Tension


“Everything, everybody’s got a breaking point. And when they get stretched so tight they can’t take it any longer…”

Complexity is one of the hallmarks of film noir. I’ve come across plots so dense it sometimes takes a second or third viewing to untangle just who has been doing what and why. Tension (1949) has plenty of complexity, but not the type that throws the viewer for a loop. No, it’s the lead character who gets wrapped up in the threads of a web he himself has spent some time spinning. The value here comes from watching a man laboriously construct the framework for what he confidently believes will be the perfect crime, only to have fate trip him up and land him right in the middle of his own trap. That is not to say this is some sour exercise in hollow schadenfreude for the protagonist here is not unsympathetic. The tension, from the viewer’s perspective, results from seeing someone driven by frustration into an increasingly perilous situation that it is hoped he can extricate himself from before it is too late.

Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) is a textbook milquetoast, quiet, unassuming and slow to react to provocation. And provocation might as well be the middle name of his feckless and faithless wife Claire (Audrey Totter). Warren is manager of an all-night drugstore, toiling away and saving to secure a better and more comfortable future not only for himself but for the wife he adores. While he plans and pushes himself, looking forever to a brighter tomorrow, Claire is already bored with making do and yearns for the good life right now. When she’s not raiding the stock for expensive perfumes and treats she is flirting with all comers and parading her infidelity with cavalier disregard for her husband’s feelings. Clearly, this is not a sustainable situation, even Warren’s assistant (Tom D’Andrea) can see this and drops as many broad hints as he can muster. The critical point arrives when Claire heads off with her latest conquest claiming even wild horses couldn’t drag her back to the tedium, the drudgery and the cramped apartment over the drugstore. Thinking he might appeal to her better nature, Warren visits her at the Malibu beach house she’s sharing with her lover, leading to humiliation. Badly beaten, his glasses shattered and with sand literally and figuratively kicked in his face, he gathers what is left of his dignity and heads for home.

The tipping point has been reached. Something tore inside him with that whipping he just took. Chance always features strongly in the world of noir and so it is that a throwaway remark sets in motion the train of thought that will dig Warren into even deeper trouble. He decides to kill the man who shamed him and stole his wife, and thus he sets out to do so in a way that means suspicion will be directed away from him. He will temporarily adopt a different identity, create a character and build up a background for this cypher so that when the murder takes place the police will be on the trail of Paul Sothern and not Warren Quimby. However, there are no perfect crimes, just imperfect people living imperfect lives. Warren’s alter ego proves to be something of a success, romantically at least. He embarks on a relationship with his new neighbor (Cyd Charisse) and then finds that, faced with the cold reality of what he has been planning, he cannot bring himself to take another life. It is here that the tripwires are strung though: Claire decides to return unannounced and uninvited while her lover turns up dead and full of lead, and the police start asking all kinds of awkward questions.

The world of post-war film noir is one drenched in dissatisfaction and disenchantment, frequently though not exclusively seen through the eyes of the returning veterans. It is routinely a world where the expectations built up in the cauldron of conflict are brushed aside as a new order establishes itself. In Tension the label of disenchantment could conveniently be hung on Warren, a man who sees his dreams of idyllic domesticity ruthlessly ground to dust by a wife who frankly despises him. However, the one who is most deeply dissatisfied is that wife. Claire is the epitome of the disillusioned woman, bored and borderline desperate as she contemplates with dread the gradual slipping away of her youth, and with it any slim hope she retains of living in luxury and fulfillment. Claire is indeed a classic femme fatale, driving the men in her life to distraction and to the brink of murder.

Director John Berry was one whose career was seriously derailed by the blacklist and the HUAC hearings. His list of credits is unsurprisingly limited as a result; of his films I’ve only seen John Garfield’s last feature, the wonderfully cramped and claustrophobic He Ran All the Way. Here he creates a suitably noir atmosphere in the starkly overlit drugstore where Warren works, the gloomy apartment above it, as well as the Malibu home where  a tense showdown with Claire’s lover takes place. Of course this is made possible by the cinematography of Harry Stradling, not a man I’d normally associate with film noir although he would go on to shoot Preminger’s masterful Angel Face.

