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Notable Claude Rains Pictures (Part II)

Notorious

Claude Rains in 'Notorious':  The Nazi mama's boy.

Claude Rains in ‘Notorious’: The Nazi mama’s boy.

Alex Sebastian in “Notorious” (RKO, 1946) is one of Claude Rains’ best parts.  As Sebastian, Rains’ performance is so indelible that once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to imagine another actor in the role.  After “Notorious,” whenever a picture called for a silky, suave villain, producers would tell the casting agent:  “get me a Claude Rains type.”  Rains was not, however, Hitchcock’s first choice.  Hitch wanted that poor man’s George Sanders, Clifton Webb.  To be sure, Webb would have been entirely convincing as a mama’s boy (which he was). He was, moreover, such an unsympathetic screen presence, one would be glad to believe he was also a Nazi.  But as a heterosexual in the grip of an obsessive sexual passion for Ingrid Bergman . . . not bloody likely.  One can easily imagine his putting clothes on Ingrid Bergman, but not his tearing them off.  Hitchcock had to be convinced to let Rains play the role.  When he talked to Rains about the part, Hitch asked him, “What about this business of a being a midget?”

“What do you mean, a midget?”

“Your wife, Ingrid Bergman, is very tall.  There are occasions when we can build a ramp, but have you ever worn elevated shoes?”  It was a blow to Rains’ pride, but he bought the lifts and often used them throughout the rest of his career.

When critics refer to Sebastian as a Nazi mama’s boy, there’s always the sense that they find his being a mama’s boy somehow more objectionable than his being a Nazi.  The other famous Hitchcock mama’s boy is also a villain:  Norman Bates.  In that one, Bates’ villainy only comes out when he actually IS his mama.  I’m not sure what to make of this, other than Hitch was a strange fellow.

Bergman isn’t good in the first reel, when we’re supposed to believe she’s a hard-drinking tramp, but after the first dozen or so minutes, I’d say it’s the best performance of her career.  Cary Grant, for once, doesn’t twinkle and make coy faces, but he goes too far in the other direction:  he’s so brutal and unyielding, it’s hard to understand why Bergman puts up with him.  He is very good looking and beautifully dressed, but what a swine . . .  I keep thinking she’d be better off with Rains, if only he weren’t trying to kill her.

Rains, Grant, Bergman:  'We both invited you, Mr Devlin.'

Rains, Grant, Bergman: ‘We both invited you, Mr Devlin.’

The most famous scene in the picture is the big party and the furtive investigation of the wine cellar — it’s Hitchcock at his absolute best.  But my favorite scene happens the morning after, when Sebastian in robe and slippers goes into his mother’s (Madame Konstantin) bedroom and tells her that he is in big trouble.  “I am married to an American agent,” a memorable line reading that belongs (but isn’t) on the AFI’s 100 Movie Quotes list.  Mme. Konstantin responds by lighting a cigarette while she absorbs the news in silence.  It doesn’t take more than five seconds, but it’s a Master Class in great acting.  She conveys more about her character in those few seconds of silence than most actresses could convey in a hundred lines of dialogue.

Rains, Mme. Konstantin:  'I am married to an American agent.'

Rains, Mme. Konstantin: ‘I am married to an American agent.’

But it is Rains’ performance that makes the deepest impression.  As usual, he dominates every scene he’s in.  He makes the Nazi mama’s boy a more sympathetic character than Cary Grant’s hero.  It was his fourth and last Academy Award nomination.  He didn’t win this time, either.  For this was the year that Clifton Webb was supposed to win for “The Razor’s Edge,” only to lose out (along with Rains) to Harold Russell in “The Best Years of our Lives.”

Now, Voyager

Davis to Rains:  'I should think you're the least clumsy man I ever met, doctor . . .'

Oh, Doctor!  Rains: ‘I have a great admiration for people who are clever with their hands.  I was always so clumsy with my own.’  Davis:  ‘I should think you’re the least clumsy person I ever met . . .’

