Born to Be Bad

Posted on January 28th, 2011 in 1950s, Nicholas Ray, Robert Ryan by Colin

Poster

Strange how a title can prove misleading, isn’t it? Then again, it’s not always just the title. Take Born to Be Bad (1950) - directed by Nicholas Ray, photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, starring Robert Ryan and appearing in a few noir lists. When you bear all that in mind it’s not unreasonable, I think, to expect to see a good solid noir picture, maybe even a neglected gem. However, appearances are all too often deceptive and that’s certainly the case with this one. I’ll grant that the plot follows a noirish theme and strays towards that elusive dark style at times, but it never quite gets there and remains rooted firmly in melodramatic territory - and soapy melodramatics at that.

The story concerns Christabel (Joan Fontaine) and her determined climb to the top of the social ladder. We first see her after her arrival at the apartment of Donna (Joan Leslie), one of her wealthy uncle’s employees, who’s about to throw a party. Christabel is to attend business school with a view to later working in the uncle’s publishing firm. The first impression we get is of a shy, socially naive woman who’s slightly overwhelmed by the sophisticated and opulent world she’s suddenly arrived in. This feeling is further heightened when she encounters the cocksure and worldly Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), an author who’s recently returned from China. This initial meeting sets the tone for the subsequent relationship between those two characters; Bradley all wisecracks and confidence and Christabel holding him off, but not too far off. The apparent innocence of Christabel is nothing but a sham to facilitate her own scheming though. From the moment she comes across her new flatmate’s wealthy and patrician fiance Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott) she gradually reveals her true nature (to the audience at least) as she sets her sights on displacing Donna and ensuring her own comfortable future. There are no surprises in the way the plot develops and it’s this predictability that weakens the movie most. While the story has an inherently noir theme it can’t escape being a study of social manners and hypocrisy, and all the cliches that involves. It’s also not helped by the light tone that seems to pervade it, with the jokey, mocking ending doing nothing to dispel that.

Tough love - Joan Fontaine and Robert Ryan in Born to Be Bad.

Nicholas Ray’s directing career was highly unpredictable and could veer wildly from the brilliant to the mediocre. It’s hard to believe that this sudsy concoction came from the same man who produced dark masterpieces like In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground. Of course, Howard Hughes’ notorious tampering may have had something to do with the flat and apathetic feel that Ray’s work here inspires. When the plot is a humdrum affair then you look to the visuals to add some life but neither Ray nor Musuraca manage to create anything especially memorable and I caught myself checking out the counter a couple of times while watching, never a good sign. The casting is generally good, although I have to admit I’ve never been a particular fan of Ms Fontaine’s work outside of Rebecca and Suspicion, her two collaborations with Hitchcock. I wouldn’t say I dislike her performances as such, but I’d rarely seek out a film due to her presence - that innocent vulnerability she projected could be used to good effect but it’s also a characteristic that tends to be restrictive. In Born to Be Bad the kind of duality the role calls for isn’t altogether successful as Fontaine’s “bad girl” moments are never entirely convincing. Joan Leslie, on the other hand, is much better as the spurned Donna. She brings a far more believable quality to her playing, and her growing suspicion of Christabel’s motives progresses naturally. Robert Ryan and Zachary Scott were both handed fairly typical parts for them, and they do all that’s asked satisfactorily. Ryan has that familiar swagger that suggests something hidden deeper inside, but his character doesn’t get the chance to develop much and kind of tails off as the picture goes on. Scott got the better written role and thus his Curtis Carey comes across as more rounded, although Ryan delivers the best of some fairly ripe dialogue. 

The French DVD from Montparnasse is quite typical of their RKO titles, a little soft and thick in places but generally clean and I wasn’t aware of any damage to the print. As with all their releases the subs aren’t forced on the English track and extras are non-existent, apart from the usual introduction. I can’t say I got much pleasure from this movie; there are some nice performances but that’s about it as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I went in expecting something different - correction, I did go in expecting something different - and the film I got fell short. If you’re after an undiscovered noir then this isn’t the place to look, but if you want some social melodrama with a touch of darkness it may just fit the bill.

55 Days at Peking

Posted on November 29th, 2009 in 1960s, War, Nicholas Ray, Ava Gardner, Charlton Heston, David Niven by Colin

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I generally steer clear of writing about huge sprawling epics on this blog, but that’s not to say I don’t like them. As it happens I’m extremely fond of such films and often feel that it’s a near impossible task to do them justice in a relatively short write up. When I was growing up the Samuel Bronston movies were always a source of marvellous entertainment to me, and represented some of the most spectacular scenes ever put on film. So, when I realised this would be my hundredth post here I thought maybe it was time to turn my attention for once to a genuinely big film. I could have chosen El Cid or The Fall of the Roman Empire but opted instead for one of the so-called lesser Bronston’s, 55 Days at Peking (1963).

