Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > DECEPTION – Erich Wolfgang Korngold

DECEPTION – Erich Wolfgang Korngold


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Warner Brothers Studios was searching for a film that would showcase two of their leading actors, Barbara Stanwyck and Paul Henried. To that end, late in 1943 they purchased the film rights to the 1927 two-character French play “Monsieur Lamberthier” by Louis Verneuil. They believed that the film noir drama would translate well for a suspenseful big screen adaptation. Henry Blanke was assigned production, provided a $2.882 million budget, and John Collier and Joseph Than were hired to write the screenplay. Irving Rapper was tasked with directing and a powerhouse cast for the ages was assembled, including luminaries; Bette Davis as Christine Radcliffe, Paul Henreid as Karel Novak, and Claude Rains as Alexander Hollenius. In the three years it took to launch the project, Bette Davis, whose star was ascendant, replaced Stanwyck for the lead role.

The story explores the relationship of virtuoso cellist Karel Novak and his romance with pianist Christine Radcliffe. They fall in love and marry with Christine harboring a dark secret, that she has been for years been the recipient of a jealous benefactor, composer Alexander Hollenius, with who she has also been involved with sexually. Hollenius shows up at the wedding and crushes his wine glass in his hand out of jealousy. He then works behind the scenes to sabotage Novak’s career by secretly training a replacement cellist to premier his new cello concerto. In the end Hollenius informs Christine that he will allow Novak the honor of the premier, with the caveat that he will then expose their illicit affair to destroy him. Christine will have none of it and out of desperation, shoots Hollenius dead. Another conductor takes the podium, the concerto performance is well-received, she reveals the truth of her and Hollenius’ affair, and that she murdered him. As they depart the concert hall, a woman fan tells Christine; “You must be the happiest woman in the world”. The couple say nothing and depart to end the story. The film was a commercial failure, the first Bette Davis film to ever lose money for the studio. Critical reception was mixed with some praising the film for its actor ensemble, while others labelled the film a campy melodrama. The film failed to earn any Academy Award nominations.

Director Irving Rapper had been part of the directorial staff on two prior films that Erich Wolfgang Korngold scored “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) and “Juarez” (1939). He was an avid fan of his music and so offered him the project. Upon viewing the film Korngold understood that the story offered an occult love triangle in that Christine’s husband Karel is unaware of her longstanding sexual relationship with benefactor Alexander Hollenius. So, he needed to speak to the simmering tension of Alexander’s jealousy, and all the associated Film Noir elements which would lead to the murder. He also realized that he would have to compose a Cello Concerto to be played in the film. Korngold composed a virtuoso piece whose cadenza, which consists of rapidly played consecutive 10s, cannot be played by a cellist. The recording used in the film was cleverly accomplished by cellist Eleanor Slatkin recording a double track.

In fashioning his soundscape, Korngold composed less original music than in any of his other scores. His music consisted of the Main Theme, which also serves as the Love Theme. It is introduced in the Main Title and is pervasive throughout the film. Also original was the cello concerto, and a number of modernists, atmospheric cues, which were conceived to support the film noir ambiance. The string borne Main Theme offers classic Korngold romanticism, which just sweeps you away. One discerns an undercurrent of sadness in the notes, which speaks to Christine’s dark secret of a jealous paramour benefactor. The theme translates well into a love theme, perfectly suited for this film noir story. For most of the soundscape Korngold chose to interpolate a number of classical music pieces, given that the story focused on musicians, and the classical music concert world. Among these were; “Bridal Chorus” for Lohengrin by Richard Wagner, Wedding March from “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” by Felix Mendelssohn, Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Opus 57 “Appassionata” by Ludwig Van Beethoven, Impromptu No. 2 in A Flat Major, Opus 142 by Franz Schubert, Egmont Overture in F Minor, Opus 84 by Ludwig Van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92 by Ludwig Van Beethoven, Cello Concerto in D Major by Joseph Haydn, and Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 by Franz Schubert.

