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Noir-vember 2013: Born to Be Bad

Posted by martinteller on November 18, 2013

Christabel, if you ever draw an honest breath, I want to be there to see it.  I’ve never seen anybody choke to death.

Donna Foster (Joan Leslie) is the assistant to publisher John Caine (Harold Vermilyea).  Donna is about to be married to the fabulously rich Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott) and so she takes Caine’s niece Christabel (Joan Fontaine) under her wing, grooming her as a replacement for the position.  Christabel strikes up a steamy relationship with Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), a wise-cracking and frank author that Donna wants to get published.  But despite her attraction to the writer, Christabel can’t resist the lure of wealth… and she starts to drive a wedge between Donna and Curtis.

I watched this for Noir-vember, but I was misled by an inaccurate genre tag in IMDb.  It’s about as noir as All About Eve, a film it has much in common with (but before one goes crying ripoff, this was actually released a few months earlier).  The story involves no crime, isn’t particularly cynical about the human condition, Fontaine isn’t exactly a femme fatale, and despite cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past, among several others) the visuals are not very noir.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie.  An overlooked but often dismissed film from Nicholas Ray, perhaps it lacks his magic touch, and perhaps some situations are set up too easily and don’t provide enough tension.  But I still really enjoyed it.  Musuraca’s visuals may not be shadowy or cockeyed in the style of noir, but the images are nonetheless masterfully composed.  The film has little dead time, every scene seems to contribute a new development in the character dynamics or plot movement.  It’s an easy, entertaining watch, and one with compelling psychology and strong characters.

Maybe Christabel doesn’t quite fit the “femme fatale” mold, but her machinations are still delightfully underhanded and duplicitous.  You wouldn’t think that Fontaine had such mischievousness in her, all sweetness and understanding on the outside, manipulative selfishness on the inside.  Ryan and Scott are two guys I always enjoy seeing and they don’t disappoint here.  Ryan is all ruggedness and cynicism, only partially blind to Christabel’s schemes.  Zachary Scott is a dude I just enjoy watching, even though I’ve never been in love with any movie I’ve seen him in (Mildred Pierce comes closest).  His role is the hardest to swallow… his complete obliviousness makes him hard to sympathize with, but he’s just such a charming and likable fella.  Joan Leslie was something of an unknown quantity to me (I’ve completely forgotten whatever she did in Yankee Doodle Dandy but have a vague recollection of her in High Sierra).  Gotta say I liked her too, even though she has the most implausible character motivation in the entire film.  She’s smart and delivers some of the movie’s best dialogue.

And of special interest to Ray enthusiasts is Mel Ferrer as Donna’s artist chum Gobby.  Like Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, he’s about as clearly gay as you could make a character in classic Hollywood without resorting to a lot of demeaning traits.  He pretty much lays it on the line when he says, “My dear girl, apart from painting, my major occupation is convincing husbands that I’m harmless.”  Rating: Good (79)


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