“They say never confess a secret to a woman.”
Deception, a 1946 film from director Irving Rapper, frequently appears on film noir lists, but the story seems rooted in soap-opera drama more than anything else. The plot involves a love triangle between pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis), cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), and eccentric composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains).
The film begins in New York with Christine arriving late to a concert. Judging by Christine’s emotional reaction to the cello playing of star musician Karel Novak, this is no ordinary concert, and that proves to be correct when after the concert Christine goes back stage to meet Novak. He’s surrounded by fans, but after they melt away he sets eyes on Christine. This is clearly a reunion, and it’s revealed that Novak and Christine were lovers during the war in Europe. Separated by circumstances, they lost contact, and it’s a miracle that they’re reunited.
Christine takes Novak home, and he imagines that she’s had it tough living on her own piecing together a living as a struggling musician. Christine’s home is at the top of huge skyscraper accessible, for the most part, by a lift. The film shows Novak and Christine exiting the lift and then there’s a dark set of stairs up to Christine’s apartment. Novak clearly imagines Christine lives in a garret (so did I), but Christine’s splendid, spacious apartment is decorated with antiques and one whole wall gives a marvellous view of the skyline of New York. Novak is obviously suspicious about where the money came from for such luxuries, and his suspicions are confirmed as he prowls around her apartment and spies fur coats in the cupboard and fine paintings on the wall.
The lovers who’ve been separated for years are at each other’s throats within minutes, but Christine manages to dissuade Novak of his suspicions with stories of taking wealthy, talentless pupils for piano lessons. Obviously Novak has no idea about rents in New York otherwise he’d sniff that the story is ridiculous, but he swallows it hook, line and sinker.
Christine and Novak plan a wedding with a reception to be held in her apartment. The champagne flows generously but the party is broken up by the arrival of grumpy, imperious composer Hollenius whose rudeness sends the guests out the door. The composer’s speeches to Christine indicate the possessiveness of a jilted lover, and once again Christine mollifies Novak’s suspicions with stories that Hollenius is an eccentric, wealthy friend and nothing more.
As the plot thickens, the ties between the three main characters tighten. Hollenius appears to befriend the newlyweds, and he indicates that he wants to take Novak under his wing and nurture his career. Christine suspects Hollenius’s motives, but there’s not much she can do without telling Novak the truth about her relationship with Hollenius.
Claude Rains as Hollenius seems to have the best role and the best lines here. He’s a petty, jealous tyrant capable of pitching the most outrageous scenes both publicly and privately. In one scene, he takes Novak and Christine out to dinner and plays the temperamental epicurean to the hilt. In another scene, Christine storms Hollenius’s bedroom ready to do battle for her man, but she’s met with sarcasm and derision:
“To be faced with a virago at this time of the morning, Christine, my constitution simply will not stand for it.”
Shots focus on interiors. Christine’s modern apartment is in contrast to the interior of Hollenius’s house which resembles, rather appropriately, the inside of a lavish medieval European palace and reflects the temperament of its owner. One marvellous shot shows the reflection, in shadow, of an ornate staircase on the wall.
Deception is not Bette Davis’s best film, but it’s well worth catching for the scenes that include Hollenius. Claude Rains seems to have great fun with this role as he moves from imperious demands to almost bitchy feigned indifference. The film’s best scene takes place between Christine and Hollenius in his palatial bedroom, and he makes some excellent points about Christine’s erratic behaviour.
Deception (a Warner Bros. studio film), was the first Bette Davis film to follow the only film she made with her own production company Stolen Life (1946). According to biographer, Barbara Leaming, Davis, whose behaviour was “even more arbitrary and destructive than usual,” on the set of Deception, announced her pregnancy during the filming. She was married to third husband William Grant Sherry at the time and the marriage was to end in divorce a few years later in 1950.