“Born to Be Bad” (1950) starring Joan Fontaine, Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Joan Leslie, & Mel Ferrer

Baby-faced Savage in a jungle of intrigue! -A tagline for the movie (featured on the poster)

Donna Foster (Joan Leslie), assistant to publisher John Caine, has agreed that his niece/small-town gal, Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine), can stay in her apt while she attends business school in San Fran. Donna won’t need the place much longer; she and her philanthropist fiance, Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), will soon be married. Also, Mr. Caine is preparing Christabel for Donna’s current job. While living w/ Donna, Christabel befriends NOT only Donna and Curtis, but two of her artist pals- struggling painter, Gabriel “Gobby” Broome (Mel Ferrer), and aspiring writer, Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), who lives next door.

Christabel: You don’t care very much for women, do you?

Gobby: My dear girl, apart from painting my major occupation is convincing women’s husbands that I’m harmless.

RKO had originally scheduled this film to be made 2x previously. This film (directed by Nicholas Ray) was shot in 1949, BUT released a year later. Now, I’m NOT a fan of Fontaine (though my mom likes her in certain roles); I prefer her sister (Olivia de Havilland). I decided to watch this b/c it had Ryan (an actor I’ve admired from several fine noir films). Jeff Bridges said that Ryan was his fave actor- wow! Fontaine isn’t a femme fatale, BUT a conniver who projects the persona of a humble, soft-spoken, guile-less woman. As one astute viewer commented: “she’s reminiscent in her way of a non-show biz Eve Harrington” (All About Eve). Unlike Donna (the hard-working career gal), Christabel has zero interest in work; she quits business school (much to her uncle’s disappointment). Just how bad is she though!?

Nick: [to Gobby, as they both look at Gobby’s painting of Christabel] Looks like a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Peg o’ My Heart. Even with two heads you couldn’t look like this – or do you know something I don’t?

What does this (above) comment mean? I looked up the references. Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519) was a Spanish-Italian noblewoman of the House of Borgia who was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and Vannozza dei Cattanei. According to Mandell Creighton in History of the Papacy, “Lucrezia… was personally popular through her beauty and her affability. Her long golden hair, her sweet childish face, her pleasant expression and her graceful ways, seem to have struck all who saw her.” Lucrezia was known for her cunning and became notorious for suspicious deaths and political intrigue in 16th c. Italy. Peg o’ My Heart was a 1933 Pre-Code film adaptation (there are earlier versions also) of a play by J. Hartley Manners. Marion Davies plays a poor/orphan/Irish girl who stands to inherit a fortune from her wealthy English relatives, if she satisfies certain conditions.

Donna: [to Christabel] I can just hear you, being so helpful – and so helpless. Helping to mess up people’s lives for your own selfish purposes. And just about as “helpless” as a wildcat. Somebody should have told the birds and bees about YOU!

The other reason to see this film (aside from Ryan) is the terrific dialogue; the best (and sometimes biting) lines are given to Gobby (the observer) and Nick. This movie was considered controversial; Gobby is (subtly) characterized as gay and there are (obvious) hints at extramarital sex. Ann Parrish wrote the source novel, All Kneeling, which was adapted by Charles Schnee. The screenplay was by Edith Sommar w/ additional dialogue contributed by Robert Soderberg and George Oppenheimer (who had a prolific writing career in movies/TV shows).

Robert Ryan was an actor first, a star second. He could play the good guy. He could play the bad guy. You name it, he could play it. That’s what good acting is all about. -Ernest Borgnine, co-star of Ryan in 3 movies (TCM tribute)

Nick: [to Christabel] You little fake. Don’t you know what you really want? Make up your mind, and make it up now, because I’m a restless guy.

I liked ALL the scenes between Fontaine (about 5’3″ tall w/ slight build) and Ryan (6’4″/former collegiate boxer), though physically they make an unlikely couple. In the “meet cute” in Donna’s kitchen, Nick jokes w/ Christabel, BUT she’s a little intimidated. At Donna’s party later that night, he’s eager to get to know her and puts on the charm, BUT she doesn’t stay by his side too long. Notice how Ryan’s hand totally swallows up Fontaine’s? Some time passes and Christabel (finally) goes to have dinner at Nick’s place. Ryan’s chest is heaving as they talk just before their 1st kiss. As the romance begins to sour, we see the undercurrent of danger emerge from Ryan (perhaps his trademark). Nick is the one man that Christabel can’t fool!