About “Now, Voyager.” Its failings are many, but I continue to love it, probably because I’ve always gotten deep satisfaction from transformation stories. The first and final scenes are wonderful, but in the middle there is much to dislike.

Here’s an important early scene, in which Rains, as Dr Jacquith, America’s foremost alienist, does what he does better than anyone else.  The material is entirely second-rate, composed almost entirely of platitudes, but he makes it sound like the last word in compassionate sagacity.  His closing line, “I suggest a few weeks at Cascade . . . ” lets you know that poor, crazy Aunt Charlotte will emerge from Dr Jaquith’s sanitarium as a butterfly from a chrysalis.

“Now, Voyager” works just about perfectly for the first forty-five minutes or so, until Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) and Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) take that taxicab in Rio, driven by that stereotypical (but completely inaccurate) greaseball, Giuseppe. (He’s supposed to be Brazilian, but he’s named Giuseppe and his cartoon gibberish sounds nothing like Portuguese.) The taxicab scene tiresome and offensive and goes on forever. Happily, it is followed by several wonderful episodes, beginning with their romantic parting in Rio, which is beautifully written and acted. The scenes immediately following Charlotte’s homecoming are the best in the picture: Gladys Cooper fully expects her neurotic child to return to enslavement without a murmur of protest; she is seriously displeased when the wretched girl mildly refuses to do as she’s told. Cooper rebukes her for refusing to perform a daughter’s duty, but Charlotte dryly observes, “Dr Jacquith says tyranny is often expressed as the maternal instinct.” Cooper’s surprise and outrage are wonderful to behold. Every new encounter becomes a skirmish in which the old woman pursues a new strategy, but the girl treats chastisement and obloquy as if they were birthday greetings, and Cooper must quickly beat a retreat while she gives the matter more thought. Finally, she threatens to cut off Charlotte’s allowance completely and to disinherit her: but the ungrateful girl blandly tells her “I’ve often thought of working for a living. I’d make an excellent headwaitress.” Over the course of these episodes, the old tyrant slowly comes to realize that this stubborn female person is no longer her neurotic daughter/servant Charlotte: this person is Bette Davis — obedience isn’t what she does. I love every scene with Gladys Cooper, but when the old cat finally drops dead and the guilt-ridden Charlotte runs back to Cascade, the picture hits another patch of tedium while Charlotte finds herself looking after young Miss Tina Durrance, the most insufferable little neurotic in the history of motion pictures. Let me point out at once that the little actress is actually quite terrific: it is the character who is so revolting. At least, until Charlotte takes charge of her.

I’ve always wondered about the theory of treatment at Cascade(s): I mean, who in his right mind would believe it a good idea to force a nervous wreck like Tina to compete at ping pong with children who are far more skillful than she, especially if they are equally neurotic? That strikes me as a sure way to push her over the edge. But then Charlotte steps in. Something marvellous happens when the ugly little duckling comes under Charlotte’s care. Earlier in the picture, Charlotte herself had gone from ugly duckling to swan. Now she transforms her by-proxy daughter from ugly duckling to . . . ugly duckling with cleaner fingernails and an expensive party dress.  For a long time, that threw me.  Whenever I saw homely, awkward little Tina descending the stairs in her ribbons and ruffles, I thought of those lines from “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington”:

She’s a vile girl and uglier than mortal sin,
One look at her has put me in
A tearing bloody rage.

But then I noticed how beautifully the child actress, Janis Wilson, handled the scene. All dressed up, she’s still not pretty and she knows it. She’s awkward and self-conscious and pathetic. But she’s doing her best to look poised, confident and pretty, because she wants to please Charlotte and her father. It’s an amazing little performance.

Moments before this, Claude Rains has asked the immortal question, “Roasting wienies?!” Quite irresistible!

