The same year as In a Lonely Place, one of his best films, Nicholas Ray also made Born to Be Bad, which is decidedly not; it is hard even to discern his artistic signature. Nevertheless, this is an incredibly entertaining film, and I am afraid that its thinness contributes to this result.
Three years after playing the poisonous Ivy (Sam Wood, 1947), Joan Fontaine plays another manipulative pursuer of other people’s wealth, Christabel Caine, who insinuates herself into her betters’ lives, slyly unravelling her rival’s engagement and stealing the rich man for herself. It’s a balanced situation: Donna Foster, who works for Christabel’s uncle, a successful publisher, is also financially modest—but hardworking. Well, Christabel “works hard”—at her schemes; and she is something of a psychological mess, coldly cutting off her heart, which moves in the direction of beginning author Nick Bradley, to get furs and social status. Ivy also was in over her head, but Christabel may be a bit sociopathic—if such a thing is possible. There is no doubt that Ray likes Christabel and doesn’t like rich Curtis Carey, whom Christabel shockingly easily manipulates into believing that Foster is gold-digging and only pretending to love him for himself (as though his wealth isn’t a part of who he is); and, at the last, the sudden arching of an eyebrow from Foster, which only we see, as she and Carey romantically reunite, suggests that this may be the truth. Christabel gets caught lying and manipulating; Donna Foster may just be better at doing it.
Given the brilliance of Fontaine’s performance as Ivy Lexton, one may be surprised at how lightweight she is here; but even this contributes to how much we like Christabel, how charming we find her. We are glad that she gets to ride off with her furs. There will be no moral reckoning for her, no tumble down an elevator shaft. In her case, God is looking the other way—and, my goodness, Fontaine is so gorgeous in that last scene in the car, God is the only one.
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