There is nothing exceptional re: the directing, though Nicholas Ray went to work on some big movies. Though it is set in San Fran, we don’t get many exterior shots of the city or its landmarks (too bad). I liked most of dresses worn by Fontaine and Leslie. One viewer commented: “Ray must’ve had a sense of humor,” as BOTH Nick and Curtis tightly hold and kiss Christabel in the same way- LOL! Much is done w/ sly/knowing looks, though a few viewers commented that they found Fontaine “campy.” The story moved along at a good pace. I got a big kick out of seeing Ryan in domestic settings, being a friend, and esp. – a love interest. Though he gets to play romance in Clash by Night (1952), Nick here is a more fun/intelligent/sophisticated character. However, the romance (w/ Stanwyck) is darker/hotter in the other film. There was another ending shot by Ray for this movie, but the studio rejected it based on moral grounds. You can rent this movie on Amazon Prime.

“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959) starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, & Ed Begley

Dave Burke (veteran character actor Ed Begley) is looking to hire two men to assist him in a bank raid: Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a white/middle-aged ex-con, and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte- also co-producer), a young/Black singer w/ a gambling problem. Ingram (who likes the finer things in life) is recently divorced from his schoolteacher wife, Ruth (Kim Hamilton), w/ whom he shares a young daughter. Burke arranges for Ingram’s creditors to put pressure on him. Slater (who has a quick temper) feels humiliated by his failure to provide for his devoted wife, Lorry (Shelley Winters), who works two jobs. The two men, though reluctant at first, eventually accept to do the crime. Slater loathes and despises Blacks; tensions in the gang quickly mount.

[after Slater insults Ingram]

Burke: Don’t beat out that Civil War jazz here, Slater! We’re all in this together, each man equal. And we’re taking care of each other. It’s one big play, our one and only chance to grab stakes forever. And I don’t want to hear what your grandpappy thought on the old farm down in Oklahoma! You got it?

Belafonte chose Abraham Polonsky (writer/director of Force of Evil) to write the script. As a blacklisted writer, Polonsky used the name of John O. Killens (a Black novelist/friend of Belafonte). In 1997, the WGA restored Polonsky’s credit. The director is Robert Wise (West Side Story; The Sound of Music); he used infra-red film in some scenes (to create a distorted feel).

This is the first film noir with a Black protagonist! The bartender at the jazz club is a young Cicely Tyson (her second film appearance); she passed away in early 2021. Noir icon Gloria Grahame makes a brief (yet important) appearance. The movie was praised highly by James Ellroy and influenced the work of Jean-Pierre Melville (a French director). The volatile chemistry between the three men is at the center of the movie. I liked the character development, on locations shots of NYC (incl. Central Park), and the slightly uneasy atmosphere. Jazz and Calypso music are played at the smoky club where Ingram performs.

[1] Good low budget heist film. Ryan’s character is one of the ugliest portrayals of a white racist in film. Belafonte’s character is one of the most multi-faceted and complex potrayals of an African American up until that time, and the performance doesn’t date at all. Wise keeps the pacing taut and the suspense high.

[2] Personally I found Belafonte’s contribution the most searing. He captures the role of the divorced father to a tee. The scene where he is awakened by his ex-wife after sleeping (ever so slightly) with is daughter is masterful. You can sense the longing in his heart for the nuclear family that once was.

