Videovista have my review of Nicholas Ray’s sensationally subversive film noir Born to be Bad starring Joan Fontaine.
The film revolves around a young woman who preys on a couple’s insecurities in order to manipulate her way into landing a wealthy husband. So far, so femme fatale. However, what makes this film so strangely compelling is Ray’s abject refusal to turn his femme fatale into a misogynistic punching bag. Instead, Ray continuously stresses the woman’s basic humanity and her yearning to be loved and understood for what she really is:
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?
Ray is perhaps best known for Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the history of that film sheds an interesting light on Ray’s methods as a filmmaker. The title for the James Dean classic is actually drawn from a book by the psychiatrist Robert M. Linder entitled Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath (1944), a book that reportedly inspired Ray to write the story that would become Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean’s character in that film is still considered to be one of the great manifestations of misunderstood youth, but if the character was based upon a case study of a criminal psychopath, what does that say about the character? Both Rebel Without a Cause and Born to be Bad take characters with negative traits and humanise them through a leap of empathy and understanding leaving me wondering whether Born to be Bad should not, in fact, be seen as a companion-piece to Rebel Without A Cause.