[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]
What if Nicholas Ray had directed a Pre-Code? It might resemble Born to Be Bad, a noirish melodrama about a woman unrepentantly destroying the lives of others for her own financial and sexual gratification. Like the fresh-faced and steel-eyed vixen of the contemporaneous All About Eve, Christabel (Joan Fontaine) is charming to the point of childlike innocence. Yet just as Eve's fresh-of-the-bus sunniness belied a stop-at-nothing ambition to supplant her idol, so too does Christabel's sweetness soon give way to complete manipulation as she guns for the wealth of her cousin's fiancé. With Fontaine herself being wooed at the time by Ray's RKO boss, Howard Hughes, Ray's not-so-subtle jabs remind one of the jabs of Citizen Kane. But just imagine if Orson Welles had made that movie with Hearst's money.
More worthy of attention is Ray's style, which begins to show its true flashes of aesthetic invention that would make him the greatest director of the '50s. His use of doorways and other frames-within-frames emerges here with numerous shots that isolate characters and open up the mise-en-scène with unexpected entrances and transitions. Deep-focus photography captures the domestic boilerplate in crisp detail, allowing for all the objects to play their role in presenting domestic comfort surrounding inner turmoil. This, of course, would become the dominant form of Ray's thematic expression over the next decade, and Ray's background as an architectural apprentice under Frank Lloyd Wright is vividly on display even in this formative early work.
Despite this background, Ray never lets his specialty in one art detract from his new choice of medium, and what makes Born to Be Bad engaging is less the rigor of its set design than the construction and flow of the images. Dave Kehr summed up Ray's ingenious editing rhythm nicely: "Ray insistently cuts on movement, giving the whole film an effective instability; every sequence seems volatile, every exchange of looks a threat." The edits tend to occur on walks, arm movements, head turns and other acts of great and minor locomotion, pushing the visuals ahead with more steam as the narrative remains inside decorated walls and ballrooms, creating a conflicting pace that spins the film slowly off its axis. Nicholas Musuraca's sharp cinematography defines the objects by their edges, constantly anticipating some new turn of events that will change the narrative direction yet again. That is not to say that the film ever plumbs the surreal depths of later movies like Johnny Guitar, but one can see how Ray arrived at that point with this early experiment in structural conflict.
Ray's formal growth is also aided by solid dialogue packed with innuendo as Christabel (Fontaine) constantly seduces, deflects and manipulates. But she doesn't even have the best lines. Nick (Robert Ryan), a writer supported by Chris' cousin Donna (Joan Leslie), covers up a faint vulnerability with braggadocio and wit. "You seen the view? It's better with me in it," he teases Christabel, who is too busy setting her sights on the rich Curtis (Zachary Scott) to particularly care for him. But it is Mel Ferrer as Gabriel, the artist who hangs around this wealthy family, who steals the show. Barely closeted, "Gobby" serves as a bitchy Greek chorus, his pithy summaries and barbs as laser-precise as they are hilarious.
Ferrer's performance is the most interesting one from the historical perspective of dealing with gays in Hollywood, but several of the actors give unorthodox performances. Scott, the rich man who wants to be sure he is being married for love, nonetheless becomes a pawn of Fontaine's passive-aggressive campaign to loot him. Fontaine herself shines as the airy demon who turns "Surely you don't think I had anything to do with this?" into a musical motif. Ryan, in the first of four collaborations with Ray, shines by virtue of that wonderful face of his, trapped not in agelessness but in the nebula between youth and old age. The sadness in his face, whether stressing over his book or pining for the woman he sees through but cannot resist anyway, brings out the lines of his lonely mug. Conversely, when he hears any good news, the huge glee on his face shaves off 20 years, but this only creates a constant oscillation, making Ryan uncomfortable in his own skin. Though he gets many defiant lines, one look into Ryan's face and you can see darker, more complex emotions at play.
Though Christabel's lies eventually catch up with her, as they must, she remains defiant to the end, not only unrepentant but uninterrupted in her continued strand of lies, this time aimed at third parties who can ensure damage control if she acts fast. Where the film falters is in sympathizing with the victims of Chris' schemes when the actors make these characters out to be just as culpable. Nick knows that he's being used but likes the sex, while Scott shows how easily men of wealth will preemptively strike to protect their money. Even Leslie, playing the straight man in this melodrama, uses that calmness against Donna by having her sit by and accept what her cousin does to her so as to avoid worsening the scandal. The actors and Ray move the film into more complex areas, but the narrative, despite the padding of its rich dialogue and a few quirks, holds the movie back.
Thankfully, Ray takes the wheel himself in the film's coda, closing via Gobby's sense of barely contained joy as the fallout from all this scandal drives up the prices for his portraits, even using his Greek chorus-like status to see more developments (like Christabel wooing her divorce lawyer) to keep raising the asking price. It's a wry, clever demonstration that Ray increasing ability to capture everything through the images. Granted, the film's coldness sets it apart from Ray's other works even as it starts to pour in the foundation for his later domestic critiques. But if Born to Be Bad is more noteworthy for its glimpse into an advancing artist, the fact that it's someone as talented as Ray should make it worth more consideration than merely 1950's second-best ode to a bitchy, unrepentant social climber.