[3] Wise wants to communicate a whole context, he wants to detail his characters to a fault. How many directors would dare that today? Robert Ryan’s part is very complex. First he seems friendly, but further acquaintance shows a lack of self-confidence (he’s getting old, he’s a washout, he wants to go for broke). And he is a racist. Rarely, this obnoxious feeling has been depicted with such wit.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMBD

Socially Conscious Noir: “Crossfire” (1947) starring Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, & Robert Ryan

Homicide Capt. Finlay (Robert Young) finds evidence that one or more of a group of soldiers is involved in the death of a middle-aged/kindly Jewish man, Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene). In flashbacks, we see the night’s events from different viewpoints, as Army Sgt. Keeley (a youngish Robert Mitchum) investigates on his own, trying to clear the sensitive/young Mitchell, to whom circumstantial evidence points. Then the real (and ugly) motive for the killing begins to dawn on both Finlay and Keeley. This was the breakout role for Robert Ryan, who played Montgomery, one of the experienced/jaded soldiers. Ryan didn’t like the negative aspects of his character- that resulted in him being typecast in villain roles. In real life, Ryan was a liberal progressive actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. A very young Gloria Grahame (who was loaned from MGM) plays a dancehall girl who meets Mitchell.

Finlay: Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It’s hard to stop. It can end up killing men who wear striped neckties. Or people from Tennessee.

The film is based on Richard Brooks’ first novel, The Brick Foxhole (1945), written while he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. One of the subplots dealt w/ homophobia, but that was changed to anti-Semitism. The decision was made by producer Adrian Scott (who purchased the rights) knowing that any depiction of homosexuality would not pass the Hayes Code. Brooks would write the screenplays for other notable noirs, incl. The Killers (1946) (uncredited), Brute Force (1947), Key Largo (1948), and Mystery Street (1950). Due to of the film’s tight (24 day) shooting schedule, it was able to beat the similarly-themed Gentleman’s Agreement to theaters by 3-1/2 months and stole some of its thunder. However, Oscar acclaim went to Gentleman’s Agreement, which won 3 out of its 8 noms, incl. Best Picture. Crossfire was overlooked; it had 5 noms. It has been suggested that one reason it didn’t win any Oscars was director Edward Dmytryk and Scott’s testimony before HUAC in late 1947. They refused to state whether they were, or had been, Communists and were subsequently blacklisted.

[1] Ryan, creates a fully shaded and frighteningly convincing portrait of an ignorant, unstable bigot; we see his phony geniality, his bullying, his resentment of anyone with advantages, his “Am I right or am I right?” smugness; how easily he slaps labels on people and what satisfaction he gets from despising them.

CROSSFIRE’s message seems cautious and dated now, though not nearly so much as GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. […] The script seems afraid to mention any real contemporary problems. […] Still, it did take some guts to depict, immediately after World War II, an American who might have been happier in the Nazi army, and the movie’s basic premise is still valid.

[2] Crossfire is a “message” movie but it is also a cracking good drama, and that’s what I enjoyed about it. Plus the cast is dynamite – Roberts Preston, Mitchum and Ryan, and the beautiful Gloria Grahame. Mitchum doesn’t have a big a role as you might expect (the movie was released the same year as Out Of The Past in which he gives a much more substantial performance), but he’s always great to watch, and Robert Ryan steals the movie as a very nasty piece of work.

[3] As late as 1947, it was a big deal for a movie to announce that anti-Semitism existed, and that it was bad. (It was unthinkable, of course, for Hollywood to address the real subject of the book on which the movie was based- its victim was a homosexual.) Nevertheless, thanks to good writing and excellent acting, CROSSFIRE remains a persuasive examination of what we would now call a hate crime.

-Excerpts from IMBD reviews

“Caught” (1949) starring James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes, & Robert Ryan

Maxine: [Persuading Leonora to attend a charm school] You’re not going just to get a better job. A charm school is like college and finishing school combined.

Leonora Eames: I can read, Maxine.

Maxine: Well, all I can say is, without a social education, you’re never gonna’ meet a real man.

Though she is struggling to pay bills in SoCal, an idealistic waitress from Iowa, Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), decides to spend on a 6-wk. course at a charm school. She soon becomes a department store model like her friend/roomie (Maxine). Leonora gets noticed by a man at the perfume counter (as she’d imagined); he invites her to a party on a yacht owned by bachelor/millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan). Thinking that she’s in love, Leonora marries Smith, and begins her life on his Long Island estate. It turns out that Smith is a workaholic; he’s also a cold-hearted/controlling husband. After a year of (miserable) married life, Leonora leaves him. She answers an ad for a receptionist for a doctors’ office on the Lower East Side. One of the doctors is an obstetrician; the other, Larry Quinada (James Mason), is a pediatrician.

