Tag Archives: Deception

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.

Claude Rains Gets All Jiggery-Pokery in ‘Where Danger Lives’

Poster from original release.

Poster from original release.

The first time I watched the pitch black Film Noir melodrama, “Where Danger Lives” (RKO Radio Pictures, 1950), it was on account of Robert Mitchum, an actor for whom I have great admiration. Mitchum rarely gave interviews, and when he did, he rarely expressed anything but contempt for Hollywood and the pictures he appeared in. As he told Robert Osborne, “They don’t pay me to see ’em.” With few exceptions, one can hardly blame him: he was in a lot of bad pictures, and few critics in the forties and fifties had any respect for him. James Agee, after having admired Mitchum in several of his early roles (e.g., “The Story of G.I. Joe,” “Crossfire”), accused him of sleeping on the job in “Out of the Past,” a role that probably did more to establish “Mitchum cool” than any other role. (It’s also one of his most enjoyable pictures.) While “Where Danger Lives” is certainly not one of his best efforts, he does a better than creditable job in a nearly impossible role. In the first reel, he gets through a few scenes with some fairly appalling kiddies without looking irritable or indignant. I don’t know how he managed it.

Even by Noir standards, the story is far-fetched: young Dr Mitchum, with the help of his girlfriend/fiancee, Nurse Maureen O’Sullivan (she was married to the picture’s director, John Farrow), saves the life of an unconscious young woman named Margo (Faith Domergue), who has tried to commit suicide. Margo repays him by enmeshing him in her spider web. At first, his involvement with her is tentative and unwilling: he plans only to keep the suicidal young woman from being lonely until her wealthy father returns from a business trip within the next week or ten days. But this is Noir, so he falls under her spell.

It’s one thing when, in “Nora Prentiss,” Dr Kent Smith, under nearly identical circumstances, falls for femme fatale Ann Sheridan, who promptly leads him to his ruin: Kent Smith was born to play the patsy: something about him makes one instinctively feel like kicking sand in his face. But one does not kick sand in Big Bob Mitchum’s face and get away with it, not even when the assailant is the great Claude Rains. As it happens, the first time I saw “Where Danger Lives,” I missed the opening credits and had no idea Rains was in it. I found the scenes of Dr Mitchum’s stepping out with the psychotic Margo so unpleasant and depressing that I was on the verge of changing the channel when suddenly the immortal Claude hove into sight. We hear his unmistakable voice just before we see him, and the sound of that velvet and gravel purr made me sit up with a jolt of excitement.

Here he is, in tip-top form — as superb as he was as Alexander Hollenius in “Deception” and Alexander Sebastian in “Notorious,” but with lower quality dialogue to speak. In this picture, Rains demonstrates his uncanny ability to create a first rate characterization out of third rate material. Rains handles mid-line pauses better than anyone. In the scene below, you’ll hear how it’s the cæsuræ he inserts into nearly half of his lines that really make his character come to life. And he’s perhaps the only actor I know of who can actually whisper a line and make it sound honest, instead of like a cheesy actor’s trick.

“The point’s irrelevant. Good night . . . Dr Cameron.” The first sentence he whispers — to remarkably sinister effect. In the second one, he inserts a meaningful cæsura, which gives it extraordinary insolence.

In this next clip, which ends the scene, he turns truly nasty.

When Claude Rains brandishes a poker, there is magic in the air. If there were nothing else good about this picture, I’d still love it for Rains’ performance.

For much of the rest of the picture, Dr Mitchum (now badly concussed and going in and out of delirium) and the mad, bad, dangerous Margo are lamming it through a nightmarish California landscape where scumbags are to be found behind every cactus: swindlers, blackmailers, human traffickers and, lowest of all, used car salesmen: Where Danger Lives. Until they get to Mexico, it’s an all-White cast, but to paraphrase Rachel Dolezar, it identifies as Bleak. The whole story is more than a little cockamamie, since Dr Mitchum is so clearly intelligent and Margo is so obviously manipulative and — to my eyes, anyway — seriously deranged. When Mitchum fell hard for Jane Greer’s helpless act in “Out of the Past,” their relationship developed gradually and more credibly, he wasn’t already in love with someone else, and her innocent act was entirely convincing. This one forces you to overlook a lot of improbables. But it has a nice pay off if you do. And of course there is Claude Rains, who is reason enough to see it.