“Main Title” offers a grand score highlight where Korngold masterfully sets the tone of the film. It opens powerfully with strings dramatico voicing the Main Theme as the Warner Brothers logo displays, followed by the roll of the opening credits, which display against a non-descript grey, textured background. He does not shift to an expected B Phrase, as the theme lacks one, but instead offers three statements of the A Phrase, each embellished and beautifully orchestrated. We enter the film proper at 1:23 caried by a celeste misterioso as Christine runs across a courtyard in the rain. “Mysterioso” reveals Korngold evoking film noir atmospherics with a misterioso with a solo oboe, which floats overs a churning sea of harp glissandi and strings. (*) “Cello Concerto in D major” reveals Christine arriving late and taking a seat in the concert hall as Karel plays Haydn’s lyrical piece. She gazes at him lovingly, enjoying his performance. (*) “Christine Visits Karel Backstage” reveals Christine very distraught and hugging Karel desperately as she weeps and declares “I thought you were dead! Oh! I thought they had killed you! I Saw you being killed, lying there!”[9] Korngold supports with juxtaposition using the Allegro moderato from Shubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor as they kiss and he consoles her. Worth noting is that a picture of Franz Shubert hangs on the wall behind the couple. She invites him to her place with the Allegro carrying them.

Outside on the street in (*) “Street Band” a street band offers a spirited religious tune as they walk with Karel’s arm around her shoulder. As they walk away the music fades into the distance. In (*) “Christine’s Apartment” Christine expresses that she is struggling financially, yet Karel is taken aback when they arrive at her skyscraper apartment, which offers a stunning glass wall panoramic view of the city. Music enters on a dark chord as he notices expensive fur coats in her closet as he hangs up his coat. As she fawns over him, the Love Theme enters full of happiness. They engage in pleasantries as he expresses his hope for a happy life together. She promises to use her connections to advance his career. As he voices his aspiration of where he desires to live, he speaks of the mountains as a meandering bassoon supports. He also expresses his desire to marry as soon as possible, yet as he kisses her hands, we see in her eyes anxiety as she dreads the exposure of her secret. She deflects and goes to the kitchen to make coffee and sandwiches.

“Jealousy” offers a powerful score highlight with masterful modernist film noir writing. It reveals Karel examining expensive and ornate furniture in her apartment and asking if the apartment is lent? Christine replies no, it is hers – and soon, his also. Korngold, sows dark surging undercurrents of jealousy, undulating like restless waves, which reflect in Karel’s expression. At 0:55 he demands she come to him and crescendo of rage builds as he shouts that she explain how she, on her meager wages could possibly purchase such expensive things. He begins grasping her shoulders and shaking her violently with the crescendo cresting with violence at 1:25. In the film an interlude of no music follows. He releases her, sits on the couch, and apologizes, explaining the hardship he endured during the war, and the hope that kept him alive – finding her. She comforts him and diffuses his anger as she explains (lies) that she has been teaching pupils from wealthy families, which reward her handsomely. At 1:26 we segue into “Tenderness” a romantic score highlight atop piccolo led woodwinds tenero, which usher in a molto romantico rendering of the Love Theme, embellished with harp glissandi. Christine has masterfully won back his trust, and she crowns her efforts saying; “There is nothing in the world, but us” as they embrace and kiss. The confluence of music and acting in these two cues reveals Korngold’s genius.

