There’s a good reason “Round up the usual suspects” is on the AFI’s “100 Movies 100 Quotes” list (it’s number 32) and a good reason “I’m shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here” has been repeated so often that it has ceased to have any meaning. Those lines are still quoted today because they were first spoken by Claude Rains, who turned the workmanlike dialogue into scintillating wit. He was one of the most versatile and reliable actors of all time. Neither of these lines looks like much on the page, but Rains had an uncanny ability to breathe humor and life into even the dullest lines. His talent for elevating bum material was the embodiment of Walter Huston’s remark, “Hell, I ain’t paid to make the good lines sound good. I’m paid to make the bad lines sound good.” As Captain Renault, he is amusing and full of personality every time he opens his mouth, yet nothing in the text is better than second rate. But he makes Renault the most charming damned rascal imaginable. Rains was celebrated for the beauty of his voice, but I find it striking that Rains’ voice wasn’t in fact beautiful. That is, he didn’t produce beautiful tones — as, say, Orson Welles and John Gielgud did — it was the melodiousness of Rains’ speaking that gave the impression of a beautiful voice. He made great use of pauses, sudden shifts in tempo, and sustained ascending and descending lines in his delivery. His vocal technique was highly musical, with dynamics that were carefully observed as in a musical passage. As for the sound of the voice itself — it was a rather rough sound, prone to wobble and he had trouble with the letter “R.” Still, it was a voice that audiences found (and continue to find) irresistible. In the last shot, after Bogey has lost the girl and walks off into the rain and fog with Rains, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a wonderful friendship,” I can’t help thinking that life with the droll little prefect of police will be a lot more fun than one spent in the company of the tremulous emotional wreck he just put on the plane to Lisbon.
Rains’ voice is as unmistakable as Bogart’s, Cagney’s and Gable’s — yet unlike those guys, Rains is very hard to imitate: when you read dialogue spoken by Bogart, Cagney and Gable, you nearly always can guess how they said it. Not so with Rains: a large part of what made his voice so unmistakable was the way it constantly surprised you, yet there was nothing ostentatiously eccentric about his line readings, nor any sense that he deliberately emphasized unexpected words for the sake of being different. No, his readings always made sense, always served the dramatic purpose and revealed subtleties of character, while also being entirely unlike anyone else’s: like Richard Rodgers’ music at its best, Rains was at once utterly surprising, yet also inevitable.
The voice, of course, was only one part of what made Rains such a welcome presence in any picture he appeared in, but it is well to remember that his star-making performance was in the title role of James Whale’s “The Invisible Man,” in which we never even see him, except when he’s swathed in bandages and wearing cumbrous goggles. His performance is hilarious and moving, which was a hallmark of his style — suave, droll and ultimately poignant.
Congratulations on your entrance to the Blogophere. Soon you will find yourself saying: “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”. First entry (with so much rhythm ) is in tune with Oscar night.
Just read your movie reviews for Tweeter. Are all those in 144 chars? They all are so clever. My favorite being the one for Shine. That made me laugh.
Perhaps a more enticing title for the section should be movie review for twitter or 144-char movie reviews or something like that
Claude Rains was always one of my MOST favorite actors. More that his voice I think you’ve hit it when you commented on his delivery. “Invisible Man” fabulous and funny.
A perfect debut post for your actor-centered view of films. As someone who has heard many parts of this argument many times, I can say with assurance you’ve never said better or more perfectly polished. Or more convincing.
I just saw an Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Rains as a mad ventriloquist. As always, he was wonderful, elevating a decent teleplay but nothing special and making it haunting. He was dangerous and sympathetic all at once. Wonderful actor. Never a less than first rate moment.
Thanks for your post. It has been years since I saw that Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, but I remember that Rains was superb in it. It made me laugh to read your reference to his performance as “a mad ventriloquist” . . . Did Hollywood ever permit a sane ventriloquist to appear in a picture? I remember being TERRIFIED of Edgar Bergen when I was a little kid . . . Charlie McCarthy was creepy enough, but Bergen was the stuff of nightmares . . . TR
Then there are the Loathsome Ventriloquists. A demonstration was dangled recently before the billions, wherein the teddy bear puppet’s hair looked more genuine than that of his vox victuala.
My friend Michael Pollak sent me a link via FaceBook to your blog. Thanks for your work! In reply I posted this item, and Michael asked me to repost it here. Good luck!
When we saw Casablanca last week at the AFI in Silver Spring (MD), I overheard someone remark that Rains’ is in almost every scene of consequence, and succeeds in stealing every one of them. No small feat. And he does it almost exclusively through his line readings. Here are a few choice quotations, but you could identify a dozen or more equally wonderful moments from the film:
Rick: And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.
Captain Renault: That is my *least* vulnerable spot.
[Rick and Renault discussing Victor Laszlo’s chances of escaping Casablanca]
Captain Renault: This is the end of the chase.
Rick: Twenty thousand francs says it isn’t.
Captain Renault: Is that a serious offer?
Rick: I just paid out twenty. I’d like to get it back.
Captain Renault: Make it ten. I’m only a poor corrupt official.
Captain Renault: We are very honored tonight, Rick. Major Strasser is one of the reasons the Third Reich enjoys the reputation it has today.
Major Heinrich Strasser: You repeat *Third* Reich as though you expected there to be others!
Captain Renault: Well, personally, Major, I will take what comes.
Thanks for the comment. Indeed I intend to cover “Casablanca,” but I’m still looking for an angle . . . Very much appreciate your encouragement!
Please dorn’t vorget Cuddles in one of his stellar (cabbage) roles.
Oh, Cuddles will get his due. One of the many pleasures of “Casablanca” is to be found in the opening titles. They get Cuddles’ initials wrong: S.K. Sakall, rather than S.Z. Serves him right, the dirty scene stealer. TR
Your commentary on Rains is such a pleasure to read. Thank you for posting. I’d love your take on “The Clairvoyant.” While the film is perhaps unremarkable, it is refreshing seeing Rains as the leading man who (spoiler) gets the girl, in contrast to most of his films. His charm and playfulness in the first act are almost Ferris Bueller-esque (blessedly minus the mugging at the fourth wall). It’s a side of Rains too rarely captured on screen.