Happy Birthday, Claude Rains: A Few Words about ‘Deception’


The first time I came across “Deception” (Warner’s 1948), it was by accident. TCM was showing it on a Friday night back in the nineties; I came in about halfway through the picture — it was the scene in which Claude Rains invites Bette Davis and Paul Henreid to dine with him at a French restaurant, and then proceeds to drive them crazy for the fun of seeing them squirm. Rains does nearly all the talking in the sequence, and it’s a tour de force. Here is where I came in on that memorable Friday night:

Rains: Ah, well, perfection, yes, that goes without saying. Very well, not to waste too much time: the partridges roasted with the truffles [Rains pronounces it troofles] . You know, the one with the forced meat of pork and pullet in them, as usual. But, um, mix into that forced meat a half glass — no more! — of Madeira, not too dry! just to, uh . . . mmm-mmm, you know. A little advice to you, my boy: when ordering a meal, even a frugal snack of this kind, start always with a pièce de résistance — an ashtray, André — food or music, start always with a keynote, the foundation stone. For instance, with that thing of mine. I’m sure you found it necessary to start with the fugato at the end, before making any study of the opening . . . I’m right, am I not?
Henreid: As a matter of fact, uh, no.
Rains: No? [looks at her, looks down, then at him] . . . Are you joking?
Henreid: Well, I started at the beginning and . . .
Davis: . . . and plays it to the end, which he does to perfection, which you will hear for yourself, if we ever get this meal over with.
Rains: You think I’m too slow?
Davis: I’ve been trying to tell you for I don’t know how long: Karel wants to play, not eat!
Rains: Now, Schatzi, Schatzi, Schatzi! Don’t upset me! You know, Karel, sometimes I’m positively terrified of this wife of yours. (I hope you never have any cause to be . . .)
Henreid: Christine thinks I’m getting nervous. I am.
Rains: Well, then to business. And to begin with: soup. Or canapes, do you think? Oh let me make your minds up for you or we shall never have done. Now tell me, André, do you have Parmentier tonight or petit marmite? Good. Then all that remains to consider is the wine.
Davis: Alex, we don’t want any wine.
Rains: Oh, but I do. Now, should one . . . with a partridge  . . . take an Hermitage, or a very soft Burgundy . . . ? Oh I do hope the great haste with which we’re assembling this slapdash repast is not going to affect me internally and render me incapable of appreciating good music! Oh, I do wish you’d begun with the fugato at the end! That’s the key to the whole thing! . . . Um, we’re having these birds stuffed with troofles and a soupçon of Madeira. Therefore, I shall plump for the Hermitage  . . . ’14 . . . And, um, you’d better decant it.

I had no idea what I was watching, nor did I have a clue about what had led up to this extraordinarily madcap sadism. But by the time he said “And, um, you’d better decant it,” Claude Rains, who had always been one of my favorite actors, had become my favorite actor. He has remained so ever since. To this day, I cannot look at “Deception” without remembering that first astonishment. I remember, too, that all through my first viewing of the dinner scene, I had this overwhelming feeling of gratitude — really, almost painful gratitude — that some screenwriter had written such a wonderful part for Claude Rains. Rains spent most of his career doing his ingenious best to elevate second- and third-rate material. With very few exceptions, he nearly always succeeded. (At the end of his career, Rains was too worn out to breathe life into the comatose “Twilight of Honor” (MGM, 1963). In “Four Daughters” (Warner Bros., 1939) and its dreadful sequels, Rains is actually worse than the material.) But when I saw him in “Deception,” I was thrilled to see him in a part that was worthy of his talent. This occurs to me every time I see “Deception” — and I also remember how I spent the rest of the picture trying to guess what the hell the picture was called, and to figure out who the hell wrote it. The story was completely unfamiliar, but the highly stylized, rococo dialogue — especially the lines spoken by Claude Rains — reminded me strongly of the bizarre drolleries I had encountered years earlier in the works of John Collier. “Deception” was indeed written by John Collier, so every time I see it, the memory of having recognized his style gives me a little jolt of egotistical pleasure.