It was wise to cast Claude Rains as Dr Jaquith, because Dr J, as written, may be the worst alienist who ever drew breath.  Rains soft pedals the terrible advice and lays on the creamy charm with a large trowel.  “You’ll never get a new pair of eyes if you spoil them with tears,” is some of the first quackery we hear from him and there’s plenty more to follow.  I mention this because Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of the novel, had a long acquaintance with psychiatrists.  When she was twelve, she suffered a breakdown that lasted nearly two years.  Later on, when she was a successful novelist, she became a philanthropist and gave an endowment to Smith College, where she first met Sylvia Plath.  After Plath’s failed suicide attempt, Prouty supported her financially.  To show her gratitude, Plath caricatured her in “The Bell Jar.”

Cooper:  'Charlotte, I thought I told you to wear the black & white foulard.'

Cooper: ‘Charlotte, I thought I told you to wear the black and white foulard.’

Keep a look out for what Gladys Cooper does with her hands. She uses them to great effect in a few important scenes.  I’ve always admired her technical skill, especially since she wasn’t, alas, a great actress. I love the way the camera focuses on Cooper’s fingers drumming on the bedpost while she listens to Charlotte’s disobedience. That may be the best thing she ever did in pictures. She was une grande dame par excellence and a thorough professional, but she wasn’t imaginative or talented enough to be great. Her voice wasn’t terribly interesting or expressive, though I am CRAZY in love with her old-fashioned pronunciation. She provides a window into Edwardian pronunciation: for instance, she’s the only person I’ve ever heard pronounce “secretiveness” as seCREETiveness. In another picture, she’s the only one to pronounce the last name “Cartwright” as KHAR-tritt. Both pronunciations are clearly (at least to me) not her own invention, but fossils from Edwardian, perhaps even Victorian RP (i.e., “received pronunciation” — you may already know that acronym, but it was new to me as of about a year ago). Gladys Cooper didn’t have the imagination to come up with eccentric pronunciations. Such eccentricities as she possessed were not eccentricities at her career’s beginning, when she was universally considered to be the most beautiful woman in England (circa 1905 – 1925). The British postcard industry was invented almost entirely so that her face could be printed and mailed about the country and all over the world. She was a good, sensible actress, but hardly a great one. Bette Davis loved her, really adored and admired her. When Davis made her memorable appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, it was the day after Cooper died. Davis paid a brilliant, moving tribute to Gladys Cooper . . . so moving, in fact, that I hunted down Sheridan Morley’s biography of Cooper, which I read, and also had a look at as many of her movie performances as I could find. She never, ever gave a bad performance, but she rarely did anything terribly imaginative. She simply wasn’t that clever. That’s why her hands in “Now, Voyager” mean something to me. She communicates anxiety and frustration with them in a way that neither her voice nor her face were capable of. I like to think that Cooper rose to the occasion of working with a great actress like Bette Davis and a great actor like Claude Rains (whom she knew from her theatre days in London — by the way, she was the first living actress in England to have a theatre named after her). But I’m afraid this is sentimental fantasy on my part. She had no use for ugly actors and certainly recognized and deplored incompetent actors. But I doubt she recognized Davis’ and Rains’ greatness — certainly not fully. Davis’ adoration was almost certainly one-sided: Cooper doubtless thought Davis’ admiration was simply an indication of common sense.

John Gielgud told a funny story about the time he attempted to direct the aging Mrs Patrick Campbell (Shaw’s first Eliza Doolittle) in a West End play in the early 30s. Mrs Pat abruptly quit the show shortly before opening night, because she wanted to spend more time with her dogs. But before she did this, she raised hell at every rehearsal, one way or another. Though the play was perfectly straight-forward, Mrs Pat was (or pretended to be) in a constant state of irritable bewilderment. She interrupted one run-through by demanding, “Who are these people? Where do they come from? Does Gladys Cooper know them?” Cooper was not a great actress, but she most definitely had been a very great star for a very long time. Adoration was what she expected. In Hollywood, it was not always what she got.