(*) “The Next Day” reveals Christine dressing in the morning when the telephone rings. Korngold sows foreboding and unease as a tense Christine goes to answer the phone. It is Alex (Alexander Hollenius) who we surmise from Christine’s reaction, is angry at her revelation that she will soon marry. He hangs up as Karel returns to the apartment. Karel brings a bouquet of flowers but is suspicious that Hollenius hung up after she informed him “about us”. She deflects his suspicions with her energetic efforts to organize their wedding day and announcement. (*) “Party” reveals a wedding reception party in Christine’s apartment. It opens with a small band ensemble offering a funky, jazz rendering of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. It transforms into a more traditional iteration as Karel and Christine kiss. The following scene is unscored. Mr. Day offers a toast to their happiness, but the moment is shattered by the abrupt entry of Alexander Hollenius, who is greeted by a flock of admirers and a tense stare from Christine. Christine moves to greets him, and he asks to meet, her husband. Hollenius purposely begins to stir the pot, offering veiled insults to both bride and groom as he commands Christine to get him some caviar to go with the splendid champagne, he gave her. He then asks her to play the piano, and she departs to do so. While she is away, Hollenius exposes her lie to Karel when he informs him that she was indeed his pupil, but that she resolutely rejected his idea that she herself take on pupils for income.

In (*) “Appassionata” Alex asks her to play something pathetic like Chopin, but she says that she will play the Appassionata per Karel’s request. As she plays Beethoven’s passionate sonata, Alex looks on with a sneer, while Karel simmers. Anger swells in Alex, which is manifest when his jealous grip shatters his champagne glass. Christine stops her playing and runs to him. Her offer to tend to him his coldly rebuffed, and he storms out as stunned party goers look on. The crowd is now uncomfortable, and all say it is late and that they are departing. Music enters with a grim reprise of the Appasionata full of foreboding, in “After The Party” after the last guest has departed. Korngold is clearly speaking from Karel’s perspective. At this point in the cue (0:43) and interlude of no music in the film follows, Korngold lets the intense dialogue carry the scene. Karel asserts that Hollenius hinted that he took her from him, to which she replies, it was not hint, he actually said it! She then explains their master-student relationship saying he was possessive and she in the end, a little vain enjoying the attention. He slaps away her offer of champagne, which he asserts Hollenius bought her, and then rages that it was he who also bought her the apartment, fine clothes and artwork. When he exposes her lie regarding “her pupils”, she admits that she was sorry she did not tell him that Hollenius did indeed buy everything for her – his little girl, his, pet. She is vulnerable and her contrition wins him over and at 0:44 the cue resumes with the Love Theme borne by strings romantico as they embrace and kiss. Yet the romance dissipates at 1:20 when the telephone rings. The music offers anxiety as we hear her refuse an appointment in the morning only to relent. After the call ends, she walks by Karel to the bedroom without saying a word, carried by a foreboding musical narrative. At 2:03 it is a new day and we see Christine walking to an ornate building’s door. Korngold offers profound sadness to support her journey. She asks the butler Jimmy for the headmaster, and is directed upstairs.

In (*) “Hollenius’ Anger” Hollenius angrily plays the finale of his cello concerto on piano as she joins him. He does not mince words and accuses her of “the basest treachery and ingratitude”. His diatribe is intended to hurt, yet we see also a wounded lover who drops all pretenses. He has the power to destroy her, yet relents preferring instead to ‘share’ her. “A Pity” reveals him escorting her out and asking, if she disclosed to Karel that she was seeing me today? She answers no, saying she told him she was seeing a girlfriend. Hollenius states “A pity” and a tragic statement of the Love Theme supports her walk down the stairs. Yet we discern a kernel of hope in the notes as she pauses and contemplates her future. (*) “Impromptu No. 2” reveals Hollenius in his apartment playing Shubert’s lyrical cello piece on his phonograph. His butler Jimmy advises that a Mr. Novak is here to see him, and Hollenius orders that he be shown in. Hollenius ingratiates himself, apologizes for his behavior last night, and protects Christine by covering up her visit this morning. He then plays on his phonograph Shubert’s Impromptu No. 2, which Karel recognizes to his amazement, as a recording of him playing the piece. Hollenius then goes to the piano and asks that Karel listen as he again forcibly plays the finale of his cello concerto.

