Director Alfred Hitchcock Stars Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce USA 1941 Language English 1hr 39mins Black & white
Could Cary kill?
Born To Be Bad
Director Nicholas Ray Stars Joan Fontaine, Zachary Scott, Robert Ryan, Mel Ferrer USA 1950 Language English 1hr 34mins Black & white
Beware the butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde
It was while I was watching Born To Be Bad that I learnt that Joan Fontaine had died a couple of days earlier, at the age of 96. She had been one of the last stars left from Hollywood’s golden age*, but she still didn’t manage to outlive her bitterest rival, her older sister, Olivia de Havilland. So in her honour, I’m taking a look at a couple of her films.
Fontaine’s most famous performance is as the second Mrs de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, made in 1940. A year later, she was back together with the director for another story of an insecure young woman in the world of the English upper classes. Here she’s Lina McLaidlaw, bookish and romantically inexperienced. A chance encounter on a train (the film’s best scene) brings her into contact with Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant), a posh but penniless rogue. She’s soon aware of his bad rep (but not of his parlous financial state), but that doesn’t put her off. Very quickly they’re a couple, with Johnnie disarming Lina by being apparently truthful. When she asks if he’s kissed many girls before her, he says:
‘I’m afraid so. Quite a few. One time when I couldn’t fall asleep, I started to count them – you know, the way you count sheep jumping over a fence. I think I passed out at number 73.’
They elope, and she starts to grasp quite how unreliable he is. That begins to shade into a fear that his financial chaos is going to encourage him into doing something very bad indeed, and the film reflects her mindset – Johnnie keeps looming darkly into view, large and menacing. It’s clear Lina is losing her grip, whether her husband is a killer or not…
Grant playing a potential wife-murderer was both then and now the main selling point of the film. It’s not enough – he’s fine, Fontaine is good, as is Nigel Bruce as Johnnie’s easily steered best friend, Beaky Twaite, but it’s all pretty slight, and – something I rarely think – could have done with another plot twist or two. It’s an awfully long way from the greatness of the other Hitchcock/Grant collaborations (Notorious, To Catch A Thief and North By Northwest).
Considering the apparent age of the characters she plays, Fontaine should have made Born To Be Bad before Suspicion, not some nine years later. In practice, now blonde and fuller of face, she doesn’t look any older. This, in turn, was her chance to try to escape typecasting as a psychologically fragile good girl. The title suggests a film noir, a genre director Nicholas Ray was certainly comfortable with. But although some of the elements are there, this isn’t a thriller. Fontaine plays Christabel, an orphan from a powerful family who has been living in a dull small town with an elderly aunt. Now she’s arriving in big, exciting San Francisco to stay with her uncle’s PA Donna (Joan Leslie). It turns out that this innocent-seeming young woman from the sticks is a fast learner, hooking up first with macho novelist Nick Bradley (a perfectly cast Robert Ryan) and then making moves on Donna’s wealthy fiancé, Curtis (Zachary Scott). Hovering around them all is artist Gobby Broome (Mel Ferrer), a friend of the ladies rather than a ladies’ man**, who says things like, ‘I have no friends, only creditors.’
Probably the best reference point is All About Eve, with its scheming anti-heroine and epigrammatic dialogue. Slightly surprisingly, the bulk of the good lines go to Ryan’s Nick: ‘How many times do I have to tell you how much you love me?’ and ‘Someone should’ve told the birds and the bees about you’ being just a couple.
Fontaine is good as the outwardly simpering but heartless Christabel – in fact, the casting all round is terrific. And it’s definitely entertaining – it probably has suffered critically because the film Ray had out next was In A Lonely Place, which is astonishingly good. I liked Born To Be Bad, and I’m going to make an effort to watch some more Joan Fontaine films.
*When Elizabeth Taylor died in 2011, a lot of ridiculous newspaper stories mourned the passing of the final star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Obviously, Taylor was a big star in the movies and an absolutely massive star in the wider media (by which I mean that like Angelina Jolie today, she was famous to lots of people who had never seen one of her films). But Taylor was a child star at the very end of the classic Hollywood era, and outlived by two of her much-bigger-at-the-time contemporaries, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, plus those who been grown-up stars of the late ’30s and early ‘40s like Fontaine and De Havilland, huge if not that well-remembered now box-office draws like Esther Williams, and Lauren Bacall. And if you’re talking the peak of Taylor’s adult career, the ‘50s into the early ‘60s, then we still have with us (at time of writing) Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier, plus massive international stars like Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot (both just two years younger than Taylor).
**For those interested in the gay presence in old Hollywood movies, both films are worth seeing. In Suspicion, Lina and Johnnie go to a dinner hosted by what it is pretty impossible to view as anything other than a lesbian couple (the younger one is wearing a tie, for christsakes). As for Gobby in Born To Be Bad, if he isn’t gay, the way all the other characters treat him makes no sense at all.