The action takes place in the summer of 1900, during the latter stages of the Boxer Rebellion, when the foreign legations in Peking came under siege. Without wanting to get mired in historical detail, it seems safe to say that the Boxers found their roots in a sense of unease over the growing foreign influence in China. At the time this influence was most apparent in the area of religion, with Christianity usurping the local variety. The movie opens with a brief voiceover narration to the accompaniment of a cacophony of national anthems assaulting the eardrums. After a little more exposition in the Forbidden City, the camera cuts to the arrival of a column of dusty and weary US marines. At their head is the swaggering figure of Major Lewis (Charlton Heston), no mean feat while still on horseback. That the situation in China is spiralling out of control is immediately obvious when we see an English priest, strapped to a water wheel, being slowly tortured to death. Lewis’ attempts to buy the priest fail and the only thing he and his men accomplish is the killing of a Boxer. From here events move inexorably towards the inevitable crisis. Despite the best efforts of the British minister, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), a state of war is fast approaching. In the midst of the mounting chaos Lewis finds himself drawn into a romance with a Russian aristocrat of dubious reputation (Ava Gardner). This slow build up occupies the first half of the film and it is quite heavy going. However, there are some visually impressive set pieces, such as the confrontation with a Boxer “theatrical” group during the Queen’s birthday celebrations, to keep it from becoming totally bogged down.

It’s only with the murder of the German envoy that things start to heat up on the screen. This is the point where the real action and spectacle take centre stage. Lewis’ romance starts to fade into the background as all attention is focused on the ever more desperate attempts to defend the foreign compound from wave after wave of attacks from the fanatical Boxers. It’s these marvellously choreographed scenes of pitched battles along the ramparts that really breathe life into the movie. The maniacal determination of the Chinese to breach the foreign defences forces the besieged men to come up with ever more ingenious ways to repel them. When the Boxers wheel a massive tower laden with explosives up to the perimeter, and proceed to bombard the exposed compound below, there’s a wonderful scene wherein a French priest (Harry Andrews) with a suspiciously strong Irish brogue supervises the construction of an improvised mortar to lob fireballs back at them. While this all sounds slightly deranged on paper it’s filmed and performed with enough style and conviction to remain gripping and tense throughout. Even though the seemingly endless assaults and counterattacks make for great cinema in themselves, there’s also a well filmed sequence of a night time raid on the Chinese arsenal which concludes with a magnificent and explosive payoff. The only false note is having the British minister tool up and join the raiding party on their sortie - although I’m guessing it was done to give David Niven the chance to get away from pottering fretfully around his study.

Take my hand - Charlton Heston in 55 Days at Peking

One of the pleasures of watching the epic movies from this era is the knowledge that the sheer scale of the production wasn’t anything but real. Nowadays, in the age of CGI, the thought of something as financially prohibitive as building a full size replica of the besieged compound and filling it with literally thousands of swarming extras would be enough to give the average studio executive palpitations, if not an outright seizure. However, the fact that what you see on the screen in a movie like this is real and has actual physical mass adds something indefinable, a quality that’s now been lost. Somehow the very knowledge that you can now create pretty much any image imaginable on screen rubs away a little of the magic for me. To all intents and purposes 55 Days at Peking was Nicholas Ray’s last film, having walked away leaving it incomplete after one argument too many with Bronston he suffered a heart attack. It’s not his best work by any means and I don’t believe he was ideally suited to these kinds of large scale productions. Still, the striking use of colour throughout does seem to bear his hallmark. As far as the performers are concerned it’s Heston’s film all the way. Chuck was in the middle of that purple patch that would last another decade and he stamps his authority all over this picture. Though to be fair, while the film doesn’t develop his character to any meaningful degree it does offer ample opportunity for the kind of iconic posing only he could pull off convincingly. David Niven’s quiet, gentlemanly dignity is a welcome contrast (his casual flicking aside of the kneeling cushion when summoned before the Dowager Empress is a beautifully understated moment), and he even manages to make some fairly trite dialogue sound credible by adopting just the right amount of earnestness - a true professional. Ava Gardner was nearing the end of her days as a leading lady at this point and her performance is adequate but nothing more. I understand that she didn’t get along particularly well with Heston (they certainly don’t have a lot of on screen chemistry) so that may be part of the problem. Finally, a word about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score; his style is not to everyone’s taste and he’s sometimes criticised for being excessively bombastic, but I like it a lot and think it’s perfectly suited to this kind of larger than life movie.

