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 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.)
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]
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?”
“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?
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.
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 and I were mawwied.”