The Siren has been wondering what it would have been like to kiss Nicholas Ray in 1950.
From this you should not deduce that the Siren has a crush on the man. She likes her sex symbols on the louche side, but not quite that louche. Still, as she watched Robert Ryan lay one on Joan Fontaine for the sixth or seventh time in Born to Be Bad, the Siren found the thought crowding out all attempts at more formal analysis. Back goes Fontaine’s head, way back, so far back Ryan could undoubtedly have told us whether she still had her wisdom teeth. Up go Fontaine’s arms as Ryan embraces some part of her that the camera is tactfully cutting off. Down comes Ryan’s mouth on hers, until you can see that he doesn’t part his hair. Just before the Siren started in on her Ray-kissing reverie, she was reminded of the morning that she was watching a backyard bird-feeder and saw a hawk close its talons on a chickadee, then fly off to have its own breakfast elsewhere.
Perhaps you're wondering about why the Siren was wondering about Ray's kissing, instead of Ryan. OK, she wondered about Ryan too, but that's nothing new. The Siren thought about Ray because this is how actors kiss all the time in his early black-and-white films, with a few variations. Sometimes it's decorated with a small spin or swivel, or commenced with a feint at the neck, or flipped with (oh yeah) the woman on top.
Forget framing. This is the sort of auteurist signature that the Siren lives to point out to people. You can’t say she doesn’t try to add value.
Born to Be Bad occupies a low rung in the Ray canon, perhaps because it was made for RKO under Howard Hughes (oh god, not him again), and of course he meddled in it quite a bit. The Siren will tell you, though, that she liked a lot more than the kissing. She had a great time with this one. And Dave Kehr likes it, too: "lively, vicious and daring," he says. Yes, just so.
Maybe the problem is that it’s occasionally tagged “film noir” (as it is in the IMDB database), and if you watch this movie expecting On Dangerous Ground or even In a Lonely Place, you will be sorely disappointed. The Siren would list Born to Be Bad’s noir characteristics as: 1. It’s in black and white; 2. There’s one character in it who lies a lot and 3. There are a couple of shots where the camera is filming through a window. Otherwise, it’s got a lot more in common with All About Eve, or even Gone with the Wind.
Joan Leslie plays Donna, a fetching young publishing assistant in San Francisco (subject of some breathtaking establishing shots). Her mildly bohemian milieu includes Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), her filthy rich fiance; a bon-mot-slinging painter nicknamed Gobby (Mel Ferrer); Nick, a he-man novelist (Ryan, who else); and a staircase cunningly placed in the middle of her apartment so that all these people can be filmed drifting up and down it, calling, “Donna, darling, are you there?”. Into this halcyon environment comes Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine), a delicate blonde attired in tasteful Hattie Carnegie. She’s Donna’s cousin, and she appears in the apartment like the sorceress in the Coleridge poem: “a damsel bright/Dressed in a silken robe of white.” (Except the damsel in the poem is named Geraldine; Coleridge's "Christabel" is the innocent victim. Oh well, the Siren loves the poem, so she still loved the half-baked reference.)
Almost immediately we’re shown that Christabel has an arm’s length relationship with the truth; only a scene or two later it becomes obvious that she’s a magnficently passive-aggressive bitch. Christabel, like Eve Harrington or Uriah Heep for that matter, uses a facade of humility to mask her conniving. She wants Donna’s fiance--or rather, his money and prestige--for herself, and she soon is able to trick Curtis into marrying her. The trouble is Nick, who has a powerful yen for her, a way with words and a kissing technique that she’s loath to give up. So Christabel decides she’ll have both men--and for a while, she almost does.
