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Deception (November 10, 2011)

Near the end of Casablanca, Claude Rains’ Captain Renault asks Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine where the letters of transit were hidden. Bogart tells Rains, “Sam’s piano.” Rains’ response: “Serves me right for not being musical.” Well, in this movie Rains is musical, playing the mercurial composer Hollenius, and I think it is among his best performances, ranking with his work in Casablanca, in Mr. Skeffington (1944) and in Notorious (1946).

The story started as a play by Louis Verneuil called Monsieur Lamberthier. It was produced on Broadway in 1928 under the title Obsession, and then again in 1946 under the title Jealousy. The play had only two characters. The composer is only a voice on the telephone. The film script was written by John Collier and Joseph Than and was directed by Irving Rapper. It was made from April through September, 1946 and was released in October, 1946. The picture lost money, the first of Warner Brothers’ Bette Davis films to do so. The working title of the film was Her Conscience, which Davis objected to, and the Broadway title Jealousy couldn’t be used because a Republic film had recently been released with that title. The cello concerto that Paul Henreid performs was composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who was a distinguished film composer in the United States, but who could have been a major successor to Mahler and Strauss as a composer of classical music had he not had to flee Austria after the Nazis took it over.

Miss Davis’s acting style is much caricatured today, and I have shown only a few of her films at the library – just The Petrified Forest (1936), Jezebel (1938) and The Letter (1940). Nevertheless, she had an almost shape-shifting ability to change her appearance, unusual among the Hollywood stars of her time, that meant that each one of her performances was different, and used different aspects of her skills as an actress. Watch her great classic Now, Voyager (1942), also with Rains and Henreid, if you want to see her transform her appearance and character in a single film. The Austrian actor Henreid became the man born to be betrayed after his performance in Casablanca. However, it is Rains who steals the show here. Both he and Davis display extraordinary emotion. At the time, the reviewer Cecelia Ager of the New York newspaper PM summarized it thus: “It’s like grand opera, only the people are thinner. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.