“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.