Irving Rapper, the director, was a Warners’ workhorse — not particularly distinguished, but competent. He did a lot of apprentice work as dialogue director on pictures like “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Dark Victory,” “Juarez” and “All This, and Heaven Too.” The look, I’d suggest, is more the work of the Director of Photography, Sol Polito, who did a lot of excellent work in his career, including “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Old Acquaintance” and several other Davis and Flynn pictures. Still, Rapper must have had a lot to say about it, especially since “Deception,” photographed by another great DP (Ernest Haller — one of Davis’ favorites: e.g., “Jezebel,” “Dark Victory,” “All This, and Heaven Too”), is notable for how great it looks. But part of the great look was the Warners’ style, which I find irresistible, even in many of their cruddier pictures. I can almost always tell a Warners picture within a few minutes.

Davis:  'Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon . . . we have the stars.'

Davis: ‘Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon . . . we have the stars.’

For my money, “Now, Voyager” is one of Max Steiner’s best scores, specifically because it adds romance without being intrusive. “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon: we have the stars.” is a beauty of a last line, and it is greatly helped by the underscoring. Steiner adds musicality to Davis’ voice that wasn’t there without music. His other great score is the one he wrote for “Casablanca,” which I consider to be the absolute model of great scoring. There’s one important musical cue in that picture — the underscoring for the Paris montage sequence — variations on “As Time Goes By” — that I swear is responsible for making audiences (including me) accept the picture as a great, gorgeous romance rather than a story of an attractive, somewhat bovine young woman and a middle-aged man in a partial toupee, with cigarettes and bourbon staining his false teeth and befouling his breath. There are a hundred things right with “Casablanca”; it’s one of my favorite pictures (though I don’t consider it a great one), and up at the top of the list is Steiner’s score, which is very nearly invisible to the ear, but creates atmosphere every bit as effectively and persuasively as the fog and rain in the last scene and the rotating blades of the ceiling fans in Rick’s Café Americain.

The Passionate Friends

Ann Todd, Trevor Howard, Claude Rains:  The old triangle stuff.

Ann Todd, Trevor Howard, Claude Rains: The old triangle stuff.

By her own admission, Ann Todd was not much of an actress.  Unfortunately, this did not prevent her from playing the prima donna and, as far as Claude Rains was concerned, wasting everybody’s time on the set.  Moreover, during the filming of “The Passionate Friends” — a literate, nicely acted romantic triangle picture from 1948 (released in ’49) — director David Lean began carrying on an affair with her, while he was still married to actress Kay Walsh, and it appears that Todd took wicked advantage of her hold over her director/lover.  Lean confessed to Rains, “Claude, I’m going to get into awful trouble.”  And he did.  Rains admired Lean enormously as a director (the feeling was mutual), but thought Lean was mad to have taken up with Todd — a man-eating “machine,” as he called her.  After shooting wrapped, Lean married her in May of 1949. They divorced in 1957.  Rains was appalled.  “By God, she took every cent from him.  I don’t think anyone could live happily with that woman.  She took every damn thing away from him.  He ended up with nothing but an old car.”

Todd was often referred to as “the pocket Garbo.”  That seems about right:  I’d add that she could just as reasonably be called “the pinched Garbo”:  except for the rare occasions when she smiled, she always looked as if her shoes were too tight.  She had a lovely speaking voice and beautiful diction (she studied elocution at the Central School for Speech and Drama in London) — all very good, as far as it goes.  But it doesn’t go far enough.

Rains was too much of a professional to let his personal dislike interfere with his performance.  I rather think his irritation with the actress adds sauce to their onscreen relationship.  The picture has been almost entirely forgotten, yet it’s among his best performances (which, admittedly puts it among a large number) and unquestionably the best she ever gave.  On the surface, his character, Howard Justin, is a standard issue Rains part:  powerful, unflappable man of the world brought low by a straying woman.  But I doubt if Rains ever gave a more intensely emotional performance than he gives in this one.  For much of the picture, Howard Justin could be a stand-in for Alexander Sebastian (“Notorious”), Alexander Hollenius (“Deception”) or Victor Grandison (“The Unsuspected”), but near the end of the picture, things change — and Rains cuts loose in an emotional torrent that always overwhelms me, no matter how often I see the last reel.

Rains on the verge of a melt-down.

Rains on the verge of a melt-down.

