For Nicholas Ray love (or ‘love’) is corrosive. It is unstable and moves with the waves and currents of societal corruption and sickness.
Born to Be Bad, despite what Dave Kehr persuasively argued, is not a major work, not a masterpiece and not a particularly important signal in Ray’s career. It sits comfortably somewhere in the midrank, below the acknowledged classics and the lesser-known but still singular works of genius (say The Lusty Men), but above the likes of A Woman’s Secret. And yet, and yet…
The film burns when Robert Ryan is on-screen, forming one-half of the author surrogate along with Mel Ferrer’s coded-as-gay-artist Gobby. The surrogacy is not hidden in this case; Ryan’s novelist is called Nick, and is a seasoned traveller. And when he is on screen something of the tormented vibration of the same year’s Ray masterwork In A Lonely Place reappears. Nick is not a potential murderer like Bogart in that film, but he offers a similar desirable macho disguise for his vulnerability and sensitivity, and he blisters and bubbles in the same way when he throws up that guard against the rejections and angel-faced manipulations of the primly sexual Christabel (Joan Fontaine). Of all the characters he seems the most adrift; he finds no joy in the scandals of human behaviour and high society like Gobby, and he is now a long way from the soldiers he accompanied across China. Instead Nick seems to live by night and longing hidden by bluster; the void calls for him as it does for all the characters but he is the closest to accepting it, and the one who has the most awareness of the casting of its invisible but ever-present shadow across these luxury apartments. Ryan is somewhere between youth and old age and has the appearance of both; his race is already half-run and he knows it. ‘Bye bye Christabel, I can be angry but I always knew it was going to happen.’
“Much too modern for me” complains Richard Burton in Bitter Victory of tenth century Beber ruins. Any number of Ray protaganists could have repeated this assertion, levelled it at their lover or enemy. But is Christabel modern or a creature as old as the sun, or at least as old as capital? Ruthlessly she uses and abuses to climb up the social ladder, and in the end she cannot submit to the drive for physical love; money simply means too much, and is too appealing. And we can’t think too harshly of her; there seems to be no other way in the world of the film for a woman to make a name or fortune for herself. Innocent Donna (Joan Leslie) has a good job, but she’s still got to put on a nice little performance for the fat old man at work and the rich old man at home; she’s always got something to prove to these men, and having to constantly prove it almost drives her to a madness of her own. Modern love is so often dictated by the rules and games of capitalist, patriarchal society, that much was and still is obvious. So love is wielded as a weapon, by Christabel or rich Mr Curtis (Zachary Scott) with his tests for Donna, or else suffered in agony by people like Nick and Donna. Curtis ends the film, in a very beautiful and ambiguous scene, staring up into the sky with rapt fascination (mirroring an earlier shot of Christabel and Nick in his car), watching a plane fly high above and dreaming of fleeing from the whole stinking game of flesh, feeling and capital. He talks to Donna about returning to his love of flying planes, something he never should have given up; we assume he is supposed to be talking about returning to Donna but there’s a curious feeling that he never quite arrives fully at his metaphor, that a gap has arisen somewhere. By the time Born to Be Bad ends we have seen something broken, and know that these people now live with the awareness of this (currently) irreparable breakage.
Nick tells Christabel that she is two people, and the film supports his conclusion; doubling abounds throughout. There’s Christabel and her portrait, the blonde Christabel and the brunette Donna, Nick and Gooby the two artists or Nick and Curtis the two heterosexual love interests, the two indentikit schoolgirls who stare deep into paintings in a curious and subtly surreal scene in an art gallery, mirroring shots of Christabel burrowing her face into the chest of her lovers and telling lies. Characters sit in judgement on the Christabels, foregrounded and with their back to us, unreadable figures attempting to weigh up these two manifestations. But often they fail to see the effects that their own mirror images weave, how they shift perceptions of themselves and their actions.
And what are Ray’s films, like Sam Fuller’s, so often other than acts of diagnosis? The symptoms of the sickness and traumas of modern American society are described, examined and defined but there is rarely, even more so in Ray than in Fuller, any promise of a suitable course of treatment or medicine. “I’ve got you under my skin” sang Michael Gambon of his illness in The Singing Detective. And one gets a similar feeling from the characters in Ray’s films; the violent ideologies of the middle-class American household still exist in thousands of homes at the end of Bigger than Life, and Christabel is certainly not going anywhere or doing anything different at the end of Born to Be Bad. Things don’t end, they just keep going and replaying, perhaps getting even worse, taking in and spitting out more and more people. Attempts at surgery don’t get deep enough. Love bulges with equal promises of salvation and damnation, and the lines between the two blur. And Ray keeps us uncomfortably confined with our knowledge; he traps us in that upstairs hallway where all the characters first met so often, and otherwise strands us between the blank walls of posh room after posh room. We must watch in close-up, and join this great act of diagnosis; or else we must turn the gaze inwards for we have nowhere else to go.
The film has its flaws. Joan Fontaine doesn’t quite sell either the passive-aggressive devilishness or slyness of Christabel; she was always better as the melancholic, bruised dreamers in Rebecca or Letter from an Unknown Woman. The dialogue can sometimes crackle (particularly the pieces given to Nick or Gooby) but is otherwise leaden and flatfooted, and the plotting is somewhat trite. But there’s something mythic hiding in the corners of Born to Be Bad, something big, bold, beautiful and terrible that reveals so much (too much) about ourselves waiting to be spilled and splashed across the screen. In Ray’s later films we could come to see it and know it fully.