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Sunday, 13 September 2009

Deception (1946)

Director: Irving Rapper
Stars: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains

Opening a Hollywood movie with a cello solo would seem to be a strange thing to do, but it serves to show us how dynamic Paul Henreid can be, even when he's not playing for real, and how devastating his performance is on Bette Davis, who sneaks in and finds herself in tears. She now calls herself Christine Radcliffe and she knows him, Karel Novak, though he has no idea that she's there. In fact they're deeply in love with each other though they were separated back in Europe by the war, the one she thought he'd died in. No wonder she's in tears. She's rediscovered the love of her life and now gets to plan the future that she thought she'd lost forever.

Except here's where our real story kicks in. She gets him back to her place where she floats the idea of marriage, only to back off when he accepts. That's when he really realises there's something else going on. There aren't many coats in the closet but some of them are mink. The knick knacks dotted around her apartment are museum pieces, the paintings originals. He's bright enough to know that when things seem too good to be true, they usually are, and he's only temporarily assuaged by the revelation that she's taken pupils, rich ones who give presents. Only at the party after their wedding does he find out that this was a lie and she'd kept her vow to never do so.

Really she's been both pupil and mistress to Alexander Hollenius, a famous composer who Novak much admires and who flies from California to New York to make a dynamic entrance at their party. After all he's paid for everything there, down to the expensive champagne they're drinking. Given that Hollenius is played by Claude Rains, in his sixth and last pairing with Bette Davis, it's a powerful demonstration of jealousy. It continues on just as powerfully, Rains stealing this entire film, even from Bette Davis which is an amazingly rare trick if you can pull it off. Not many could but Rains was one of the few. Bette always called him her favourite actor.

We find ourselves watching a bizarre love triangle. Christine and Karel love each other, that's obvious, but Hollenius is a serious pull to both of them. Christine was his mistress who owes so much to him and still cares a good deal for him, while still fearing every word and action he might conjure up. To Novak, he's a musical pull, a noted composer who understands what a talent he is and gives him the opportunity to prove it to the world by playing the lead in his new cello concerto. We've already seen plenty of deception, Christine not willing or able to quite tell all the truth about her past, but it's an open question as to how much we're going to witness. How much destruction can be wrought? With these actors, plenty, that's for sure.

Claude Rains had a great year in 1946 with three great performances, this very possibly being the most memorable of the three. Then again, it's up against some serious competition, given that he received his fourth and final Academy Award nomination for his superb portrayal of a South American Nazi in Hitchcock's Notorious. The third of his films was Angel on My Shoulder in which he plays no less a character than the Devil who sends gangster Paul Muni back from Hell to be a tough as nails judge. The annoying thing is that Rains was the perennial supporting actor who was never nominated as Best Actor. That would have been a worthy accolade for at least two of his films in this year alone. After all both gave him more screen time than Anthony Hopkins got in The Silence of the Lambs.

Davis is excellent but it's strange to see her overshadowed, especially as the real orchestrator of most of what happens in this film. Deception is stuck in and amongst a string of her movies that I've never even heard of, a five year run between Mr Skeffington and All About Eve of presumably lesser films coming so soon after her famous five year run of gems with a Best Actress nomination every year. Perhaps this was partly due to this being her last film for Warner Brothers. I'm happily filling in my gaps in her filmography though and finding that even where the films were lesser, like Return from Witch Mountain, her performances were not. Paul Henreid is decent as Karel Novak but with Davis and Rains leading the cast, he does well to even be noticed.

Interestingly, this is the second of two films that Bette Davis made that were remakes of films starring the great stage actress Jeanne Eagels, who only made nine pictures for the screen. In fact the source films were the only two sound films Eagels made before dying of an overdose in 1929, both being released that same year. The first was The Letter, which made Eagels the first actor to be nominated for an Oscar posthumously. Davis remade that in 1940 and was Oscar-nominated herself. The second was Jealousy, apparently lesser material according to her co-star Fredric March, which became Deception in this remake. The obvious connection between these two actresses was firmed up in All About Eve when Addison DeWitt lists Eagels and Davis's character Margo Channing as the greatest actresses to ever set foot on a stage.

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