As a virtual three-hander between Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Heinreid, Deception is a treat for anyone interested in these stars. Davis and Heinreid are Christine and Karel, two musicians who became lovers in Europe before being separated by World War II. They have a happy reunion in New York, but Karel’s jealous tendencies are inflamed by Christine’s mysteriously luxurious apartment, as well as the strange behaviour of renowned composer Hollenius (Rains).
Deception’s sophisticated use of music is a pleasant surprise, especially the way it‘s so often diegetic. The original score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, sometimes standing in for Hollenius’ work, is quite interesting, and a Beethoven piece is a great accompaniment to a dark moment for Christine. Elsewhere, the film’s music is smartly placed rather than being the cloying, pervasive stuff that’s ever-present in so many older movies.
Neither Davis nor Heinreid were musical geniuses. However, the film ably masks this. If had not read in a Korngold biography that Heinreid was not playing, I would have been thoroughly convinced.
Deception feels much like a play, with a few sets used repeatedly. However, these sets are elaborate and, as in the case of Christine’s apartment, impressive to look at. The noir lighting adds depth to the film, visually and emotionally. Characters can be separated by light and dark even when they are physically close. Karol’s stark shdow, separated from his body, says everything about his suspicions after he overhears a phone call from Hollenius to Christine.
The story is dialogue-heavy and, so, greatly dependent on the actors, making the casting of Davis, Heinreid and Rains fortuitous. They have worked together before, in all combinations, and every combination of these actors in Deception’s every scene shows their chemistry. Each actor shines both in their own roles and as a foil for the others. Rains as Hollenius is the greatest delight; he gives the composer equal amounts of gleeful malevolence and unrestrained passion. Davis and Heinreid have harder tasks, perhaps, as while Hollenius is irresistibly dramatic (he makes his first entrance in the film by throwing a door open and striding in with a coat thrown over his shoulders like a cape, stunning everyone in the room), Christine and Karel grow ever more unlikeable in their fragilities and deceits. In a film about deception, Hollenius is always honest. The true sign of Davis and Heinreid’s abilities is that they are not overwhelmed by this remarkably charismatic character, but counter him at every emotional fluctuation and plot turn.