Deception March 9, 2017
I like the design of Irving Rapper’s Deception (1946) more than I like Deception itself. Because it centers its dramas around the trials and tribulations of wealthy classical musicians – all involved are concert pianists, cello maestros, and self-satisfied conductors – most of the film’s overwrought exchanges are set in cush mansions embellished in chandeliers, cigars, and champagne. The ghosts of steep price tags quiver in the air. Everyone is dressed in satin, velvet, cashmere – a self-approving glow radiates off the characters, intrigue heightening whenever shadows dare to overwhelm the shine.
Simply stare at it with the sound off and Deception might appear as a gorgeous fever dream that evokes Raymond Chandler’s noirish imagination. It’s a melodramatic extravaganza soaked in supple funds and sexual tension, everlastingly threatening to burst until the moment in which star Bette Davis actually pulls out a gun and shoots her way out of perceived trouble.
But leave the sound on and one finds that John Collier and Joseph’s Than’s screenplay is no match for Jack Warner’s check book. Deception looks and sounds beautiful – when we aren’t fixated on Ernest Haller’s haunting cinematography we’re infatuated with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s rambunctious score – and the performers are good at making the material sitting beneath seem as though it’s weightier than anything Chekhov ever wrote.
Take its luxuries away, however, and Deception is little more than a subpar women’s picture that comes to be increasingly unbelievable the more it tries to persuade us that murder is as much a part of its theatrical ball game as recently chilled caviar and the worrying that a troublesome secret might be revealed.
In the film, Davis (able to make even the most mediocre of a vehicle feel like a gem) is Charlotte Radcliffe, a well-off New York pianist whose plum day to day existence is flipped onto its back after cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), a flame she thought died in the war, unexpectedly comes back into her life. Though eager to have the man holding her in his arms again – consider their reunion is hardly a hushed down greeting but a running embrace iced by a typical exclamation of “I thought you were dead!” – Radcliffe is thrown as a result of her not-so-long-ago romantic involvement with her former teacher, Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains).
Because the romantic involvement didn’t take on the form of a humble, tender courtship. Hollenius, who is stern, self-obsessed, and forever with a raised eyebrow and a readied smirk, was essentially a svengali, controlling every aspect of Radcliffe's
professional and personal lives and seeing that every one of her materialistic desires be met.
Novak is understandably suspicious of the lavish decor lining every wall of her upscale apartment. But she laughs and sighs that she’s been giving piano lessons recently and many of her customers have showered her in expensive gifts instead of an occasional Benjamin. Bullshit. And Novak knows it.
And Radcliffe suspects that her thought-to-be-dead love – whom she marries almost immediately after he reemerges – knows that something is off about the situation and doesn’t dare reveal her romantic past. She figures he might leave her if he knew that she “replaced” him with Hollenius while he was at his most vulnerable. So she decides that keeping such entanglements a secret is the only thing that’s going to keep their romantic bond intact.
But, of course, nothing’s easy in a movie more or less a precursor to the soap operas which clogged the pores of the golden age of television. Inevitably, Novak and Hollenius’ occupational ambitions collide when the latter hires the former to perform front and center during the premiere of his new cello concerto. Though the move’s obviously a play to push Radcliffe’s buttons, Hollenius seems to genuinely respect Novak’s talents as a musician. But Radcliffe believes that Hollenius really intends to sabotage her husband’s career, and this leads her to undergo lethal action.
Which is idiotic, as Deception’d be better off if it kept things purely theatrical and avoided exploiting its noirish edges. Fact is is that the sexual tension is enough to keep it running smoothly. Unless Hollenius really and truly is the snake Radcliffe figures him to be, her eventual decision to use bullets to rid herself of her problems otherwise seems head-scratching. Collier and Than don’t allow for the dramatic waters to heat up long enough to boil.
Had our heroine and her old instructor/boyfriend been tainted by a tragic past – say she had an abortion or that she had an affair with the man while he was married, caused the wife to go insane and kill herself, etc. – there’d be more reason for Deception to have such an explosive finish. But all Radcliffe is worried about is Novak finding out that she and Hollenius were in love at some point in her younger years, which isn't all that big a deal from the point of view of someone possessing rationality.
As an effect of its uneasy mixing of genres, Deception never really works. Rather than scream with the delicious exasperation of a particularly good Davis vehicle, it’s more ridiculous than simplistically entertaining. But it is beautiful to look at and the acting is believably bold: Rains is a hoot as a man whose head is so far up in the clouds that a glass literally shatters in his hand at one point because he cannot fathom not being the center of attention at every waking moment. But for now it’s safer to place Deception in the slew of so-so features Davis made before her legendary comeback in 1950 with All About Eve. C+