The 1946 noir-ish melodrama, Deception, is, essentially, an overwrought movie about a woman who likes to keep Secrets.
Bette Davis plays this deceptive woman, a pianist who unexpectedly breaks off her years-long affair with her mentor to suddenly marry a cellist (Paul Henreid) with whom she was involved in pre-war Europe.
Davis is hammy, but fabulous, and Henreid is handsome, but Intense. The goal of the film, you see, is to cultivate our sympathy and make us hope their Love Will Conquer All, etc.
Alas! Henreid, freshly arrived from a nightmarish ordeal in Europe, is suspicious of Davis’s comfortable lifestyle. He does not believe her flimsy I’m-A-Piano-Teacher explanation, and he resents being patronized. He knows a well-appointed apartment when he sees one, and where did she get that expensive piano!
As actors, Davis and Henreid always have good chemistry, although Henreid’s unpredictable temperament keeps us on edge. His emotional volatility scratches against the smooth cunning of Davis’s jilted lover and sugar daddy, Claude Rains.
Deception probably isn’t supposed to be Rains’s movie, but he marches into the story and Takes Over. Davis and Henreid, being the Pros they are, agree to Knuckle Under.
Rains’s character is a brilliant, self-absorbed, temperamental composer, a once-in-a-generation kind of genius.
He knows he’s legendary; so what if he ranks himself among giants of the music world. In one scene, he tells Davis he’s tired of their discussion and says, disparagingly, “I’d rather listen to Beethoven.”
He’s arrogant and sarcastic, pleasant only when it suits him – which isn’t often.
Yet, to his credit, he’s honest, unlike Davis. When she says she wants to believe him, he replies, “That is a luxury beyond your present means, my dear. If you want to believe other people, you’d better give up lying yourself.”
Rains has terrific lines, and an even better delivery, which is the leverage he uses to garner our reluctant empathy. His forceful presence makes Davis seem trivial.
Example: The morning after her wedding to Henreid, Davis arrives at Rains’s house to find him at the piano, hair askew, slamming the keys while he composes. When he finishes, Davis says, “It’s wonderful.”
“Extraordinary, isn’t it?” he snaps. “That music can exist in the same world as the basest treachery and ingratitude.”
Of course he’s angry. His long-time paramour suddenly marries a man of whom he’s never heard, despite all the lavish attention and gifts he’s provided, piano included.
Naturally, his misery wouldn’t be complete without his still being in love with her.
But he’s not done with Davis yet, or her husband, and he finds a twisted pleasure in Toying with them. (It’s no accident that Rains’s character often pets a Siamese cat in his home.)
Look at the scene where the three meet for a dinner at an exclusive restaurant. Rains has requested Henreid audition for him, but First! He insists on an elaborate pre-audition meal, which he savours as much as Henreid’s anxiety.
Rains-As-Dinner-Host orders for everyone, of course, and he details the meal preparations to the fawning maître d’. He gleefully frets over details: Soup or canapés? Neither, we know, will be as satisfying as Henreid’s seething humiliation.
This Meal Ordering business is magnificent; it’s a Performance in itself.
Despite its (now) highly-praised film score, Deception was the first Bette Davis film to lose money in her 14 years at Warner Bros. This was due to high production costs.
Our pal Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was dismissive of the film and Davis’s performance, but he praised Rains. “As a famous and worldly composer with some vicious attachment to a dame,” he wrote, “he fills out a fascinating portrait of a titanic egoist.”
For once we agree with ol’ Bosley. Rains gives us a treat while he’s on the screen, but when he’s absent, he leaves us with a flat, clichéd story. Davis and Henreid, as skilled as they are, can’t prop up the story on their own.
That’s because Rains fools us into believing the film is better than it is, but he takes all the magic with him when he departs. Indeed, he is the deceptive one here.
We see what you’ve done, Claude Rains. Thanks a lot.
This post is part of the The Third Annual CLAUDE RAINS Blogathon, hosted by PEPS.
Deception: starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains. Directed by Irving Rapper. Written by John Collier & Joseph Than. Warner Bros., 1946, B&W, 115 mins.