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
Henreid: As a matter of fact, uh, no.
Rains: No? [looks at her, looks down, then at him]
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
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.