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.