It’s a women’s picture, in other words, and a good one, too, with the actors in high gear (even Joan Leslie, no great love of the Siren’s, gave Donna a sharp intelligence). Kehr talks about Ray cutting into action; the Siren became obsessed, when she wasn’t concentrating on the kissing, with all the shots of Joan Fontaine crossing rooms. She skitters away from Zachary Scott's embraces because she has to scheme a bit more, he’s breaking her concentration and she doesn't want to sleep with her husband anyway, how dull. She traipses across a gallery hunching her shoulders and pushing back her arms like a schoolgirl, as she tries to persuade Scott to make a move she knows will doom his engagement. In the apartment, she glides away from Leslie with a smile of self-satisfaction as her schemes take root. Again and again Ray shows Fontaine on the move, until her endless to-and-fro becomes of a piece with all the double-crosses she’s trying to pull.
And there’s Ray’s close-ups, often jarringly placed where they aren’t expected, and emphasizing something that had been going unnoticed. In this brittle movie about people and their facades, there’s a striking moment where Christabel is bouncing her Aunt Clara (Virginia Farmer) out of the house. And Ray puts the camera on the old woman’s face, leaving it there as confusion, hurt and abject fear of the future play across it. It establishes Christabel’s villainy far more than kicking around Joan Leslie ever could.
How does Fontaine play Christabel? Think back to a fabulous bit of dialogue from Rebecca, when the odious Mrs. Van Hopper accuses the nameless protagonist of manipulating Maxim de Winter into marrying her: “I suppose I have to hand it to you for a fast worker. How did you manage it? Still waters certainly run deep. Tell me, have you been doing anything you shouldn't?” Fontaine responds with wounded innocence, “I don't know what you mean.” Let’s suppose Fontaine’s character knew exactly what Mrs. van Hopper meant, and had been playing those “tennis lessons” with Maxim for all they were worth. Voila, you’d have Fontaine’s performance in Born to Be Bad. Every bit of Rebecca, now with sidelong calculation, not to mention a headlong sexual union with Robert Ryan that would have scared the second Mrs. de Winter to death.
The similarities with that same year's All About Eve are obvious, even if the script isn’t nearly as good. Take the painter character, a rough parallel to George Sanders in Eve. The Siren was deeply amused by one online reviewer’s reference to Gobby as “codedly gay.” He’s codedly gay in the way that Paul Robeson is codedly black. Gobby is the gay-est pre-1960 character you will ever encounter this side of Franklin Pangborn. Not to belabor this, but even the Siren’s sainted Aunt Doris, the kind of woman who would wonder aloud why Liberace hadn’t found himself a nice girl, would have twigged to Gobby. Ferrer is handsome in his beanpole way, and he has witty lines and well-timed double-takes, but despite her admiration for the actor’s natural, dry, unexaggerated performance, the Siren wasn’t as charmed by Gobby as the script seemed to want to her to be. He acts wise to Christabel early on, and yet he never breathes a word. Gobby lacks, as Addison DeWitt would have said, the killer instinct. Hell, Addison could have disposed of Gobby with one flared nostril.
Ryan was a different matter. Phwoar. His roughed-up handsomeness was at its height, and the Siren could have happily spent half the movie just watching him lean against a kitchen counter. He’s very much secondary to Fontaine, and it isn’t a role to gladden the heart of those who worship Ryan in The Wild Bunch, necessarily, but he seems to be enjoying this rare chance at a romantic lead. And romantic it is; he's got the Rhett Butler part. Like Rhett, Nick has offstage derring-do (he is writing a novel about dangerous times in China, Rhett is running guns), Nick knows that the love of his life is a scheming tramp with the soul of an abacus, and Nick doesn’t care that much because she’s so damn sexy.
All in all, given the fun she had with this movie, and adding it to On Dangerous Ground, In a Lonely Place and They Live by Night, the Siren has to say that with the exception of the brilliant Bigger Than Life, she prefers her Nicholas Ray in black and white.
(One of the best film blogs around is run by the Siren's friend Tony Dayoub, and this post is a belated offering for his splendid Nicholas Ray Blogathon, which just wrapped up. A complete list of Nicholas Ray posts, for the blogathon and elsewhere around the Web, is here. Tony's own take on Born to Be Bad (he liked it, but not quite as much as the Siren) is here. Another Born to Be Bad writeup that focuses intently on the movie's considerable aesthetics, from Jake Cole at Not Just Movies, is here. )