Perhaps none of the main cast members could be said to be at the very top of the heap but all of them were in a good place in terms of career trajectories at this point. Richard Basehart seemed to hit the ground running and he made Tension right in the middle of a succession of very good movies. Some of his early roles had him playing edgy and maladjusted types, men who were not quite right. Warren Quimby is largely meek, but with a taut quality buried somewhere deep. Basehart tapped into that aspect well in the first half of the movie, where his character is being pummeled emotionally and physically. Audrey Totter was something of a noir veteran and peddled a good line in vulgar sensuality, pouting and flirting between mouthfuls of cheap hamburger and apple pie.

If Totter was selling brass, then Cyd Charisse cornered the market in cool and elegant class. The contrast between these two women is marked with the poise and self-possession exhibited by Charisse’s character rubbing hard against Totter’s mercenary trashiness. I have to say, however, that this is another of those movies with an apparently yet inexplicably magnetic lead; I find myself at a bit of a loss to understand exactly what there was that not only drew both of these women to Quimby/Sothern in the first place but kept them coming back. The investigation of the murder is in the hands of Barry Sullivan and William Conrad, the former going by the extravagantly unlikely name of Collier Bonnabel. Sullivan could always put across smugness and assurance most effectively and there is a hint of an aggressive edge just below the surface. He combines nicely with Conrad and it occurred to me as I viewed the movie again the other day how both actors seemed to enjoy collaborating. They were good in Joseph H Lewis’ Cry of the Hunted, appeared in a couple of episodes of Cannon, and Conrad used Sullivan in a major role in one of his directorial efforts My Blood Runs Cold. In the smaller parts, Lloyd Gough is suitably brutish as the temporary object of Totter’s affections, and while Tom D’Andrea may not be quite as memorable as he was in Dark Passage he still scores as the sympathetic drugstore clerk.

Tension got a DVD release many years ago when Warner Brothers included it in one of their film noir sets, paired up on a disc with Where Danger Lives. It is an attractive movie, with a plot that remains twisty without becoming convoluted and a cast packed with people who seemed to feel right at home in film noir.

33 thoughts on “Tension

  1. Colin

    Nice choice. This one feature’s as you say, fine work from top to bottom. I think it is Totter’s best work by a mile. She just oozes an aura of nastiness that glows right through the screen. As for William Conrad, I always thought he was a very under-rated actor. And not a bad hand at directing. Just last week I watched an episode of GUNSMOKE from 1963 that he had directed.

    Again, an excellent pick for a write-up.

    Gordon

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    • I’m happy to see Conrad’s name appear in the credits of a movie of TV show, regardless of whether it was in front of or behind the camera.
      Totter does get into the meanness and rottenness of a character who is sour, pinched and cheap throughout.

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  2. A good choice of film, Colin, and a masterful unpicking of the characters’ motives and actions by you. This film is a classy MGM co-feature with good work from all concerned. AND it is very much my kind of movie. I have a particular fondness for films about ordinary Joes leading ordinary lives who get entangled further and further into situations of which they inevitably lose control.

    Richard Basehart was an excellent choice for Quimby and he played it very believably. His obsession with his bored and disloyal wife superbly played; Totter being the ideal object of that obsession.

    William Conrad and Barry Sullivan never disappoint and, like you, I always welcome seeing their names listed in any project.

    Good stuff and highly recommended

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    • I like that kind of movie too, Jerry. “Regular Joe” makes some lousy choices and sees it all spiral out of control is a good premise, and in fairness has been used a fair bit. It makes the protagonists easier to identify with, something which often helps draw viewers in.

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    • Richard Basehart was an excellent choice for Quimby and he played it very believably.

      Basehart was one of those deceptive actors. He was a much better actor than he appeared to be. If you compare him to the Method actors with whom Hollywood was starting to become obsessed he was much less showy but always much more convincing. Good acting is not about showing off. It’s about making us believe in the character.

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  3. You certainly make this sound very enticing Colin and double billed with WHERE DANGER LIVES you just cannot go wrong. I wish Warner Archive would group up some of these lesser known Noirs in a package as has happened with the many Columbia Noir sets. BTW, Powerhouse Indicator have their Vol 3 & 4 of their Columbia Noir sets going for £30.00 act now before they go OOP and start costing the earth.