(*) “Karel Practices” reveals Christine arriving at the stairs leading to her apartment and hearing a passionate cello piece emanating from her apartment. She becomes tense and walks up the stairs quickly to enter the apartment. She stands speechless with amazement as she sees him playing his cello. He rushes to her and swoops her up in his arms saying she is the wife of a successful artist! She is stunned, rushes over to the Manhasset stand, and discovers he has a personal manuscript by Hollenius. She asks how and why? And he relates that he will debut the piece on the 21st with Hollenius conducting. He then confesses that he went to see Hollenius because he did not believe her regarding the phone call last night. He apologizes and we see her relieved as she congratulates and kisses him. Karel then relates that before the concert, he will perform the concerto privately for Hollenius to ensure that he is satisfied with his performance. (*) “Dinner” supports a dialogue rich scene and is unscored. Karel and Christine join Hollenius for dinner at a renown French bistro, after which Karel will perform the concerto. Karel is tense and does not desire a grand meal before the performance, but Hollenius will not desist. In frustration, Karel relents and orders a scotch and soda to calm his nerves. After they depart, Karel asks that Christine not attend as he cannot manage both their anxieties. She agrees and goes home as the two men depart together.

“Preparation” offers a powerful score highlight. It reveals an anxious Christine pacing in her apartment as Korngold sows tension. At 0:15 Christine plays a few bars of the Appassionato on piano, which ushers in a surge by strings dramatico as she walks to the telephone. Karel arrives, races up the stairs propelled by strings irato, and enters the apartment declaring “It’s a power complex! The insolence of a megalomaniac, a paranoic, a dictator!” He rages that Hollenius insulted him as an artist and a human being, and that he angrily kept interrupting his performance. Korngold channels his anger with an angry performance of the concerto. She says to Hell with Hollenius and his concerto and that they should move to San Francisco and make a fresh start. But to her amazement, Karel will have none of it, insisting that he will play the concerto. He frets that there is a darker purpose linked to her that is behind this. She manages to diffuse his anger, by soft talking and taking his hand. We flow into “Paraphrase” with the Love Theme struggling to make a statement, yet Korngold stops its every effort, each of which is draped in sad auras.

(*) “Christine Confronts Hollenius” offers the film’s most intense dialogue, which Korngold chose to not score. The next day Christine visits Hollenius only to be told by Jimmy he is not home. She forces her way in past him into the house to ‘make a phone call’. She searches the upstairs and finds him in bed. She confronts him and all the ugly baggage of their relationship is laid bare, with each knowing the other’s vulnerabilities. In the end Hollenius offers magnanimity, assuring her that he will allow Karel to perform the concerto. She departs at his insistence, but upon leaving the bedroom she sees Mr. Bertram Gribble, the orchestra’s principle cellist who arrives with his cello. She hides in the parlor and overhears Gribble commend Hollenius on his concerto masterpiece. We flow into “Newspaper” where Hollenius invites him in to play, and as she descends to the front door, we hear Gribble playing the concerto. At 0:12 we segue into a newspaper article, which states that Hollenius will debut his new cello concerto with him appearing as guest conductor. Strings dramatico open and propel the scene, yielding to strings romantico emoting the Love Theme.

(*) “Christine and Bertram” reveals Christine giving Bertram a ride in her taxi during a downpour. She has ulterior motives and alerts Bertram that Hollenius may try to destroy her husband’s career by assigned the concerto to him. She offends his pride however when she infers that he is not as good a cellist as her husband. He leaves the taxi when she offers him $1,000 to turn town any Hollenius offer to replace her husband. (*) “Dress Rehearsal” reveals Hollenius conducting his concerto featuring Karel as a tense Christine watches in the theater. Korngold’s lyrical piece offers a cello appassionato set against dark, foreboding orchestral auras. Mid performance Hollenius keeps interrupting the rehearsal with critique of the flute solo. After the third interruption Karel becomes angry, the two men fight, and Hollenius dismisses him. Although he brings Gribble in as understudy, he makes it clear that Novak will still perform tonight. Hollenius then decides to end practice of the concerto, and turns the orchestra over to conductor Nielsen for the Beethoven piece. In the theater hallway Christine confronts Hollenius who takes offense that he would use his music as an instrument of revenge to sack her husband. Christine apologizes, but Hollenius then makes the veiled threat of disclosing to Karel after the concert at dinner, the bombshell – that they had had an intimate affair for many years. This causes Christine to become frantic as he departs. Soon Karel joins her and they depart the theater. Korngold chose to support this tense scene using passages from the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, which Nielsen was conducting in the concert hall.

