Thursday, February 17, 2011


How thrilling to discover a film you were unaware of, starring actors you may have taken for granted in the past… It happened to me when I stumbled on Tension, a 1949 “B” effort from MGM.  Tension isn’t a moody, fatalistic piece in the mode of Out of the Past, nor is it a procedural à la He Walked By Night. It’s a crime thriller with elements of noir that don’t quite add up to the real thing. It has a lot of humor for a film tagged as a film noir. And there’s a rumor that Tension actually parodies noir… but this doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the film.

Our protagonist is mild-mannered pharmacist Warren Quimby, married to Claire, a sultry blonde who picks up men at the lunch counter while he fills prescriptions at the back of the store. Trapped by the belief that he can one day make her happy, he’s eager to please but usually strikes out. Think Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor in The Killing. After Claire leaves him for liquor salesman Barney Deager, the humiliated Warren plots revenge, assuming a second identity who can take the fall for Deager's murder. But Warren doesn’t go through with the killing, Deager ends up dead anyway, and the police show up on Warren’s doorstep. Here is where some of Tension’s plot holes and inconsistencies begin to pile up. And frankly, the dual identity angle is more gimmick than noir.

Sure, the screenplay has problems. But I can overlook them because I’m fully engaged by these characters and by the actors who play them. From the moment Barry Sullivan’s sleazy detective appears over the credits, I’m in. Sullivan’s character works in brilliant tandem with his partner (a smirking William Conrad). Both actors have great timing, ably tossing the ball to one another during their interrogation sequences. Audrey Totter is simply fabulous as Claire. Here's hoping she takes her place in the femme fatale hall of fame.

And thank God Richard Basehart wasn’t afraid to play unmanly types. His Warren is fraught with characteristics usually reserved for female characters: pathetic, sex-starved and desperate for approval. As alter ego Paul Sothern he’s smartly turned out with brylcreemed hair, falling for his new neighbor (Cyd Charisse) and seeing Claire for the tramp she is. For those of us who grew up watching Basehart play stuffy authoritarian figures on television, the discovery of his early career in black and white films is a revelation. Between 1948 and 1951, he was the cold-blooded cop killer in He Walked by Night, the gothic husband in The House on Telegraph Hill and Black Book’s dictator-in-waiting. Fourteen Hours is vintage territory for anyone who appreciates the levels of emotional imbalance the young Basehart brings to his work. I like his ability to be a male Gloria Grahame – charmingly askew.

Tension is one of ten film noirs included in Warner Bros.' Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 4.  It features audio commentary by accomplished film noir scholars Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, who dutifully give the film a good dressing-down because it doesn’t follow the noir playbook. I get their Clark Kent/Superman and 97-pound weakling analogies – that’s fair commentary. And I understand how the film's music score, self-conscious lighting and references to Double Indemnity suggest parody. These things make me laugh too – and not in an unkind way.

Curiously, Silver complains that the audience might be confused by the motives of Barry Sullivan’s character. What nonsense. Even in the best film noir, isn't there always a moment when you ask yourself "what the hell is going on?"