You’re Tearing Me Apart!
Or, a few more words about Nicholas Ray . . .
Born to Be Bad (1950) — If this weren’t a Nicholas Ray film, and if I hadn’t set out with the goal of watching as many of Ray’s films as possible, and if it hadn’t appeared (as if by magic) on the TCM schedule two weeks ago, I doubt I would have made it through the first thirty minutes of Born to Be Bad. Despite its provocative tagline — “Man-bait! Trouble never came in a more desirable package!” — the film is remarkably dull. Joan Fontaine is beautiful as always, but there’s nothing especially vampy about her performance, and so she never quite rises to the level of “bad girl we love to hate.” (Where’s Barbara Stanwyck when you need her?) She doesn’t even get a vicious come-uppance at the end, and the vicious come-uppance is half of what makes films like this so much fun. Born to Be Bad is one of the early films Ray made at RKO under the watchful eye of Howard Hughes, who was at the time trying to woo Fontaine away from her husband, and so I have to wonder how much of the film’s tonal problems were generated behind the scenes. The script has the feel of bureaucratic compromise.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) — It’s always interesting to watch an iconic film for the first time. I’ve had the experience several times this year, actually. The best ones — Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, My Darling Clementine — work their magic despite the added burden of their status. For example, I’d seen the clip a hundred times, I’d seen it parodied to death by Carol Burnett, but I still got chills when Norma Desmond announced she was ready for her close-up. Parts of Rebel Without a Cause worked for me, but the strange psychology of the film prevented it from completely transcending its iconic status. The mother/father issues in this film make Hitchcock’s brand of Fruedianism look downright subtle by comparison. James Dean is always fascinating to watch on screen, and I especially enjoyed his scenes with Jim Backus and Edward Platt, but the motivations for the characters’ actions are so flimsy and the Tragic (with a capital T) arc of the narrative is so artificial that I always felt removed from the story. I look forward to watching Rebel again, with different expectations and with an eye more squarely on Ray’s style.