Christine dresses Karel and sends him off to the concert, saying she will follow in a taxi. In “Mirror” a dark passage of the Main Theme crests as we see ill-purpose in her eyes as Christine’s sinister reflection is shown in a mirror. At 0:34 dark, grim, low register strings support Hollenius’ reflection in a mirror at his home. Strings sinistri, which portend doom support as the doorbell rings and Hollenius orders Jimmy to let her in. At 1:12 horns of reckoning declare the Main Theme as she walks through the living room. She joins him, but refuses to share a scotch. Hollenius then dismisses Jimmy for the night, confiding to her, that he had a date. She confronts him and demands he promise to not disclose their affair to Karel. Hollenius does not commit, but states, even if he promised not to, could she believe him? He goes upstairs to get his coat, and we segue into “Murder” atop dire low register strings sinistri, which never resolve as we see her mind working. This musical narrative emotes dark purpose, which carries her ascent up the stairs to him. He comes out of his bedroom, sees her, and asks, “What’s the matter with you?” She pulls out a gun and threatens him, demanding that he must not divulge their past to Karel. He will have none of it, is dismissive, and moves towards her, only to be shot in the heart at 1:12. He rebukes her as a cowardly fool, and at 1:27 a descending crescendo of death supports his fall down the stairs. A dark Diminuendo of death carries her descent to him. She recoils at the sight of his dead body, as the telephone rings.

In “Alibi”, tremolo strings carry her run to escape, but she turns back, places the gun by his body, and then turns off the lights. The telephone rings a second time as she exits his house. Korngold supports the murder aftermath texturally with a dark, formless, ever shifting musical narrative. Theater management announces that Mr. Hollenius has not arrived, and since the performance is being broadcast, the performance must proceed at the scheduled time of 9:30 with Mr. Nielsen agreeing to conduct. Karel looks up at the balcony and finds Christine’s seat empty. “Cello Concerto” offers the score’s finest composition, a stormy and passionate concerto, which fully reveals Korngold’s genius. After an intense and dramatic opening the music softens, becoming warm and romantic until 1:32 when it blossoms as Karel sees Christine take her seat. Karel is relieved and his playing offers beautiful lyricism with the Love Theme woven within the notes. At 2:35 cello and orchestral intensification is unleashed as we see the conductor turning the manuscript pages to reveal the Fugato – the heart of the concerto. At 3:40 we shift to an exquisite extended passage filled with romantic heartache. At 5:21 we commence and energetic charge to the finale, which concludes brilliantly! The crowd enthusiastically applauds the concerto and Karel’s virtuoso performance.

Afterwards in his dressing room Karel relates his plan to tour and bring the concerto to the world. Karel then asks about Hollenius, and Christine relates that she visited him and found him drinking and morbidly talking about death. When he then said that he loved her, she put him off and he ran up to his room, vowing to show her. She says she ran out with him shouting, slammed the door and took a taxi to the theater. “If” reveals Christine refusing to join Karel and visit Hollenius, reminding Karel how he has tormented both of them and threatened to replace him with Gribble. She then becomes crazed and the music takes on eerie auras of insanity as she says that he said if he wanted to break us, he could. A crescendo of madness swells, crests at 0:46, and unleashes a passionate statement of the Love Theme as she races to him and asks if he does love her, and that it wasn’t altogether for nothing? He asks, what was for nothing? And at 0:59 an dark chord resounds as she confesses that she killed Hollenius. He is stunned, and she admits to all the lies concerning her and Hollenius, and how she felt he was intent on ruining them and taking the concerto from him. She says she did everything out of love and he vows to support her but counsels to seek legal counsel. She does not believe it can work, asks for his forgiveness, and they leave.