    A film that I think you will enjoy Colin is THE MAD DOCTOR (1940). Often dismissed as a Horror film it is in fact a crackerjack thriller. Tim Whelan’s direction and Ted Tetzlaff’s photography are first rate and their set pieces in the closing chapters of the film have a staging worthy of Lang or Hitchcock.

    Veteran character actor Martin Kosleck arrived for his screen test and Basil Rathbone turned to the Paramount suits and demanded “don’t test this guy;just give him the part” Their scenes together are wonderful. Kosleck adored working with Rathbone but loathed Lon Chaney Jr whom he considered an abusive drunk!

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    • I have ordered a few item in the Powerhouse/Indicator sale (here) that I’d missed out on in the past. Some very good deals there.

      I haven’t seen The Mad Doctor, but a little reading round following your recommendation does make it sound interesting. I’ll have to look into that one.

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      • Yes,Colin there are some real bargains
        in that sale-when those Noir sets go OOP
        they will start going for “Collector’s Prices”
        i.e. a whole heap of cash!
        THE MAD DOCTOR is a fun movie not exactly like
        real life;and the three leads are first rate.
        It’s a very fast moving thrill fest!

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  4. Pingback: Where Danger Lives | Riding the High Country

  5. What does underrated mean, and by whom? These people are in the movies and life should be just fine for them, but they are not John Wayne, Cary Grant, or Clark Gable. In Tension, if anything, Bsehart’s playing is overrated, the star performer or dominant player is Barry Sullivan. He is unforgettable. I saw Tension in 1949, then and now, only Sullivan stands out.

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    • Sullivan was a more striking, confident presence on screen for sure, and it’s a quality he generally projected in movies. Basehart had a lower profile persona and it’s what the role here required. He’s effective in the role of Quimby in a way that I don’t feel someone with Sullivan’s innate cockiness would have been. They were different actors with different strengths playing very different parts, and doing so quite successfully in my opinion.

      When people speak of underrated actors or movies I think of those which don’t get talked up or indeed talked about all that much. That’s not to say they are necessarily criticized or disparaged, just not always given the credit their work deserves.

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      • I think you are onto somethign, but I do not see it quite that way. Sullivan is also not a top star exemplified by the three already mentioned, but when he has worked with them he holds his own. Basehart is a pleasant-looking character actor, but there have certainly been top stars with that designation, Walter Matthau, Charles Laughton, and a little less but still star Charles Coburn. This is something that comes from within. The first time I heard that designation, underrated was a reference to Van Heflin. I thought it idiotic. He won an Academy Award and made a lot of money. None of these people are underrated. None!

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        • Fair enough, and there is no doubt that those mentioned had successful careers and were correspondingly awarded. For all that, I can understand Van Heflin being referred to as underrated – it may not be the correct term to apply, but for someone who won an Oscar and took the lead in some big films, his is not a name that is known outside of film aficionado circles. Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to legacies which have become undeservedly neglected, or some similar phrase, but it’s just easier and less cumbersome to say they are underrated.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I think the term “underrated” does get used a bit too often and I can understand Barry’s point that actors who had successful careers and won Oscars were not underrated at the time. But I think there are actors whose reputations have since faded, sometimes undeservingly.

            There are also actors who get too much attention and could be described as overrated. Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, Lionel Barrymore, Marilyn Monroe and Anna May Wong seem to me to attract too much attention.

            And then there are actresses who are still well-known, but for the wrong reasons. Lots of people today have heard of Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich because of their status as sex goddesses or pop culture icons, and because there are thousands of photos of them on social media, but a lot of those people have never actually seen any of these actresses’ films.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Newman is an interesting case. He was extremely mannered, almost painfully so on occasion, and invested in the Method in the earlier part of his career. He toned that down somewhat as he went along and grew as a performer over time. I’m not sure what the consensus is on his body of work nowadays.

              Liked by 2 people

            • It should be understood, there are kings and presidents who are not remembered by an indifferent public. Has nothing to do with any of the high achievers, just the disinterest of the non-entity class.

