Wednesday, November 13, 2013

In Praise of Claude Rains: Deception (1946, Bette Davis)

Good morning!

I was pawing through some jotted down ideas for things to write about yesterday afternoon, when Mr. Tiny over at Wacky Tacky mentioned that he shares a birthday with Claude Rains. "Hm," I thought, chewing my pen, as all bad scribners do, and that got bumped to the top of the list of things I wanted to write about. "Claude Rains! You don't say!" As if an old friend  had clapped his hand over my shoulder in a collegiate show of affection, I thought, in a fit of love for the actor,  I should do a post on Deception.  About a year ago, I bought a copy of this movie on dvd vaguely remembering a classical-music-world-of-the-forties' plotline from a viewing in college on Turner Classics, and boy, did I not fall hook, line and sinker for the high pitch of hysteria of this mid forties' melodrama. I love that movie. There are better Davis/Rains pairings, and better Davis or Rains films, but this one is 110 minutes of high pathos in the old fashioned sense. 

Let's talk brass tacks.

Claude Rains owes his initial movie success to a 1933 Universal release that involves less than probably ten minutes of actual face time on screen. "Claude Rains was the invisible man", you might remember, if you're up on your Rocky Horror soundtrack, and, indeed, Rains took on the H.G. Wells sci-fi role when Boris Karloff came unavailable. It was the British stage import's first major leading screen role, at the advanced age of 44, after decades in the theater on both sides of the Atlantic and a teaching position at RADA.  By the end of the thirties', he commanded juicy, villainous parts in several big box office pictures-- 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood had him as Prince John, squaring away in Technicolor against Errol Flynn and his merry men, and he took the Senate floor as the gone-to-graft Senator Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, against do-good Jimmy Stewart. Rains also played the Nazi-sympathetic, uranium-dealing husband coming between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock's Notorious (1941), and in 1942 turned in an iconic-performance-in-a-movie-full-of-iconic-performances, Captain Renault in Casablanca ("Round up the usual suspects!" is only one of his many good lines in the picture). 

See, no wonder you didn't recognize him out of costume.
In summation, Rains appeared in seventy-seven motion pictures, many of which are above average to classic films, four of which co-starred Bette Davis, and one of which distinguishes itself from that pack as COMPLETELY. NUTS. That movie, ladies and gents, is Deception.

The movie poster's dreadful, but I do like this lobby card set on Dr. Macro
(maybe could be part of new Bette Davis kitchen montage??)
Reuniting the principals as well as the director of 1942's successful Now, Voyager, Deception is a sudsy noir set in the world of classical concert musicians. Alex Hollenius, as played by Rains, is a celebrity composer/conductor who forms the fulcrum of a romantic teeter-totter between Bette Davis and Paul Heinreid's characters. Davis is Christine, a former music teacher whose true love, Heinreid's Karel, passed a rocky four years in wartime Europe, unable to return to the United States and continue their shared emotional and musical passion due to, you guessed it, fascism. "I thought you were dead. I saw them kill you!" Davis cries out upon their reunion, in her trademark, overstated style, mugging wildly over Heinreid's embrace. She's atypically glamorous in this role, all perfect permanents and high-fashion forties' dresses. In Karel's absence, Christine's living situation has suspiciously improved-- her former lover, still a little off kilter from the last four years of strain, questions Christine on the fine apartment with expensive artwork hanging over the mantle, a full length mink hanging in the hall closet. Isn't this a for a working musician and teacher? No, no, she offers dismissively, it's DEFINITELY not that I have a much older, much moneyed boyfriend I've been leaning on for lo, these many years we've been apart. Pull the other leg! You get to the roots of the money tree Christine's been shaking when Rain's campishly imposing, witchy, wry Hollenius shows up, assiduously asserting himself as the real star of the picture. One, his name is Hollenius, which sounds like an import luxury car as much as it does a composer; two, he is CHOMPING. SCENERY. From his first moment on screen. 

Rains has a knack for playing characters that are fey without being effete, sentimental without being cloying, and arch without being bitchy. Much married off-screen, it seems that when not playing arch-villains, the actor's on-screen roles tend towards men who harbor passions for women who are only interested in emotionless, symbiotic relationships with their persistent, perennial suitor. In Notorious, Ingrid Bergman feigns love for Rains in the interest of thwarting fascist powers' access to bomb-making minerals stored by means of a way-station in the Nazi-sympathizer's wine cellar. As the title character in Mr. Skeffington, Rains waits, decade after decade, for the vain, fickle Fanny (Bette Davis again) to succumb to his steady devotion. In this movie, the character of Hollenius is perfectly content to do one of two things, with equal amount of vigor, self-application, and enthusiasm-- one, win Christine back (ummm...probably not happening, given his movie-track record here), or two, destroy Karel, both professionally and personally (in the hopes of, maybe as an offshoot, winning back Christine). Is it wholly evil? I don't think I would be completely on board with my girlfriend, who is essentially 100% financially dependent on me for her glamorous lifestyle and professional success as a musician, dropping me without a second's hesitation the moment handsome Paul Heinreid returns from his emotionally scarring war experience. Hollenius is lined out to be the villain, but if you want my real opinion, as Christine, I would rather spend time in his hopelessly ornate jewel-box of a Manhattan apartment, being the subject of gorgeous sonatas and Rains's obsequious attentions.

