Wednesday, September 4, 2013

FI: Deception

US, 1946
Directed by Irving Rapper

Seeing that Deception re-teams the stars and director of 1942's Now, Voyager, you might assume that the film would recapture some of that old magic. Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains are usually welcome screen presences, and Irving Rapper is a capable director with a good eye. On paper, bringing them all together again for a dark, noir-ish melodrama instead of another straight romance seems like a great idea. If only it worked so well in practice. Deception is a cold fish, dramatically dull, overwritten, and hammily performed on all fronts.

The film is set in the world of classical music. It begins with pianist Christine "Schatzi" Radcliffe (Davis) reuniting with her lover, cellist Karel Novak (Henreid) after being separated by World War II. In the interim, however, she's become friendly—and perhaps more than that—with famed composer Alexander Hollenius (Rains), and she goes to great lengths to hide the extent of this friendship from Karel. This, the "deception" at the film's heart, seems minor at best, even taking into account any meta-textual Production Code–related issues. Yet, because John Collier and Joseph Than's script cranks everything up to eleven, emotions spiral out of control from the very start. This makes it very difficult to invest in these characters or their world; while scenery-chewing and overblown reactions are fun for a little while, they aren't enough to get past a leaden pace and unengaging characterization. These are "artists," we're given to understand. Their blood runs hot. Fair enough. It's not hard to imagine a film that lets us understand what motivates that hot-bloodedness, or even lets us feel it for ourselves. This one, alas, does not.

Perhaps if we'd seen the onset of Schatzi and Karel's romance, rather than only meeting them as they reunite, we might have some anchor by which to care about their relationship. Instead, we're left feeling like we've missed something, and nothing on the screen helps us see just what it was. Rapper does his best to squeeze drama out of the scenario, and does well when he highlights the strain of performing—all of the musical sequences are well-directed and eminently believable. The film's technical elements are all superb. Ernest Haller's cinematography is rich, using deep focus and high contrast to show off George James Hopkins's sumptuous sets. And, of course, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's music is perfectly suited to the film's heightened emotions. Really, it's just that the story lets these elements down. It hits unsustainably high notes far too early on, and leaves the audience inured to the tune by the time the final measure plays out.

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