Irving Rapper, 1946
Starring: Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid
A pianist, Christine Radcliffe, finally locates the love of her life, cellist Karel Novak, after years of searching. They were separated during the war and Karel was placed in a concentration camp and assumed dead. They have an emotional reunion and quickly marry. Karel moves into her elegant loft apartment full of fine art and fur coats, but becomes suspicious when she claims to be a poor music teacher. Christine was actually having an affair with famed composer Alexander Hollenius, who becomes insane with rage and jealousy when he learns of her marriage. Christine is desperate to keep their affair from the equally jealous Karel, but Hollenius soon tricks Karel into taking a solo in a major performance of Hollenius’s new symphony. Christine is convinced Hollenius has something malicious up his sleeve and hopes to intervene before it’s too late…
Based on Louis Verneuil’s play Monsieur Lamberthier, this was filmed once before, but has its most memorable incarnation in Deception. Though the film received mixed reviews and was Warner Bros. only Bette Davis vehicle to take a hit financially, the film holds up well thanks to some incredible set design, wonderful German Expressionist-influenced cinematography, and strong performances from all three leads. Reuniting with director Irving Rappert a few years after Now, Voyager (1942), Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains are all captivating and charismatic, even if the script is ridden with plot holes and histrionics.
As with The Letter and Mildred Pierce, this has plenty of elements of melodrama, thanks mostly to the fact that the bulk of the film surrounds a love triangle. Deception has elements in common with both Laura and The Letter – both concerned with love triangles – and the latter being an earlier vehicle for Davis. In Laura, a powerful and controlling, if effete man is obsessed with the female protagonist and murders her when he thinks she is leaving him for another man, her fiancé. In The Letter, Davis’s character shoots a man in cold-blood out of jealousy; though she claims self-defense and lies about their relationship, as he was her lover.
Like The Letter, the plot of Deception is complicated by the fact that none of the characters are particularly likable or sympathetic. While Karel is near-abusive with his jealousy, it is all founded – Christine lies to him throughout the entire film and there is a mention of past jealousy. On the other hand, she rationalizes away all his flaws, due to his (unspoken) years in a concentration camp. There aren’t enough scenes defining their love for one another; outside of their opening reunion, a few moments of tenderness would have gone a long way.
In my eyes, Bette Davis can do no wrong, but here she comes close to being the villain of the piece or, at best, looking ridiculous. Though she seems to love Karel, her lies are an ever-mounting snowball of distrust and dishonesty that will inevitably end badly. She is equally horrible to Hollenius and abruptly ends their close romantic and sexual relationship to get married – with basically no warning or explanation. She reacts like he is an abusive psychopath – and perhaps he is, but the film never shows this. His murder at Christine’s hands is nearly inexplicable and hardly seems justified. Rains has played plenty of obsessive, psychopathic lovers – The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935) and The Unsuspected (1947) being two diverse examples – and his murder and Christine’s behavior would have been far more justified if he was secretly abusing and stalking her as in these other films.
Part of the problem is that Rains is just too likable and charismatic as Hollenius. Not only does he out-act Davis and Henreid, but many of his scenes are absolutely fantastic. He tortures Christine and Karel at a pre-performance dinner by ordering extravagantly, causing their meal to take hours. In another scene where Christine confronts him early in the morning, he is lying in bed reading newspaper comics and deftly banters with her, adding a hefty dose of humor and making Christine seem like a hysterical idiot.
Like Clifton Webb’s character in Laura, Hollenius could be described as an “homme fatale,” loosely a male version of the femme fatale. These characters are sprinkled throughout noir; they often successful, hedonistic, well-dressed, and seductive. Though they are not often physically attractive, they seduce with wealth, power, charm, and flattery. They are also deceptive and cunning. Controlling and manipulating other characters brings them great pleasure and many of them have an air of repressed homosexual desire. These characters are capable of blackmail, social or financial ruin, and even murder.
Aside from Rains’ fantastic performance, Deception is worth watching for its excellent visuals. A mix of film noir and Gothic atmosphere, the set pieces from art director Anton Grot (Mildred Pierce) are marvelous, particularly Hollenius’ ornate mansion and Christine’s starkly shot, spacious New York loft apartment that overlooks much of the city. There are plenty of wonderful shots of Davis looking both elegant and sinister as she sneaks up a staircase or blows out a candelabrum. It seems to be constantly raining in the film and though the typically urban environment of noir doesn’t play a large role in terms of plot, the murky cityscape is a permanent fixture in Davis’s penthouse apartment.
Though Deception perhaps has too many melodramatic moments to appeal to all fans of film noir, it still comes highly recommended. Fans of Davis, Henreid, and especially Rains should consider this a must see. I don’t believe this it’s available on DVD, but you can find it streaming on Amazon.