Joan Fontaine is an actress who we have not looked at much. Actually we have looked for whatever reason much more at actors than actresses. So today we look at 1950’s Born to Be Bad, with a good cast, including Joan Fontaine. No, it isn’t one of her finest moments, not being Suspicion or Rebecca, which she made with her favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock. Rather, Born to Be Bad is part of a bit of a slide in the overall quality of Joan Fontaine’s films, which was exacerbated by the following year’s Darling, How Could You?
Here Joan Fontaine is cast a bit against type. Usually playing a bit of a genteel woman, here she plays a direly conniving woman, one Cristabel Caine. While staying with her presumably older cousin Donna (Joan Leslie), Cristabel slowly but deviously ingratiates herself with Donna’s fiance, the wealthy businessman Curtis Carey (played by Zachary Scott), ultimately deep sixing their engagement and becoming Mrs. Curtis Carey herself. Along the way she also plays emotional games with erstwhile first time writer Nick Bradley, who is played by stalwart Robert Ryan.
Once having caught her man, the estimable Mr. Carey, Cristabel distances herself from her new husband with an orgy of meetings and charitable events, and shuns poor Nick altogether, although she still pines away for him secretly. As her marriage deteriorates she escapes to spend an afternoon with would be love Nick under the guise of going to visit a sick relative. After becoming caught up in her lie after the relative passes away, she is turned out by her husband and pushed aside by Nick. Curtis reunites with Donna and all is well as Cristabel leaves her former home, but with her furs in tow.
Unfortunately this film is overshadowed (and rightly so) by the same year’s All About Eve. It isn’t that this is a bad film, but it does have a few things the viewer must overcome in order to buy into the goings on. For starters, Joan Fontaine is much to old in reality to be the college debutante that Cristabel is. Also, her methods are relatively simplistic, but yet everyone else seems powerless to stop her- the dissolution of the engagement between Donna and Curtis seems almost too easy. The characters are frighteningly slow to catch on to her plans and in some ways never do. It is merely her getting caught in the lie that sets up her downfall.
Director Nicholas Ray does an extremely good job with fairly pedestrian material. As was his specialty, this picture as many of his others feature rather evil women with fairly concerted ill plans for the balance of the cast. Also the men are really just sexual objects and it is the women who are fleshed out as characters. Curtis Carey is a staid and strictly two dimensional character, and is played as such.
Robert Ryan’s Nick Bradley fairs little better. We learn little about him, outside of the fact that he does have a bit more of a spine than Curtis and is quite adept at one line quips like “I love you so much I wish I liked you.” Good stuff and in some ways he steals the picture.
We’d be remiss as well if we didn’t mention the role Mel Ferrer plays here as the vagabond artist Gabriel Broome. Even though it isn’t a large part, it is an important one. Broome really serves to tie the plot and the cast together and as an added bonus serves as the voice of the viewer as well.
Unfortunately this is one you cannot get on DVD or via Netflix, although that may change momentarily with the rate at which Netflix has been adding classic films of late. Catch it on TCM as it occasionally is aired there. It is neither classic or a disaster, but I found it entertaining and a good way to spend nenety minutes or so.
Particularly I enjoyed the performances of Joan Leslie, which is understated but quite appropriate. It is still a bit surprising how easily she breaks off her engagement with Curtis, but oh well. Robert Ryan is also quite good, but really just for his stellar delivery of those classic one-liners. His character is pretty thin otherwise.
A trashy little soap opera of a film, which isn’t a bad thing. Well done for what it is.