Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bette Davis Month Bonus: Deception (1946)

It always helps when Bette Davis has strong male co-stars to match her energy; it never fails to disappoint when I see a name like George Brent in the opening credits of a Davis movie. Deception gives her not one but two strong actors to share scenes with: Paul Henreid plays the love of her life, a cello player of indeterminate European origin, and Claude Rains plays her former lover, an arrogant composer. Davis' pianist Christine is caught between the two, as she longs to be with Henreid's Karel, from whom she was separated during World War II, but is indebted to Rains' Alex, who provided her with a comfortable lifestyle while they carried on an illicit (for reasons that aren't quite clear) affair. It's a melodramatic concept that's played without overdoing it too much, thanks to the prodigious talents of the main actors (all of whom co-starred in Now, Voyager in 1942).

Davis plays a part somewhere between a romantic lead and a femme fatale - she's not really dangerous until the end of the film, although as the title suggests, she's a bit devious, keeping her relationship with Alex a secret once she reconnects with Karel. She spends most of the movie desperately trying to keep Karel from finding out about her past with Alex (even though she and Alex are no longer intimate), and Rains is enormously entertaining as the spiteful and wounded playboy who toys with his ex once he finds out that she's thrown him over for this wholesome musician. Henreid has to play the oblivious straight man much of the time, but he too gets to express jealousy and hurt as Karel tries to rebuild his relationship with Christine.

There's possibly some Holocaust-related subtext going on here as well, although it was hard for me to figure out what exactly Karel was supposed to have done during the war in Europe. But Christine mentions having taken on a "professional" (i.e., American) name, and they were obviously torn apart by the war. Part of her guilt certainly comes from having gotten away to America while Karel was trapped in Europe, in addition to the guilt of her romance with Alex. The whole thing comes to a head in a sort of silly way, but Davis stays fairly restrained, and the ending is surprisingly unresolved for a Hollywood movie of the time period. There's enough moral ambiguity and anguish on all sides to make the story seem complex and tragic rather than overwrought.

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