“The Passionate Friends” is based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name.  The screenplay is by a fine espionage novelist, Eric Ambler:  the Thinking Man’s Ian Fleming.  Like Fleming, Ambler often featured a number of recurring characters in his novels, but none of them ever caught on like James Bond — more’s the pity:  Ambler was much the better writer.  His screenplay for “The Passionate Friends” is wonderfully literate.  In an early flashback scene (surprisingly, “The Passionate Friends” has more flashbacks than most film noirs, a genre that practically subsisted on the device), Steven Stratton (Trevor Howard) and his girlfriend Mary (Ann Todd), lie in a meadow and recite from Keats’ “Endymion”:

All its more ponderous and bulky worth
Is friendship, whence there ever issues forth
A steady splendour; but at the tip-top,
There hangs by unseen film, an orbed drop
Of light, and that is love:

Todd & Howard:  'Endymion,' anyone?

Todd and Howard: ‘Endymion,’ anyone?

Mary does not marry Stratton, whom she loves.  She marries Justin, whom she does not love — and to make life easier on everybody, she decides never to see Stratton again.  But this is a love triangle, so their paths needs must cross.  They run into each other at the New Year’s Eve party, 1939 — she with her husband, he with his current girlfriend.

This meeting leads to a more serious rift and again Mary vows to avoid Stratton.  Nine years pass before their paths cross again.  In a voice-over, she says:  “I suppose that if Fate had been kind and gentle, we would never have met again.  But Fate is not kind and gentle:  it sent us together to a sunlit lake and snow-capped mountains and a holiday in Switzerland.”  It’s a fine bit of writing, that; with her beautiful diction, Todd makes it exquisite — perhaps the one time in her career that Todd actually elevated good material.

In another scene, Mary reads this passage from a book she pulls from a shelf in Stratton’s flat:

In the beginning God gave to every people a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life.

It’s from a creation myth of the Digger Indians in California; I find it very beautiful, even though I don’t believe a word of it.  This is approximately how I feel about the central conflict of this love triangle story.  Mary refuses to marry Stratton because she says she doesn’t want to “belong” to anyone, and he responds, “Then your life will be a failure.”  We’re supposed to agree with him, but I wouldn’t marry anyone who said anything so caddish.  On the other hand, she goes off and marries Howard Justin, a man she doesn’t love, because he’s rich and offers her security and a kind of life she couldn’t otherwise afford.  It seems to me that, since Howard did not win her hand, but purchased it, she belongs to him, and without the compensation of true love.  That neither she nor Stratton sees it that way strikes me as a bit thick, especially since they’re given to spouting such lovely poetry at each other.  But let that go:  I think it may be accepted as a romance version of Hitchcock’s McGuffin — an unimportant, but necessary device to set the machinery in motion.  Once the engine is running, the rest of the picture clicks along efficiently and by the end, the emotional impact is very impressive indeed.

“The Passionate Friends” is one of David Lean’s later black and white pictures; after “Hobson’s Choice” in 1954, he made big Technicolor pictures.  His pictures always look good, but I prefer his smaller, more intimate black and white features; the cinematography (by Guy Green) in this one is great:  enough to make it well worth seeing.  The screenplay and the acting make it a minor classic.  So why was it not a hit in the United States?  I’ve often wondered.  Perhaps the name change had something to do with it.  In America, it was retitled “One Woman’s Story.”  Perhaps even more likely, it was the marketing.  Have a look at the ludicrous poster for the original release.

Does this like a picture you would want to see?

Does this like a picture you would want to see?

When Rains was asked if he could explain the reason for the name change, he replied, “Apparently, Americans don’t understand passion.”

Notable Claude Rains Pictures

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Rains as Prince John:  "Whoever would have thought my dear brother would be so considerate as to get him self captured & leave all England to my . . . tender . . . care?"

Claude Rains as Prince John: “Whoever would have thought my dear brother would be so considerate as to get himself captured and leave all England to my . . . tender . . . care?”

