|1946 'Deception' recap: Bette with a gun and shoulderpads, conductor Claude clutching, & Paul Henreid as a jealous cellist!|
I often watched 1946’s Deception, a twisted triangle set to classical music, on the afternoon movies while growing up. This Warner Brothers melodrama seemed very grownup to a ‘70s high school kid.
After not seeing Deception for decades, I re-watched the sudsy drama recently, and managed to make it half way through, before giving up in exasperation.
|Claude Rains steals 'Deception' as the catty conductor, Alexander Hollenius.|
Deception has a dazzling cast—Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and especially Claude Rains—tangling with one another in a jealous triangle that leads to murder. The acting is fine, but the trio is done in by a premise that is patently unbelievable.
Bette Davis is Christine Radcliffe, a struggling pianist who lost her lover, cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), in Europe five years ago to a concentration camp. Relocated in post-war NYC, Christine rediscovers Karel after the war, when she sees his name in a concert review. Speaking of names, Christine tells Karel that she took Radcliffe as her “professional name.” I guess Christine Sarah Lawrence sounded too pretentious!
|Bette Davis and Paul Henreid as musical lovers reunited in post-war NYC.|
Christine’s first line is as declarative as only Davis can be: “I thought you were dead!” Equally subtle is when Karel takes her hand, and Christine holds both up: “No rings.” Reunited, they return to her apartment. On the way up the stairs, Christine tells Karel that she struggles to make ends meet as a pianist, by giving lessons. Unfortunately, once they walk through the door, her apartment is actually a luxurious loft. Hanging up his jacket, Karel notices several fur coats in the closet. Looking around the loft, the cellist sees lots of lovely paintings and sculptures. Christine soft pedals all this obvious luxury. However, Karel is not just a cellist, but a jealous cellist! He attempts to choke her to stop her barrage of non-stop lies.
After apologies, Henreid’s Karel decides the best thing for them to do is marry as quickly as possible. Bette turns her big eyes away from Henreid, and pops them for the camera…uh-oh.
|The deadly...dull triangle that is 'Decption.'|
You see, Bette’s been living large due to a beau, egomaniacal maestro Alexander Hollenius. And the maestro is mad as hell about getting dumped by Christine, on her impromptu wedding day, practically. Despite Karel telling her that it tortures him when he feels she’s not telling the truth, and with numerous opportunities to do so, Christine refuses to fess up.
What transpires is a prolonged cat and mouse game: Can Christine keep piling on lies to pacify jealous and insecure Karel? Can she keep equally jealous and self-centered Hollenius from spilling the beans? Can Christine keep the cellist and the conductor from killing each other as they collaborate? About half way through, I decided I didn’t care anymore and ditched Deception.
|The most fascinating part of this film is the loft that Bette's character tries to convince Henreid's is paid for by piano lessons!|
I’m pretty good at suspending disbelief and not imposing today’s social mores onto old movie conventions and morality. Here’s the big problem I have with Deception: the premise makes ZERO sense. This was also the critics’ problem with Deception over 70 years ago. Why should Christine try to hide a lover from Karel? They weren’t married when the war separated them. She thought he was dead—for five years! Was she supposed to become a nun? First off, Christine’s living situation is suspect. Also, all the people that she invited to her and Karel’s wedding know…because they were her and Hollenius’ friends! What’s to keep any of them from spilling? Plus, the maestro crashes the couple’s reception and acts absurdly jealous. Finally, Hollenius threatens to tell Karel from the get-go.
|Paul Henreid's Karel is constantly jealous; Bette's Christine endlessly lies!|
Most importantly, Bette’s character has NOTHING to feel guilty about, even by 1940s standards. Still, many film write-ups I’ve read about Deception refer to Christine as the conductor’s mistress. According to good old Merriam-Webster, a mistress is a woman who is having extra-marital relations, usually with a married man. Neither character was married during their affair. Yet Davis’ Christine lies her head off, just to keep two hot-headed men appeased.
Specifically, I gave up after Deception’s famous “dinner scene.” Claude Rains as Hollenius has a field day here. The conductor treats the couple to dine at a fancy French restaurant and proceeds in taking great delight in showing off his talents as a gourmand. The maestro’s game becomes so protracted that Karel becomes unglued—perhaps he was just “hangry.” Though devilishly performed by Rains, and with increased agitation by Davis and Henreid, the whole scene feels as forced as the film’s premise. There’s no story to go forward, so Deception is just all snarky cocktail party chat.
|Joan Crawford loved to talk about Bette's B.O.! 'Deception' was Davis' first 'disappointment' for WB, |
and the beginning of her slide in box office standing with her studio.
If you can get past the major plot obstacles—there’s fun to be had. The three leads, who all worked together in far better films, do well with the rather unappealing characters they’re playing. The dialogue is sharp—especially the digs by the catty conductor. The sets that depict upscale NYC life are marvelous, especially Bette’s loft with a skylight that covers the entire living room. The classical music and film’s score, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, set the mood.
|Bette's character tries everything to soothe Claude's maestro...even grovelling!|
Claude Rains does a delicious turn as Alexander Hollenius: childlike, sexy, jealous, devilish, sarcastic, egotistical, spiteful, and funny. Despite an intense performance by Paul Henreid, his character frequently comes off as peevish. Even with fits of violent jealousy, he ultimately just stews. In the original play, the Henreid’s character rises to the occasion and kills Hollenius. Wait just one minute! Since this a Bette Davis movie, where nobody is as good as Bette when she’s bad, Davis gets to do the dirty deed. Even so, Christine is a thankless character and Davis can’t do much more than to work herself up in a dither of denial.
Irving Rapper, who always seemed good with actors, does what he can with his collaborators, and gives Deception a smart visual style. The screenplay moves heaven and earth to compensate with occasional sharp dialogue to make up for the lack of story. My favorite credit for Deception is Jack Daniels listed as dialogue director—indeed!
|Bette Davis as Christine Radcliffe: pianist with the Rita Hayworth pompadour!|
Bette Davis often played older and in period pictures. But when Bette essayed modern roles, she kept her look simple. Here, for the only time in her career, Davis sported shoulder pads, a hugely popular but short-lived trend. In fact, in the climactic scene, Bette sports a white fur over her shoulders, and I thought of Carol Burnett’s “curtain dress” take-off on Scarlett O’Hara. And through most of the movie, Bette sports a WWII-era pompadour, with an uncharacteristically lush mane that Rita Hayworth would have envied.
|Bette Davis praying that Ernest Haller's film noir-style lighting hides everything that's going on off-camera!|
Perhaps Bette overcompensated because she wasn’t looking her best. Davis’ character is amusingly described as a music student when she met the maestro four years earlier—struggling and taking “rich, untalented students” to get by…and pushing 40! Pregnant and ill during Deception, plus her new marriage was to jealous, violent artist William Grant Sherry—life imitating art? Davis’ favorite cinematographer, Ernest Haller, did what he could. Note that in certain scenes, especially evening shots, Bette’s face is totally surrounded by shadow. Bette admitted later that she wasn’t at her best here. Perhaps driving Davis was that Joan Crawford was following up her Mildred Pierce comeback in a romantic melodrama with a classical music backdrop, Humoresque. Neither films were smash hits, but Joan’s came off better and also turned a better profit, since Bette ran up her film’s budget by her pregnancy, plus emotional and health issues.
Deception isn’t a dud, just an exercise in style—great style, for sure—but no substance.
|The happy newlyweds being taken out for dinner by the maestro, not realizing that they're the first course!|