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Deception is a remake of an early Jeanne Eagels talkie, adapted from a play that consists solely of power scenes between its three leading characters. Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid repeat their winning collaboration from Now Voyager but with less persuasive results. Each contributes an exacting performance only to be defeated by difficult, unlikable roles. Bette Davis fans have no reason to worry, as she rivets the attention even when propping up an impossible character. Her emotional travails are backed by a high gloss presentation and a commanding music score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
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.
Warners presents Deception in a perfect B&W transfer with a dynamic soundtrack, allowing us to appreciate and assess the film as never before. It's well worth seeing just to experience Erich Wolfgang Korngold's powerful score; the self-contained Deception Concerto may well motivate viewers to seek out more of the composer's non-film music. A thoughtful and reasoned commentary by the respected author Foster Hirsch is also a solid plus factor.
The Warner Night at the Movies extras begin with a trailer for A Stolen Life and a color newsreel excerpt announcing a wonderful new advance for the American home, TV dinners! Facing Your Danger is a Technicolor account of daring river rafters navigating the rapids of the Colorado. Movie Magic is an expensive-looking Technicolor musical short about an actress's average day at the WB studio, where a period costume ball turns into a jitterbug dance. The ending seems to have been tacked on from an earlier musical short starring John Payne. The color cartoon Mouse Menace is a mayhem-filled battle between a mouse and a robot cat built by Porky Pig. We can tell that WW2 has had an impact on violence in movies when the cartoon mouse suddenly appears packing a flamethrower. The Deception trailer is thoughtfully included outside of the Night at the Movies extras, so as to not spoil the main feature.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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