In “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” Claude Rains is not as subtle as he would soon become, but he’s awfully funny and adds mad frivolity to the stock villain he plays. Rains plays Prince John as a nattering swish. It would be interesting to know if he came up with the idea on his own, or if the strawberry blond whiskers and Prince Valiant wig made the choice for him. (Look at the picture below: Melville Cooper, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains: as many silly looking wigs as on the 2013 Oscars.)

Claude Rains as Prince John: "By my faith, but you're a bold rascal . . . "

Love at first sight. Rains to Errol Flynn: “By my faith, but you’re a bold rascal . . . “

Rains camps it up to a fare-thee-well: he speaks his lines in the highest reaches of his tessitura, titters in a tinkling falsetto, and waves his scepter about with a limp wrist. If he weren’t so funny and incorrigible, the stereotypes he employs would be an insult to every pansy in America. And of course, he’s lecherous as a monkey, too. With his eyebrows aloft and his lids at half-mast, Rains rakes Errol Flynn up and down with his glittering eyes — boldly, outrageously — and leaves no doubt what this goatish little tyrant wants to do with his lissome nemesis. Every time I see Prince John mentally undress Robin, I half expect the score to go boiiinnnng! Rebuffed, he affects delight at “this saucy fellow”: “Ho, varlets, bring Sir Robin food! Such insolence must support a healthy appetite!”

[More to come]

Deception

Rains as Hollenius: "They call me a great man . . . that's the loneliest animal in the world . . . !"

Rains as Hollenius: “They call me a great man . . . that’s the loneliest animal in the world . . . !”

Bette Davis had little use for “Deception” (Warner Bros. 1946). She did allow, however, that Claude Rains was great in it. The picture is so stylish and witty that, until a friend straightened me out recently, I never understood why it’s not more celebrated than it is. I never even heard of it until the late 90s, and I had been watching old movies since the mid-sixties. The trouble, my friend assured me, was that there’s no character with whom we can wholly sympathize. He’s probably right about this. I failed to recognize the problem because I cannot see the picture as a whole, but rather as a series of acting lessons by the great Claude Rains, who gives one of his most accomplished performances. He dominates every scene he’s in and, for once, he’s speaking first-rate dialogue, rather than elevating lesser fare. In pictures like “Casablanca,” Rains made mediocre stuff sound first-rate, but in “Deception,” the dialogue he speaks (by John Collier) is worthy of his great talent.

Taken as a story, with beginning, middle and satisfying conclusion, “Deception” is not, technically speaking, a good picture: the machinery of the plot is creaky; the characters are cartoonish; aside from Rains, the acting ranges from not very good to quite terrible: the problems with it are many. But none of them matter to me: the vast operatic silliness of everything, including the two fabulous apartments — Christine’s (Bette Davis), in all its angles and shadows and rain falling on the slanted skylights (there’s a legend that it is based on one of Leonard Bernstein’s apartments); and Alexander Hollenius’ (Rains), with his throne and all the Gothic clutter — and all the over-ripe rococo dialogue and the mad conductor/composer temperament and classical music . . . It all conspires to act on me like an hallucinatory drug. I don’t even pay attention to the plot or take a word of it for true . . . it’s all style, technique, panache, wit and connoisseurship. It’s as if all the silliness were tailor-made ten years before I was born specifically to appeal my peculiar set of tastes and interests. It appeals to me in so many curious, obscure ways . . . even the cat and the parrot (who doesn’t turn a feather when a shot is fired) seem calculated to please me. My favorite cat looked exactly like Hollenius’ feline . . . and I spent several of the happiest months of my life living down on East 9th Street back in the eighties, with a great (now late) friend from college, who had a parrot that looked exactly like Hollenius’ bird. And then the Korngold Cello Concerto . . . I love it — it’s gorgeous; the slow movement wrings tears from my eyes. And what other picture ever featured a full radio commercial, complete with close-harmony jingle for a fictional product called “Draw-r-Off,” a kitchen pipe cleaner? “. . . Nothing WIPES/Or cleans your PIPES/Like double-action Draw-r-Off!” “Remember, folks, when you spell ‘Draw-roff’ backwards, it spells ‘forward’.” Hunh? How am I NOT gonna love that? But who else in the world cares about such nonsense? It’s really as if John Collier knew ten years before I was born what would make me — and perhaps no one else on earth — laugh.

