A Master at Work: Claude Rains Orders Dinner in Deception

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.

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14 Responses to A Master at Work: Claude Rains Orders Dinner in Deception

  1. george says:

    Whenever I am sure I am beyond being surprised something rises up and surprises. Not only have I never seen Deception but hadn’t ever heard of it. This would be no accomplishment for someone living in a cave but for someone who loves old movies it… well… I don’t know what it suggests.

    Also, couldn’t agree more about Claude Rains. Sometimes I wonder whether too much credit is given to the gifted natural who hadn’t much need for lessons, workshops, practice, or devotion. This post and the video occasions just such wonder – I wonder how much work went into that scene, those lines, the expressions and gestures. That’s what I’ll be looking for when I watch it. Then I’ll watch it again for the fun of it. Or maybe the other way around.

    • sheila says:

      George – I’m excited for you to see Deception!! I know it’s available on Netflix.

      And I know, his playing of the dinner scene is so insanely confident and seems so spontaneous that it is hard to believe he planned any of it!! – but he had to have! He had to match takes, he had to go from shot to shot, they had to stop and start, it was filmed in small chunks that then had to be put together … but you would never guess. It’s just so damn BRAVURA, that scene.

      Have fun with watching it!!

  2. Jennchez says:

    I just say Deception recently and loved it!!!! From the sets to Davis’s clothes, but the ultimate star is without a doubt Rain’s. That dinner scene made me anxious just watching it, when he started talking about the partridges (I think that’s what it was) I was about to lose it. My husband actually yelled at the screen “have a gin and tonic and move on with it “! I have never seen a Rain’s movie I haven’t enjoyed, but there is something special about this one. The scene where Davis and Henreid are having their wedding reception and Rain walks in. You could cut the tension with a knife. Then when he makes an offhand remark about the champagne and the look on Henreids face, priceless. They make quite the trio.

    • sheila says:

      // My husband actually yelled at the screen “have a gin and tonic and move on with it “! //



      How about him playing at the piano alone in his suite, his hair wild like Beethoven’s. God, he’s such a fine actor!

  3. Jennchez says:

    I loved how his home matched his persona. Over the top and almost as he dares someone to beat him or what he has accomplished. I also enjoyed watching his face when he was listening to the records, the way his expressions were in time to the music. Rain’s was the real deal and I can’t even think of anyone else to compare him to. His range was unbeatable and probably unattainable today.

    • sheila says:

      Right, that HOUSE. My goodness, totally over the top.

      And don’t you think that Henreid, Davis and Rains all did excellent jobs at looking like they were really playing those instruments? I’m sure it wouldn’t pass muster to a really professional eye but I think they did a damn fine job!

  4. Elliott says:

    I hate to get off the topic of the acting, but the framing of some of that scene is fantastic. Especially the shots towards Hellenius, over the shoulders of Novak and Radcliffe, so that the couple become the people in front of you at the theater, and you can join them in wondering to just what absurd lengths this man will go. The fantastic gloves put Hellenius in costume as well as on stage, and the wine glasses on the table read as footlights, to me anyway.

    To return to the topic at hand, I love how Rains uses his hands, and those gloves, especially when he has his cigarette lit for him, and when he puts on his eyeglasses to read the wine list, saying “oh, but I do.” The distance he puts between himself and Novak and Radcliffe is enormous.

    • sheila says:

      Elliott – Yes, the framing is just as genius there and helps highlight Rains’ performance!

      And then, after 5 minutes of ordering, suddenly he brings up soup and salad and you just want to scream in frustration!

  5. Machelle says:

    I lose it at “slapdash repast.”

  6. Jack J Mass says:

    I have to wonder what Deception, while brilliant in sparklingly brilliant B/W, would have looked like in Technicolor. Claude Rains’ luxurious apartment in San Francisco must have been a interior designer dream, as was La Davis’ New York City loft. The film still knocks me out when I see it from time on Turner. And Benson Fong, he of the Charlie Chan’s movie franchise, got an unheard of for the time, major credit. Mr. Rains’ over the top and nerve-racking menu selection scene belongs to the ages. He was one marvel as an actor. He just didn’t play a part. He embodied it.

  7. Myrtle says:

    Your appreciation of him reminds me of a tongue-in-cheek comment from John Gielgud. [During an interview on US television the interviewer asked who had inspired him] “It was during my time at RADA, there was a man who inspired us all. Claude Rains. I don’t know what happened to him, I think he failed and went to America.”

    Whenever I see Claude Rains onscreen, it’s like seeing an old family friend.

    • sheila says:

      Wow, that Gielgud quote!! There’s so much in it! “I don’t know what happened to him …”

      I so agree that he’s like an old friend whenever he shows up. You just know you’re in good hands. I love how he could play sinister – and he could also play warm and humorous. Honestly he could do anything!

  8. Meg says:

    I recently got to see Deception for the first time, it was the only major Claude Rains performance I had not seen. I have always appreciated his work, I think he basically invented what we would now call the character lead, and I think he is one Golden Age star who might fare even better today. He was amazing in Deception however, especially the dinner scene.

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