Deception (1946): Irving Rapper’s Melodrama, Starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains

While not one of Bette Davis’ vantage melodramas (“The Letter,” Now, Voyager”), Irvin Rapper’s Deception is still worth seeing for the diva’s performance and as a sampler of that era’s popular genre, the polished women’s picture.

Our Grade: B- (**1/2* out of *****)

The film’s working title was “Her Conscience,” and as the title “Jealousy” was not available, it was released as “Deception.”

Deception
Deception 1946 film poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Based on the play “Jealousy,” by Louis Verneuil, the script is penned by John Collier and Joseph Than. Davis plays music teacher Christine Radcliffe, who is reunited with Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), her musical genius lover, who she believed had been killed in Europe during WWII.

Bringing Karel to her apartment, Christine learns of his terrible years in a concentration camp before making it to the U.S. For his part, Karel is rejoiced that Christine had not married during his absence, though he marvels at how she can afford such a luxurious lifestyle, living in a plush apartment and dressing elegantly.

In a rather vague and evasive way, Christine mentions the generosity of Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains), a celebrated composer and conductor who has been her benefactor and saving angel. To put his mind at peace, she proposes that they marry quickly and they do.

Complications arise when Hollenius appears unexpectedly at the wedding and shows his disapproval of Christine’s marriage. The next day, she implores her older benefactor to remain silent about their former romantic attachment and not to jeopardize her new happiness.

In a false act of generosity, Hollenius offers Karel to be a solo artist at the premiere of his new cello concerto, but the latter gives a poor rehearsal performance that ends in emotional arguments and temperamental outbursts.
Fearing that Hollenius would replace Karel just before the concert, Christine visits her mentor, and when he threatens to disclose the truth, she shoots him.

The concert is a great success, but his triumph is tarnished by Christine’s confession to her murder. Karel, in a state of disbelief, forces his wife to share her past with him.

Spoiler Alert

The very ending is rather ambiguous, perhaps a result of pressures from the morally rigid Production Code.

Conductor Neilsen, takes the place of the absent Hollenius (shot dead by Christine), and the performance is successful. Christine confesses to her husband, and they leave the concert hall together. As they walk out, a female well-wishers says, “Christine, you must be the happiest woman in the world,” which is the last line in the movie.

The film was based on a play Monsieur Lamberthier by Louis Verneuil,  first performed in Paris in 1927. It opened on Broadway as Jealousy on October 22, 1928 as a two-hander with Fay Bainter and John Halliday. It was turned into a film, also titled Jealousy (1929), with Jeanne Eagels and Fredric March, and directed by Jean de Limur.  Warner originally purchased the play as a vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck and Paul Henreid.

Davis wanted Deception to be a two-handler, with Rains’ character just a voice on the phone, as it was on stage. The 1929 film is set in Paris, and the characters are the owner of a dress shop, the young artist she marries, and the elderly boulevardier who bought the dress shop for her. The man confesses, and the play ends with the expectation that he will get off easily.

Pianist Shura Cherkassky’s hands are seen on-screen during Davis’s solo piano performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23, Opus 57 in F Minor (Appassionata), though Davis had rehearsed thoroughly.

Henreid’s cello playing was dubbed by Eleanor Aller; her father Gregory Aller coached Henreid in plausible bow movements. Henreid’s arms were tied, and two cellists put their arms through the sleeves of a specially designed coat.

Hollenius’ Cello Concerto was written by film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who later expanded this material and published it as his own cello concerto.

Experiencing the height of his screen career, Paul Henreid gave an appealingly romantic performance in a film that followed “Now, Voyager” (1942), also with Bette Davis and, of course, “Casablanca” (1943), with Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

At the time of its release, the reviews were decent, and several critics singled out Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score, including his original cello concerto.

In the New York Post, Archer Winsten praised Davis’ professionalism (“powerful emotions held on a strong rein”), but he also noted Rains’ hammy, flamboyant turn as the high-living composer.

Perhaps it was Cecelia Ager in “PM,” who nailed the appeal of this melodrama, observing: “It’s like grand opera, only the people are thinner.”

An expensive production, Deception claimed a budget north of $2 million, thus becoming the first Bette Davis star vehicle to lose money for Warners, after a string of box-office hits (and oscar nominations).

Cast

Bette Davis as Christine Radcliffe
Paul Henreid as Karel Novak
Claude Rains as Alexander Hollenius
John Abbott as Bertram Gribble
Benson Fong as Jimmy, Hollenius’ servant

Credits

Directed by Irving Rapper
Produced by Henry Blanke
Screenplay by John Collier and Joseph Than, based on the 1927 play, “Monsieur Lamberthier” by Louis Verneuil
Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Edited by Alan Crosland Jr.
Distributed by Warner Bros.

Release date: October 18, 1946

Running time: 110 minutes