Hollenius orders dinner: "Mmm-hmm, I think so, don't you?"

Hollenius orders dinner: “Mmm-hmm, I think so, don’t you?”

“You might think about getting three of these little fellows ready. And you know what I think would go well with them? A trout. A nice brook trout. Not too large . . . ! . . . from a good stream.” My God! I’ve seen that picture maybe 200 times, and I hardly know how it ends. I watch Claude go at it hot and heavy, then skip over the scenes between Henreid and Davis, then I listen to the Cello Cone-see-ayr-toe (as Henreid pronounces it), and don’t bother with the rest of it. It’s like a form of Trekkie-style geekdom, my affection for that picture. I just never realized it before now. Rains’ entrance is unforgettable: “A party indeed!” My God!


“Champagne, caviar . . . all very fitting . . . I infer a husband . . . Make me acquainted with him. My dear sir: I wish you all the joy we less fortunate men must be content to imagine.” “You know, I require only one thing of a meal: that it be excellent.” The list is not endless, but every time Alexander Hollenius opens his mouth, another quotable line is added to it.

Rains: "Extraordinary, isn’t it, that music can exist in the same world as the basest treachery and ingratitude?"

Rains: Extraordinary, isn’t it, that music can exist in the same world as the basest treachery and ingratitude?

Now that my friend has explained what prevented him from enjoying the picture as much as I do, it occurs to me that the people I know who love “Deception” — most of them musicians — understand that it’s not intended to be an accurate portrayal of the world of classical music: we accept it as something akin to an inside joke, a curiosity, a collection of hilarious bits . . . just as “Citizen Kane” is a collection of preposterous bits. It has all the ostentation of “Citizen Kane,” but none of its pretension. No, “Deception” is not really a very good picture, taken as a picture. Taken as a repository of hilarious lines and hamming at the very highest level, well, it’s in a class of its own . . . And that’s all I care about when the subject matter, temperament, atmosphere and sense of humor are so weirdly and perfectly tailored to my tastes.

And there’s another thing, too. My affection for the picture was strongly influenced by how I first saw it. I came in late that first time, and had no idea what I was watching. This was in the early days of TCM — in the mid- to late-nineties. I came home from work on a Friday evening, turned on TCM and it was smack in the middle of Claude’s maddening ordering of dinner at the very point where he pulls out a cigarette and suddenly there’s a forest fire of matches, all waiting to light him up. It was love at first sight . . . and I had absolutely no idea what I was seeing. Though I was already a big fan of his, I had never heard of this picture. It was all so demented and hilarious and stylized I was fascinated by it. And I had a wild suspicion that the script was the work of mad, wonderful John Collier. More than a year passed before TCM showed it again, and it did not disappoint. It had been at least ten years since I’d read anything by John Collier (“His Monkey Wife,” “Defy the Foul Fiend,” “Fancies and Goodnights”) — and I had no idea he’d ever written a screenplay — but to my ear, his ornate style is as unmistakable as, say, Odets’ ornate ghetto lingo is. John Collier is definitely not for all markets, but he suits me right down to the ground. His brand of humor slays me. There’s not another Hollywood picture I can think of — including the few others by Collier himself — that sound anything like “Deception.” It’s the weirdest form of wit I ever saw in a major motion picture . . . or for that matter in any picture. Hollenius wears his leather gloves at dinner and takes them off ONLY to handle the poultry carcasses that are brought for his inspection, then pulls them back on again . . . ! That kills me. “From now on, you’re MY cellist!” says an infatuated college reporter from “The Bugler” in an early scene . . . Who else would write such a line? Or take Hollenius’ first exit line: “Like all women: white as a sheet at the sight of a couple of scratches. . . But calm and smiling like a hospital nurse . . . in the presence of a mortal wound . . . Good night!” Who else could write such a line?