How do I wish to be remembered, if at all? I think perhaps just as a fairly desirable sort of character actor. -James Mason

Some classic film fans may realize that Smith is based on (another difficult millionaire) Howard Hughes. The 1992 restoration of this film at UCLA was financed by Scorsese, who later directed The Aviator (2004). For his American film debut, Mason (then 40 y.o.) was first cast as Smith; he asked to play the other male role, as he wanted to change his (villainous) screen image. The director (Max Ophuls) brings an European (German to be exact) sensibility to the melodrama/noir. The angles, lighting, and movement of the camera help in creating an unique, yet unsettling film showing the dark side of “The American Dream.” Bel Geddes does fine, but she’s not a very nuanced actress; she is known best as Ellie Ewing (matriarch) on Dallas. Ryan and Mason are the ones who shine here. They are filmed and lit in different ways; Ryan looks threatening/dangerous (shot from below or farther away) and Mason comes across as relatable/comforting (shot more close-up at eye-level). I’d like to check out more of this director’s English-language films.

[1] … it was brilliant casting: Ryan was a superb actor. He was tall and intense. …the character he plays here is withdrawn, well-spoken, and even a bit effete. It’s an exceptionally good performance that today would win an actor all sorts of awards.

[2] The messages about the state of that world are strong, indeed almost totally lacking in any subtlety… all of which starkly inform the viewer that the price of excessive wealth and social nihilism combined is so close to madness it’s not worth chasing; far better, instead, to reject such excesses and concentrate on being a valuable member of society.

Some great camera work and all in lovely black and white makes this movie a worthwhile addition to the film-noir genre.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Beware, My Lovely” (1952) starring Ida Lupino & Robert Ryan

Howard Wilton (Robert Ryan), a handyman/drifter, arrives at the house of widow/teacher Helen Gordon (Ida Lupino). He is hired for the day to help clean the house, incl. waxing the floor. It soon becomes apparent that Howard’s behavior is unusual. Howard anxiously asks Helen if his work is satisfactory. He works hard, but is uncomfortable b/c he thinks she is watching him. Helen’s teen niece, Ruth (Barbara Whiting), reacts badly when Howard doesn’t appreciate her flirty behavior. She taunts him; this makes him mad. After she leaves, Howard locks the doors, and makes Helen a prisoner in her own home!

The petite Lupino makes a striking contrast to the dark/tall (6’4″) Ryan. This taut/thought-provoking 77 min. noir was also owned/produced by Lupino and her husband, Collier Young. This is the first movie directed by Harry Horner, who worked as an art director/ production designer for theater, opera, as well as movies. The head of RKO, Howard Hughes, held the film from release for a year. Ryan felt Hughes (known for his right-wing politics) tried to “bury” it b/c Ryan was publicly active in left-wing politics. The staircase was left over from the set of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and would be used in many RKO films.

We (in the modern world) are wary to have strangers work our homes (w/o a reference from a friend, family member, or trusted neighbor). Of course, many of us do research on businesses online. However, this story is set in 1918 in a small town, where almost everyone knows each other. Helen’s boarder, Mr. Armstrong (Taylor Holmes), jokes around w/ her before leaving town for the holidays. A group of young schoolchildren bring gifts for Helen to place under her Christmas. This is not the type of environment where we expect danger, in reality and in fiction. But you never can tell! “Women in jeopardy” movies used to be a staple of ‘90s cable TV; however, the story here is more nuanced than you’d expect.

[1] I was attracted to this film because the title suggested a tough detective film noir… Very quickly though I realised that this was down to some people’s assumption that anything that is black and white and tough gets called a “noir,” but I was not disappointed because this domestic thriller is driven by two very good performances. 

[2] …wow did Ryan do a really good job portraying this man! You really find yourself feeling for Ida Lupino as he destroys her life. So with such intense acting and menace…

[3] The suspense comes from her various ploys to keep him happy while trying to escape. It’s a nail-biter all the way. 

-Excerpts from IMDB movies