Synopsis: American music student Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) and her European lover Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), a superb cello player, were separated during the war. He spent years in concentration camps while she gave up hope for his survival and became the mistress of famous and wealthy composer Hollenius (Claude Rains). Discovering each other in Manhattan, Christine and Karel marry, even though Christine must confect an endless stream of lies to hide the truth of her previous relationship. Jealous, his vanity wounded, Hollenius plays along with Christine's deceptions, but begins a wicked campaign to get her back. Discovering Karel's enormous talent, Hollenius arranges for him to play a big solo in a new concerto. Christine immediately senses her benefactor/lover's scheme but can do nothing, even as Hollenius begins a campaign to break down Karel's concentration.
Deception is a highly compressed drama with only one secondary part among scattered supporting walk-ons. The film takes place in the rarified world of classical music but its backbone is pure soap. A powerful and manipulative musical genius tries to ruin the career of a romantic rival, but the real fun is watching Claude Rains sink his teeth into a worthy role. Hollenius dominates by charm and insinuation and delights in manipulating people like chess pieces. He has a perfect victim in Davis' Christine, who hides too much from her new husband while repeatedly providing Hollenius with the ammunition to defeat her good intentions. Rains is always great when playing intense, articulate men imposing their will on others and his Hollenius is quite a creation. The haughty composer pauses more than once to tell Christine outright where she's going wrong, explaining to her how she makes it easy for him to control her.
Rains' character is by far the most interesting, so it's no surprise that fans credit him with running away with the picture. The best scene is his alone. Dining before an important rehearsal, Hollenius rattles Christine and completely unnerves Karel with his impossibly patronizing and aggressive behavior. He changes his complicated order several times and demands opinions on wine from Karel, who is just trying to relax before his performance. Few actors could pull off this tour-de-force of cultured cruelty, not even George Sanders or Clifton Webb.
Paul Henried plays an awkwardly conceived weak male. Karel Novak is tough enough to have survived the horrors of WW2 in Eastern Europe, yet Christine thinks he needs her protection from the truth, that his fragile artist's soul won't accept her relationship with Hollenius. In the original play the Karel Novak character is the one moved to violence at the conclusion, so Deception may be a case of a play distorted by the needs of the Hollywood Star Vehicle. Also gumming up the works is the Production Code, which wasn't about to accept a woman finding happiness after admitting to years of unmarried sex.
By 1946 Bette Davis is slipping out of her classic years and into a period of more difficult roles. As described by disc commentator Foster Hirsch, at 'a mature-looking thirty-eight' she can no longer convince as virginal young women, as she could just a few years before. Christine Radcliffe is clearly in love but is caught in an emotional bind she can't handle. She wants to recoup her old life with Karel but would like to retain the advantages of her association with Hollenius. She lies to Karel from the start, thinking that Hollenius will play along with her version of reality.
Any woman who experienced high school will know that Christine's feeble lies will only dig her into a deeper hole. Does she really think that Karel will accept her baloney about earning money with music lessons, or that he won't hear about her relationship with Hollenius from others? At any point in the story Christine could come clean with Karel and probably be forgiven, so she's not a tragic figure. Her destructive actions seem far too extreme, after which she suddenly flips and confesses all. Deception inadvertently rolls back the clock to reprise the ending of The Letter in an awkward context. The film is a case of a tightly wound dramatic construction unraveled by the twin requirements of the Star Vehicle and the Production Code.
Deception's lack of box office success has been chalked up to a number of factors, such as its high-toned classical music setting; the impressive Korngold concerto functions as a detour away from the film's central concern. The real problem is that none of the characters is particularly likeable, and Christine is anything but an identification figure for Bette Davis fans. Hollenius repeatedly refers to Christine as a coward, and he's correct.
Director Irving Rapper guides scenes with assurance, giving Davis and Rains every opportunity to project their unusual characterizations. Ernest Haller's photography contrasts Hollenius' palatial mansion with Christine's modernistic dream loft, where a dark visual style predominates. He blends an older lush look with the harder light of the post-war style, and still manages to flatter Davis' expressive face. Even with its story problems, her fans will find plenty of reasons to enjoy Deception.
Producer: Henry Blanke, Jack Warner
Director: Irving Rapper
Screenplay: John Collier, Joseph Than, Louis Verneuil (play)
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Film Editing: Alan Crosland Jr.
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Cast: Bette Davis (Christine Radcliffe), Paul Henreid (Karel Novak), Claude Rains (Alexander Hollenius), John Abbott (Bertram Gribble), Benson Fong (Jimmy).
BW-112m. Closed captioning.
by Glenn Erickson