Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Stubs - Tension


TENSION (1949) Starring: Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Barry Sullivan, William Conrad. Directed by John Berry. Written by Allen Rivkin; story by John D. Klorer. Produced by Robert Sisk. Music by Andre Previn. Run Time: 95 minutes, Black and White. U.S., Film Noir

Made by M-G-M, TENSION is one of the better examples of late 1940’s film noir. Richard Basehart plays Warren Quimby, a former naval officer, who lands a job as the night pharmacists and manager for a 24 hour drug store in downtown Los Angeles. One of the benefits of the job is an apartment above the store. While this might be all-right for Warren, it is not for his wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). While Warren tends the store, night after night, Claire goes out on the town, sometimes in the company of Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

Unlike Warren, who works diligently, Barney is rich, lives at the beach in Malibu and all he seems to do is swim and barbecue. He gives Claire gifts, which Warren can’t compete with. Claire leaves Warren for Barney and when Warren tries to fight for her, he is beaten up. Humiliated, Warren hatches a plan for revenge. Using contact lens, Warren changes his appearance and sets up a new identity, Paul Sothern. He rents an apartment in Westwood for Sothern to live in. But this is where things go a little awry. Warren meets his new neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse) and he falls in love.

Warren is now literally living a double life as the nighttime manager at the Pharmacy, himself, and as a cosmetics sales man, Paul Sothern. And it is the Paul Sothern persona who threatens Barney. Warren even makes an effort to show he has no hard feelings, by taking the night time counter man, Freddie (Tom D’Andrea) with him out to the beach house as a witness that there are no hard feelings.

When the time is right, Warren hitches out to Malibu at night with the intention of killing Barney, but when push comes to shove, he can’t go through with it. Claire is not worth killing for. Warren leaves and goes back to his life as pharmacist. He plans to tell Mary everything, divorce his wife and marry her. But his plans again go awry and Claire returns. Barney has been shot dead. She wants to move back in with Warren and pick up where they left off.

Lt. Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) and his partner Lt. Edgar “Blackie” Gonsales (William Conrad) are investigating Barney’s murder, are looking for a Paul Sothern, whom they’ve been told had threatened Barney. They can’t find Paul Sothern anywhere. The police know Claire was at Barney’s on the day of the murder, but when they interrogate her, she makes it sound like Warren was as good a friend as she was and also as likely a suspect for the murder.

Meanwhile, Mary goes to the police to report Paul is a missing person. She is the one who provides the police with the photograph of their suspect. Bonnabel is the one who puts two and two together and figures that Paul and Warren are the same man.

Bonnabel’s methodology is to use tension, playing the suspects against each other until one of them breaks. He begins a romance with Claire to try and get more information from her. Under false pretenses, he brings Mary to the Coast to Coast pharmacy to confront Warren. He takes Claire to Paul Sothern’s Westwood apartment and after making sure she knows Warren is Paul Sothern introduces her to Mary. Now Claire is jealous and wants to help Bonnabel nail her husband for the murder.

Bonnabel does go so far as to arrest Warren, but feeling that he is not the killer, releases him for lack of evidence. But Claire can fix that. She goes to where she’s hidden the gun and then goes to Paul Sothern’s apartment to plant it. This is the trap Bonnabel has set for her. When the police arrive, they arrest her and Warren is left free to pursue his romance with Mary.

There is little not to like about the movie. Richard Basehart, an under-appreciated actor, is perfectly cast as the timid husband with a plan for revenge. His performance in TENSION comes one year after he established himself in films with the role of the murderer Davis Morgan in HE WALKED BY NIGHT. Basehart, though, may be best remembered for his performance as the Fool in Fellini’s LA STRADA (1954) and in the television show VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (ABC, 1964 to 1968).

You can’t have a film noir it seems without Audrey Totter, the queen of the femme fatales. While Totter appeared in dozens of film and television roles, she had already appeared in such film noir classics as THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), LADY IN THE LAKE (1946), THE UNSUSPECTED (1947) and HIGH WALL (1947), before starring in this film. She brings with her a certain sex appeal and deviousness that are required to bring Claire to life.

Cyd Charisse is usually discussed as being a dancer alongside the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but she is a sweet, and tough, Mary. It does not take much imagination to see why Warren would fall for her. Mary is in so many ways the polar opposite of Claire.

Barry Sullivan’s Lt. Bonnabel is a very interesting character. He will do just about anything to get to the truth, even dating a prime suspect or lying to a witness. Sullivan may be better remembered for other roles, but his performance in TENSION is solid.

Film noirs, like TENSION, are fun to watch. As the viewer, we are allowed to dip our toes into a world of quiet desperation, where the feelings of one or two people don’t amount to a hill of beans, but their story is still worth telling. Film noirs tend to be about small stories with a handful of characters. Murder or crime is always a part of it. They have a dark mood, in line with the German Expressionist movement of the silent era. The shadows may not be painted on the walls, but they are definitely a part of the scenery and it is in those shadows where the story is told.

TENSION doesn’t break any new grounds in filmmaking, but that’s not the point. However, director John Berry, composer Andre Previn and cinematographer Harry Strandling, work in harmony to give TENSION the right style and mood. They each add a layer that builds upon the other and makes the final film better than its individual components.

Tension can be viewed on Warner Archive Instant:

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