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  6. There are many such legacies, but, for me, I was as a child, fascinated with men and women in Silent films that I had never seen, I am not at all interested in our contemporary film culture nor those who write, produce direct or appear. Nevertheless, they’re not underrated. They just are. For me, perhaps not anyone else.

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    • I am not at all interested in our contemporary film culture nor those who write, produce direct or appear.

      I’ve seen maybe ten 21st century movies. I have zero interest in watching any more such movies. When I hear people talking about contemporary celebrities I usually find that I’ve never heard of these people. I’m much more familiar with celebrities of the 1920s rather than the 2020s.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are of course large sections of current filmmaking that are clearly not aimed at me – the superhero and juvenile franchises, for example – but I did try to take in new movies in the cinema on a reasonably regular basis till Covid came along. However, I’ve still not really resumed that habit. Anyway, while I’m well aware that a fair chunk of material is not made to appeal to someone like me, there are still worthwhile things to see and I wouldn’t want to block myself off from all contemporary output.

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        • I don’t see contemporary movies because I don’t have the time. There are so many movies of the past that I haven’t yet seen but that I want to see. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the western genre for example.

          When it comes to movies of the past I’m pretty good at choosing which films to see. I’ve got to the stage where there’s about an 80 percent chance I’ll score a winner and the movie will be worth seeing. With contemporary movies there’s maybe a ten percent chance I’ll like the movie. Of the ten or so 21st century movies I’ve seen there’s just one that I really loved, and it was made in 2001, more than twenty years ago.

          When I see trailers of today’s movies my reaction is invariably the same – I feel that I really really don’t want to see the movie.

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  7. One of the pleasures of following this blog is the interesting discussions that follow Colin’s fine essays. The traffic has increased a great deal over the years and deservedly so. Colin’s main credo seems to be to bring generally unheralded films to our attention and long may he continue to do so. Since Warner Archive stopped their website and went over to Facebook I’ve found it harder and harder to follow their releases although as far as I know they now only release Blu Ray’s. It’s rumoured that they plan to release 50 Classic films next year to tie in with their 100th anniversary.
    As far as previously released DVD’s go I had no idea that they had released TENSION which I have picked up at a reasonable price on ebay. Also combing ‘through Colin’s back pages I came across JEOPARDY so I’ve ordered that too.
    Furthermore it was only recently I discovered that Warner Archive had released A CRY IN THE NIGHT (1956) a film I’ve been after for ages as well as WHEN STRANGERS MARRY which Warners
    released under it’s alternate title BETRAYED. I’m not interested in bootlegs and I’ve stopped trading for over 4 years now plus the fact I’m strictly a physical media guy. Heaven knows there are enough titles among “official” releases to keep me busy and I no longer am prepared to watch ultra rare film ‘through a haze of Medieval murk. Considering Warners library includes MGM,RKO,Allied Artists and Monogram titles I DO wish that they would issue packages
    of these obscure Noirish type films in box sets or whatever.
    There’s an early Anthony Mann Republic picture I’d love to see STRANGE IMPERSONATION which I hope sees the light of day at some point. Calling any old black & white thriller “Noir” helps these things
    sell although I, myself would never consider prestige titles like THE DETECTIVE STORY and THE DESPERATE HOURS as
    Noir although they have appeared recently in Noir box sets. Came across a title I.ve never even heard of TWO OF A KIND with Edmond O Brien and Lizabeth Scott….any RTHC readers know this film?

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  8. I hope you’ll forgive me for veering off-topic but we were talking about pre-code westerns recently and Law and Order (1932) got some favourable mentions. I just thought I’d report back that I bought the French Sidonis DVD and it includes the 1953 remake as a bonus disc. The English-language versions of both movies are included.

    And the 1932 Law and Order really is superb. Incredibly dark and with a flavour that differentiates it sharply from 1950s westerns. It reminds me of another movie Walter Huston made in 1932, a non-western, The Beast of the City. When you consider that in that same year Walter Huston also made Rain all I can say is that 1932 was quite a year for him.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dee, I have really come to appreciate Walter Huston in recent times. Both the films you mention are excellent. I would also strongly recommend “AMERICAN MADNESS” (1932) and “DODSWORTH” (1936). To me these are ‘adult’ films with mature storylines.

      Liked by 1 person

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