A couple months ago, a conversation ensued amongst a couple of film people on Facebook about Deception (1946). I’d seen it but the conversation was so fascinating I pulled it out to watch again. (Check out Glenn Kenny’s analysis of one of the dissolves in the film, a real stunner.)
Irving Rapper directed, and it features the same stars as his more well-known film, Now, Voyager (Bette Davis, Claude Rains, and Paul Henreid). Deception tells the story of Christine Radcliffe (Davis), a promising music student once upon a time, who had a passionate love affair in Europe with budding cellist Karel Novak (Henreid), prior to WWII. The war separated them, and Karel had a terrible time of it during the war, although what happened to him is not made explicit. They are separated for years, and are reunited in the first scene of the film, when Karel plays a concert at a college in New York City and Christine, having seen the advertisement, shows up. Instantly, she drags him back into her life, insisting on moving him into her unbelievably gorgeous and eye-stopping loft apartment (the production design: WOW). She tells him she is poor, and takes on music students to pay the bills, but the apartment and all of the furs hanging in her closet tells a different story. Karel is suspicious of her, wonders what the hell happened during all those years he was lost in the war. But the two pick up where they left off, anyway. Christine has secrets, the main one being that she is now, basically, the kept woman and protege of a famous composer named Alexander Hollenius (Rains). Hollenius pampered and paid for Christine, showering her in gifts and music lessons and praise, but there is always a price for such attention, and now, with the appearance of Karel in her life, Hollenius sets out to exact payment. He is devious, openly contemptuous, and, most frighteningly, is a planner. He thinks out what would be the best way to ruin Christine, to ruin Karel (who is also a promising cellist). He befriends Karel, and offers him a chance to audition for his orchestra, specifically to play a cello concerto he composed. It would be a huge opportunity for Karel, and could represent his American debut. It could help solidify his career. Christine, who knows how domineering and tricky Hollenius is, is uneasy about the entire thing. What trick does Hollenius have up his sleeve?
On the night Karel is set to audition for Hollenius, the trio go out to dinner first. Christine is anxious to almost the breaking point, and so is Karel (whose nerves have already been shattered by the war). They just want to get the audition over with before nerves get the better of them, but Hollenius insists on ordering what very well may be the most complex dinner ever ordered in the history of time. It takes him, no lie, 7 minutes to order dinner, all as he ignores the annoyed cries of Christine and the increasingly over-it behavior of the waiters. Hollenius’ constant barrage of chatter, meaningless food-related chatter, is so non-stop that you could never clock him on what he was actually doing, which is deliberately destroying Karel’s nerves prior to the audition.
Now. Mitchell Fain and I had a lengthy discussion of Claude Rains who, we both agree, is one of the greatest actors to ever practice the craft.
There is so much to say about his work, its diversity, its breadth and depth, the feeling you get that he could, honestly, portray anything. And whatever he portrays goes into his bone marrow. These are not surface-oriented transformations, like some of the more facile movie stars working today, who seem to believe if they gain 40 pounds they are “doing good work”, or if they wear a prosthetic nose or limp, this is what good acting looks like. Claude Rains is the real deal, and his transformations work from the inside-out. He doesn’t need a gimmick like a fake nose or a different accent to create new characters. Watch him in Deception and then watch Mr. Skeffington directly following. Or watch Now, Voyager and then watch Casablanca. Watch Notorious and then pop in Four Daughters. Same man playing all of those roles, but he is actually a different human being in each one. Fully. They have NOTHING in common, outside of the man playing them. It is awe-inspiring. Literally. His is an awe-inspiring talent.
I watch him order dinner in Deception and I want to parse out how he is doing what he is doing as an actor, how he is working, how he has mastered all that ridiculous TEXT, and matched it so perfectly to behavior (the cigarette behavior, the gestures, the asides), and yet my mind goes blank, as minds often do when faced with perfection. The work is invisible. All we have is the end result.
Acting students should study this scene. Acting students should realize how high the bar has been set.