Christabel encourages Curtis to think of Donna as a gold-digger, she is not summoning this belief from out of this air, she is tapping into Curtis' quite legitimate concerns about his fellow humans: is anyone ever completely honest, or do we all bend the truth in order to make our lives a little bit easier? Christabel is not a monster but a regular human being; part Lucrezia Borgia, part Peg o' My Heart. Ray's agile deconstruction of genre tropes owes as much to the film's source material (a novel written by a woman) as it does to the performances he coaxes from his actors.

While Robert Ryan and Mel Ferrer do brilliant work as Christabel's truth-speaking ravens, the real gems of Born To Be Bad are to be found in the relationship between Christabel and Curtis. Fontaine is a picture of innocence and grace besmirched by an array of tics and fidgets that somehow distract from her beauty whilst making her appear all the more desirable. There is something terrible and lovely in the way that she claws at the strings of pearls that hang from her neck as though the elaborate baubles were cutting off the air and strangling her.

Zachary Scott is also hugely impressive as Curtis. Ostensibly a Cary Grant clone, Scott acts from the eyes and the eyebrows to create an intensely brittle man whose generous nature is constantly dogged by the paranoia and isolation of wealth. There's a lovely scene towards the end of the film when Donna surprises Curtis as he stares longingly at a plane as it takes off. With a voice full of regret and self-reproach, Curtis explains that when he was with Christabel, he could only see her and his desire to be with her.

Now that the pair have parted ways, he is reminded of how much he enjoyed looking at the world from the distance provided by his journeys by plane; a plane that he flies in alone, and can only afford because he is supremely wealthy. In one short scene, Ray and Scott capture the character beautifully: he is a man isolated from his wealth by other people and, try as he might to fall in love and spend time with others that distanced viewpoint still calls out to him. One man's paranoia is another man's objectivity.

Born To Be Bad is one of a number of brilliant and cruelly overlooked Hollywood films currently being re-released by Odeon Entertainment. The images are sometimes scratchy and the DVD contains no extras other than a pointless collection of still photographs but at such a low price-point, one can only celebrate Odeon for helping a new generation of cinephiles to rediscover these lost gems of the Hollywood system.

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