Collier wrote a lot of very strange fiction, full of weird, unsettling paranormal incidents, usually set in dark, decaying, overheated mansions where gigantic exotic plants swallow up visitors and where unhappily married couples (the only kind that exist in his fiction) go to fantastic lengths to bump each other off. His style was extravagant and ornate, full of lurid metaphors and rococo similes. I doubt he’s an acquired taste: you either love his stuff at once or not at all. “Deception” is one of his few screenplays, and the dialogue he wrote for Alexander Hollenius (Rains) is echt Collier: droll, menacing, contemptuous, politely hostile, freighted with more innuendo than actual substance. Not many actors can handle such ornamental, filigreed language; Bette Davis is not at home in such turbid waters, while Paul Henreid (who completes the love triangle) is utterly hopeless as a genius cellist with war-shattered nerves. Rains disliked Henreid intensely, and had no respect for his talent. He referred to him as “Paul Hemorrhoid.” John Abbott fares rather better — he’s the hilarious, cringing Bertram Gribble, a thin-skinned cellist. Abbott is an actor who pops up in all sorts of unusual places and he always puts on a good show. He plays Chevalier’s valet in “Gigi.” A very witty performance, so perfect that it, like a great movie score, is almost invisible in its perfect appropriateness.

When Bette Davis appeared on the Dick Cavett Show back in 1971, she was particularly complimentary of Rains’ handling of one scene from “Deception,” in which he drives her and Paul Henreid out of their minds while ordering dinner at a French restaurant. You can see what she means.

The Unsuspected

Claude Rains: Your genial host.

Claude Rains: Your genial host.

Claude Rains gives a fabulous performance as a suave and slippery radio personality, whom his announcer introduces as “Your genial host: renowed writer, art collector and teller of strange tales, Victor Grandison.” (That should give you an idea of the ludicrous over-ripeness of the picture — written by Ranald MacDougall (“Mildred Pierce”).) That queen of the noirs, Audrey Totter,* is in it and very funny indeed. As is another actress I like a lot: Constance Bennett. There’s also a peculiar leading man, who gets a credit that reads “Introducing Michael North,” even though it was hardly his first picture — he’d been in several pictures before this one, including “The Ox-Bow Incident,” billed as Ted North. A very handsome fellow with a nice manner, but stiff as a board and he has trouble with the letter R. So does Rains, which makes for some amusing dialogue (Rains masked his R problems quite well, but not always). North is one of those rare actors who can convey thought: you can actually see him think — and you can see that he’s an idiot. I often watch his scenes just to see the thoughts come into his head one at a time, slow and hard. “Introducing” was an ironic title card for North: “The Unsuspected” was his last picture. Nothing after 1947, and I can find nothing about what happened to him, other than he was divorced that same year. Whether he died or simply got out of pictures is a mystery to me. Hurd Hatfield, who plays Totter’s dipso husband, once again looks as if he’s just come from a chemical peel. The imperiled heroine is played by an actress named Joan Caulfield; whether she’s good or bad in the part is beside the point: she makes no impression at all . . . she’s amnesia on a pair of legs. What other pictures she appeared in, I couldn’t say. I can never remember to look up her credits. Michael Curtiz directed the picture with a lot of style, and there’s at least one shot early in this one — a panning shot from a moving train to a hotel window that’s quite remarkable. I don’t mind saying the picture is poppycock, but it’s a lot of fun and is told in a way that keeps you guessing for a long time. The first time I saw it, I didn’t know WHERE it was heading. Unfortunately, when you learn what in fact is going on, it doesn’t add up to much: “The Unsuspected” has more dead herrings than red ones, but Rains’ performance elevates the material to just above sub-par. Franz Waxman did the intrusive, amusingly creepy score.

*About Audrey Totter: It was while watching this picture for the first time that I came up with the following: If Audrey Totter gave birth to a girl who grew up to be a slut, she’d be Audrey Totter’s tawdry daughter.

Audrey Totter, Michael North: "You see, Matilda & I were mawwied."

Audrey Totter, Michael North: “You see, Matilda and I were mawwied.”