55 Days at Peking is available on DVD from a number of sources worldwide, and the edition I have is one I picked up in Greece years ago. It was released on the PCV label and it’s got a fine anamorphic scope transfer that doesn’t suffer from any major damage or colour fading. The image is progressive and doesn’t look to me like it’s been manipulated excessively. I’ve had a look at the screencaps on the Beaver’s site and I’m fairly confident that my copy looks a good deal stronger than the Japanese one featured there. It’s R2 PAL, of course, and runs at 156 minutes including the overture, intermission, entre’acte and exit music. It’s a shame that reports of poor sales seem to have halted further releases in R1 of the Miriam Collection since the Bronston titles already out in that line are probably the best on the market. This is a movie that’s been neglected in more ways than one over the years and critics have rarely had many positive things to say about it. It is probably overlong and could use a little trimming in the first half, the use of Caucasian actors in the major Chinese roles is possibly a source of annoyance for some, but I still enjoy the movie immensely. Perhaps the fact that it’s a throwback to that vanished era of large scale, no holds barred filmmaking adds to its charm for me. I recommend it if you can get your hands on a decent copy.

The True Story of Jesse James

Posted on March 4th, 2008 in 1950s, Westerns, Nicholas Ray, Robert Wagner by Colin

Titles

Almost twenty years after scoring a hit with Jesse James Fox tried to repeat their success in 1957. With a screenplay based on and crediting Nunnally Johnson’s 1939 effort, the studio tagged ‘The True Story’ onto the title and director Nicholas Ray was handed the task of trying to offer a fresh perspective on this oft-told tale. So, does this one actually tell the true story? Well, not exactly since the time-line is more than a bit suspect, although it does get quite a few things right which the earlier version didn’t. 

The film pitches the viewer straight into the action as it opens during the raid on the Northfield bank. After the dramatic escape of Jesse (Robert Wagner) and brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter) the film proceeds to narrate events via a series of flashbacks which lead up to the climactic and doomed heist. The True Story of Jesse James, as I said, manages to correct a few of the errors of the earlier version. In this film the James gang are, more accurately, shown to be driven towards a life of crime as a result of the conditions that prevailed after the Civil War. The treatment of the other characters is also a good deal closer to reality. The 1939 film had the James home being bombed by railroad agents, resulting in the death of Jesse’s mother. Nicholas Ray’s movie has the attack being carried out by Pinkerton men (referred to here as Remington agents) and causing not the death of the old woman but the loss of her arm - again this is pretty much as it happened. It is no bad thing either that the Younger brothers are actually portrayed here, although the emphasis on them is slight. 

Jesse James (Robert Wagner) shooting his way out of Northfield.

The biggest weakness of the movie lies in the casting, and particularly that of the lead. While earlier incarnations showed Jesse James as a lovable rogue (Tyrone Power) or a saintly, avuncular type (Reed Hadley), here he has evolved into more of a trigger-happy glory seeker. The trouble is that Robert Wagner just doesn’t have the necessary edge or grit to carry this off successfully. Although he does give a pleasant enough performance he is simply too lightweight. Jeffrey Hunter, on the other hand, is excellent as Frank; so much so that it seems a pity he wasn’t given the lead. Agnes Moorehead adds some class as the mother but her scenes are few. Even though Alan Hale’s Cole Younger is played mostly for comic relief it lends a touch of realism to see the character appear and be shown as a figure of some influence within the gang. John Carradine turns up again (how many  movies did this man make?), not as Bob Ford but as the preacher who baptises Jesse.

While I generally enjoyed this movie there were a few things that did get up my nose. These mostly involved the inclusion of footage from the 1939 Henry King film. The train robbery sequence blends in fairly seamlessly but another example proved especially distracting to me. During the well filmed Northfield raid, as the lead flies and men are falling all around, Frank and Jesse take the time to ride into an alley and divest themselves of their long dusters. Why, you might well ask, would two men caught in a firefight pause to do this? Well, the answer is that we’re about to see recycled footage of Power and Fonda riding through a plate glass window and later jumping their horses off a cliff - and our heroes hadn’t been wearing dusters in the ‘39 film! Now those scenes were great the first time round but it smacks of a certain cheapness to wheel them out here again. Another problem I had was at the end of the film. You know that Bob Ford is going to shoot Jesse as he stands on a chair to straighten that picture. Well, here Ford gives it to him in the back of the head at point blank range - and instead of dropping to the floor like a sack of potatoes, Jesse swivels around to glare reproachfully at his assassin before succumbing to his wound. Bah!  

The True Story of Jesse James is available on DVD from Fox in R1 and Optimum in R2. I watched the R1 and the presentation of this scope film is excellent with no major faults worth mentioning. I can’t comment on the quality of the R2 disc but I would imagine that it has been cut by the BBFC for the aforementioned scene of the jump off the cliff - I understand one of the animals was killed during the filming of that stunt. So, despite some quibbles, I would say this is not a bad movie - just not a great one.