While nobody who is familiar with “Deception” disputes the excellence of Rains’ performance, very few share my high opinion of the picture itself. Certainly Bette Davis didn’t. She was happy that the script gave her old friend such a great opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosity, but she considered it to be a very bad picture. I’m happy to admit that the blaze of Rains’ personality and skill blinded me to the picture’s failings until I’d seen it a few dozen times. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to agree that it’s a bad picture: after all, it’s the one in which Claude Rains gives the greatest performance of his career. It has one of Korngold’s greatest scores. It features one of the swankiest apartments ever to appear in a Warner Bros. picture. Every time I see “Deception,” I remember the intensity of my first reaction to it, almost twenty years ago, with the distinctness of a scene of yesterday: surprise, excitement, elation, gratitude, and immense pleasure. That’s not what I call a bad picture.

6 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Claude Rains: A Few Words about ‘Deception’

  1. jill basten

    I fell in love with Claude Rains when as a schoolgirl my parents took me to see The Phantom of the Opera after which I never missed any of his films and have now seen most of them. I too loved Deception purely for his over-the-top portrayal of a sadistic maestro with delusions of grandeur. His first entrance in the film said it all, and I had to laugh when a film critic said that Davis’s humble home looked like Wembley Stadium after a jumble sale. I have the dvd and love to watch it still. I am still in love with Claude and never miss any of his films when they appear on TV. Having recently read his biography written by his daughter I appreciate even more what a genius he was, to rise from a Victorian guttersnipe with bad diction to such an accomplished actor. Truly the greatest actor ever never to be given an Oscar.

    1. Daniel

      The film is a little too large and looming and wet for my taste, and Davis is all bug-eyed and dreary (and she’s a favorite of mine – when she’s in All About Eve or The Little Foxes.) But Rains is yes, the greatest actor ever to never have won an Oscar. Ditto Ed. G. Robinson (never even a nomination!!). And a whole bunch of others as well. But let’s face it, if you can give the gold to Charlton Heston (and a whole bunch of others), we’re betting on the wrong horse.

    2. Toby cohen

      Are you aware of my bio on Rains published last year and available thru Amazon. It has photos and material never published anywhere previously and has received 5 star reviews from Amazon readers.
      I think fr om your comment you would find it fascinating to learn of his troubled life which thankfully never interfered with his acting genius.

  2. Brendan G Carroll

    I thoroughly enjoyed perusing your fine blog about one of my favourite actors – and especially, your remarks about DECEPTION.

    As Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s biographer (maybe you know my book ‘The Last Prodigy’?) I had the very great pleasure of interviewing Irving Rapper, Bette Davis and Paul Henried in the mid 1970s about this terrific film, as part of my research.

    One story that Mr Henreid told me was unfortunately cut from my book by the publisher, on account of the somewhat ripe language necessary to tell it accurately, but as it concerns Claude Rains, I will share it with you here.

    Henreid told me that Claude Rains never watched the rushes of his performances and didn’t even view the finished film. In fact he never watched himself on screen – he was such a perfectionist, he felt sure he would be unsatisfied with his performance.

    Well, DECEPTION was previewed at the Warner Theatre in LA and shortly afterwards, Bette Davis visited Rains at his home ( a farm in Pennsylvania where he always went after finishing any of his films – he hated Hollywood).

    Appparently, according to Henreid (who met Rains sometime later) Miss Davis (who adored Rains as we know) marched up to his front door, banged the hell out of it – he opened it with “Hullo Betty…” in that beautiful voice , as she swept past him, full mink draped around her shoulders, shouting….

    “You sonovabitch! You stole the goddamn pitchah!”

    …to Rains’ very great amusement.

    Then they both burst out laughing and he invited her to stay for dinner.

    Charming, isnt it?

    Incidentally, Rains (who never had any musical training) was coached by Korngold in playing the piano and conducting for this film and did a very convincing job of giving the illusion that he could do both!

    Thanks again for the great blog!


  3. Morella Poe

    I luv this film, as well as the other two he made with bette davis! Rains has always been one of my favorite actors…. What a voice!


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