Nicholas Ray's BORN TO BE BAD is prime soap opera, performed by a top cast. It's a tremendously enjoyable piece of entertainment.
Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) arrives in San Francisco to stay with her cousin Donna Foster (Joan Leslie) while taking a secretarial course. Christabel and Donna have never met, and although at first Christabel is all sweetness and light, Donna becomes increasingly uneasy about Christabel's behavior.
Like Nancy in RKO's earlier film THE LOCKET (1946) or Eve in 1950's ALL ABOUT EVE, Christabel hides behind a demure facade, but underneath she has selfish manipulation down to an art form. Despite sharing a combustible passion with writer Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), Christabel wastes no time before moving in on Donna's very wealthy fiance, Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott).
I found this film highly entertaining. Fontaine is riveting as Christabel carries out her campaign to rise above being a poor country cousin and have everything she's always wanted. Christabel is aptly described by another character as "a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Peg o' My Heart." When she's with Nick, who sees through her but can't help wanting her, Christabel comes close to revealing her true nature; their scenes are rather amazingly torrid for 1950. But the minute Christabel is with others she resumes her routine as the wide-eyed innocent, gradually reeling Curtis and his millions closer and closer.
I particularly liked Joan Leslie's assured performance as Donna, a warm, competent career woman who finds her growing suspicions about Christabel are well-founded. Mel Ferrer is also quite good as an artist who provides a bit of comic relief as he observes the goings-on. The charismatic Ryan is terrific as cocky, passionate Nick. Scott is adequate although I thought there are a couple odd shots of him when he's flying his plane near the end of the movie.
The supporting cast includes Virginia Farmer and Harold Vermilyea. Irving Bacon has a scene as a jewelry salesman.
BORN TO BE BAD runs 90 minutes. The black and white cinematography was by Nicholas Musuraca. The score by Frederick Hollander occasionally seems a bit overdone, as if wanting to make sure there's no doubt in anyone's mind that this is a melodrama.
A side note: This movie has no relationship to the 1934 Cary Grant-Loretta Young film of the same name.
BORN TO BE BAD has been released on VHS. It has not been released on DVD in the United States, but has had a Region 2 DVD release in Spain. Update: This movie is now available in a remastered print from the Warner Archive, complete with an alternate ending!
BORN TO BE BAD can be seen as part of the library at Turner Classic Movies, where it next airs on November 10, 2009. The print I recorded from TCM some time ago was excellent.
The trailer can be viewed at TCM here. It provides glimpses of a couple scenes which didn't make the movie's final edit.
March 2014 Update: I had the wonderful opportunity to see this film in 35mm at the Noir City Film Festival.