Seriously, do YOU have a Louis XVI timpani serving as a side table in your living room?
I didn't think so.
Buuuuut, because it's a forties' melodrama, Christine has to side with wooden, old-world-charm Karel, and guess who's stuck with short stick? She and the still-mentally-dishevelled hunk marry in the very apartment Hollenius underwrote for Christine. The maestro, who has flown across the globe to return in time for the wedding, holds himself aloof upon crashing the reception but is careful to emphasize his role in Christine's life, hinting at intimacies and shared knowledge heavy with context between lobbing acidic barbs at the woman he still loves. Hollenius keeps his relative cool in conversation, but grips a glass so tightly as  his prot├Ęge/lover plays a complicated, dark piano piece at Karel's behest, that the glasses smashes in his hand. As Christine abandons the baby grand to come to his aid, Rains raps off
Like all women: white as a sheet at the sight of a couple of scratches... but calm and smiling as a hospital nurse in the presence of a mortal wound... Good night!
And leaves the party! If you don't plan on renting the movie (why don't you plan on renting the movie, though?), the whole scene is here, and Rains is fabulous in it. 

THIS is the kind of forties' acting that just makes my heart glad-- not at all in a sarcastic or ironic way, on my part. Emotions are writ BIG across the screen, and there's no mistaking the thunderous disapproval marked by Rains's exit. How could you not see that he was about to hie him hither to the warpath?  Hollenius gets in a devastatingly, deliciously nerve-wracking scene some moments later, in which he tries the already cracked patience and fortitude of a jittery Karel with endless changes to his order in a gourmet restaurant. He insists on bringing Christina and her new husband to the fine dining establishment before an important audition Karel wants to ace, and effectively devastates Karel's chances of a bravura performance with a skin-crawling series of addendums to an already complicated bill of fare. "Stuffed with trooofles," might be my favorite part of the entire exchange.


He's SO GOOD at being SO BAD. It's a treat!

Anyway, I won't spoil any more of the film for you, but let's say that things take a turn for the histrionic near the third act of the play, where Hollenius's machinations to sabotage Karel's career come to a head with Christine's attempts to foil them. You can read a great essay on the picture and its production on the Grand Old Movies blog, or rent/screen the movie yourself in its entirety on Amazon Instant Streaming for the low, low price of $2.99 (side note: did you know there are all kind of old movies on instant streaming there? Type in your favorite old Hollywood actor and find out!), but either way, soak in the no-holds-barred performance in this movie. Though meant to be a Davis vehicle, Rains runs away with the best scenes and gladdens me to no end in a gleefully wicked performance.  I've discovered a major biography of Rains was published in 2008, written by The Monster Show author David J. Skal and Rains's only child, Jessica (oh my goodness, she looks like him!). WE. ARE. EXCITED. ABOUT. THIS. Waiting on the library copy to come back from a checkout, and it is ON. 

What about you? Seen any old time movies lately worth shouting to the rooftops about? What's an undervalued star of the old MGM/WB/Paramount/RKO firmament that you believe needs a revisit in the 21st century? Remember Rains in a particularly good role? Let's talk!

That's all for today, but I'll see you back here tomorrow. Have a great Wednesday, and we'll talk soon! Til then.


  1. LOVE all of this info. I want to go back and view many of the classics and you always provide some good jumping off points :) Heard of a lot of this but haven't personally viewed it.

    1. Thanks, Van! I was surprised looking through his filmography at how many straight up CLASSIC movies he'd played a prominent, but not necessarily STARRING role in (other than, of course, the one he's completely invisible in-- poor guy!). Let me know what you think if you get a chance to see any of the ones I mentioned!!

  2. Thanks for the shout out! Claude is a pretty spectacular birthday buddy! He really is one of the few actors that makes any/every movie better. I think Now, Voyager is my favorite. He is so kind, steadfast, and wise - but never a pushover.

    1. Np, Mr. Tiny! Your post is what made me think of my horrible crush on the guy! I was watching Bette Davis on Cavett the other day and she said that in HER opinion (which should carry some weight!), sometime after the end of that movie, Charlotte eventually breaks it off with Jerry and marries Dr. Jaquith. Now THAT'S what I'm talking about! :)

  3. I might just watch it for Noirvember! I do like Claude Rains, but I've only seen him in Notorious, Casablanca, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- I've been wanting to see him in as the lead.

    1. Oh you should!! And if you do, let me know what you think, he's really just a powerhouse. Mr. Skeffington and Now Voyager are the other ones he's done with Davis that are just tour de force. PS I enjoyed your post on "A Single Man" after popping over to check out your film blog! What a STYLISH movie (what else would you expect from Tom Ford, but still!).

    2. Thank you! And I'll be sure to check out both Mr. Skeffington and Now Voyager!



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