“The End” reveals a woman approaching Christine and saying, you must be the happiest woman in the world. Christine says nothing, but her eyes speak volumes as they exit carried by a last reprise of the Love Theme, which culminates in a flourish. At 0:41 we flow into “The Cast”, which is supported by a last grand statement of the Main Theme. “Original Theatrical Trailer” offers a powerful score highlight. It offers the usual scenes, which entice the audience and identify the key characters. It dramatically establishes the film’s narrative of a women who has created a web of lies, a great deception, as she is pulled between two men, one whose wealth and power control her, and one who whose love rules her heart. Korngold supports with a dramatic and extended rendering of his Main Theme in both its grand dramatic form, as well as it emoting molto romantico as a love theme. The music is transcendent and really elevates the trailer.

The re-recording by the creative team of John Morgan, who restored the score, and William Stromberg who masterfully brought Korngold’s music to life with the Moscow Symphony orchestra is excellent, and offers superb audio quality. Sadly, “Deception” stands as the last film Korngold would ever score as he felt times had changed and he was no longer relevant. I could not disagree more as the score offers indisputable evidence that he could adapt his grand European Romantic orchestral style to masterfully support a modern Film Noir movie. In scene after scene his Film Noir sensibilities are well-conceived and executed, modernist, and provide the requisite intrigue, suspense and dark auras that the genre demands. Indeed, Christine’s lies and deception are revealed as much by her facial expressions, as by Korngold’s music. Cues such as “Mysterioso”, “Mirror”, “Murder” and “Alibi” offer outstanding Film Noir highlights. I believe “Deception” offers a rare glimpse into the hidden side of Korngold, that in my judgment is just as brilliant as his well-known period-piece, swashbuckling style. His Main Theme, which also has a Love Theme iteration, is grand, dramatic and permeates the film, providing a unifying thread that holds the film’s sordid narrative together. Cues such as “Jealousy”, “Tenderness” and the “Original Theatrical Trailer” offer outstanding score highlights. Lastly, and most importantly, his Cello Concerto in C Major is an extraordinary concert piece and its finest composition. It offers a stormy and passionate concerto with an extraordinary Fugato passage. Folks, I believe this score to be a Korngold masterpiece, a brilliant example of Film Noir, and a Golden Age gem. I highly recommend that you purchase this quality album, which also offers the complete score to the Korngold masterpiece “The Sea Hawk” for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the Main Title; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDT7DMRrPR4

Buy the Devotion soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:38)
  • Mysterioso (1:54)
  • Jealousy – Tenderness (2:40)
  • After The Party (2:52)
  • A Pity (0:51)
  • Preparation (1:06)
  • Paraphrase (0:46)
  • Newspaper (0:43)
  • Mirror (1:33)
  • Murder (1:50)
  • Alibi (1:15)
  • If (1:09)
  • The End – The Cast (1:09)
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (3:36)
  • Cello Concerto (Original Version) (7:23)

Running Time: 30 minutes 25 seconds

Naxos 8.570110-11 (1946/2007)

Music composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Conducted by William Stromberg. Performed by Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus featuring Irina Romishevskaya and Alexander Zagorinsky. Original orchestrations by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Recorded and mixed by Genadiy Papin. Score produced by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Leo F. Forbstein. Album produced by William Stromberg and John Morgan.

  1. May 18, 2023 at 12:55 am

    Irving Rapper did not ‘offer’ Deception to Korngold. The inter-office studio memos still preserved at USC show that, as usual, it was producer Henry Blanke, a close friend of the composer, who brought the script to Korngold’s attention. At this time, Korngold was attracted to films where an original concert work featured as a major plot element and he had already written a tone poem (Tomorrow) for The Constant Nymph & a short ballet (Primavera) for Escape Me Never. Rapper, whom I inerviewed in 1975, had no input into who scored his films. It was not for directors to be involved in such matters, but was the preserve of the producer.

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