Monday, April 24, 2006

Tension (1950)

The war to preserve a way of life was behind us. Distinct places with strange sounding names like Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Falaise and Remagen had ebbed from the collective consciousness. The warriors had returned home and were ready to turn into reality those dreams that had sustained them during the long years away from home and hearth.

Tension, a 1950 piece under the direction of the soon to be blacklisted John Berry, traces the return to society of one such vet with a simple dream. Warren Quimby’s was of a steady job, a little house in that new American institution called the suburbs, and raising a family with a devoted and lovely wife by his side. Unfortunately for Warren, the woman whose bumper he’d hitched his trailer full of dreams just happen had a few of her own. Claire Quimby’s idea of a little bit of wonderful didn’t quite mesh with that of the poor, bespectacled and diminutive Warren. Hers ran more towards fur coats, big convertibles, and big burly men smoking big cigars. It would seem from all appearances, that to Mrs. Quimby, size does matter and her devoted pharmacists husband just doesn’t measure up. So what’s a girl to do? If you’re the sultry, good time had by all Claire you simply cast your line, hook the biggest fish and give your husband the brush, which is just what she does. Her actions start in motion the inevitable clash that will pit the over matched Warren against the burly object of her lust, Barney Deager.

The three principles consist of the always dependable Richard Basehart again delivering a solid performance as Warren, Audrey Totter as the deliciously nasty Claire and Lloyd Gough delegated to grunting and menacing his way across the screen as Barney. The stars are backed by a stellar cast of noir vets; Tom D'Andrea, Barry Sullivan, William Conrad, and Cyd Charisse whose spread eagle girl next door intro to Warren leaves little to the imagination as to what their relationship will blossom into.

While Navel vet Warren toils as the druggist and night manager of all night drug store, with living quarters upstairs, Barney lives a life of leisure doing little more than sun bath and barbeque on the beach of Malibu. Somehow Warren is under the delusion that hard work, and saving for a little house in the valley in which to raise a couple kids will satisfy the hot house tomato he’s married to. Our boy Barney on the other hand, gets his kicks stealing other men’s wife’s and knocking around men half his size, vises for which he’ll intimately pay the final price.

The background on Claire, the object of all the fuss, is murky. However, there’s the slightest mention that she’s strayed on the wrong side of the law before and only through the actions of our protagonist was she saved. This happened in San Diego during his days in the Navy and this act coupled with how “cute” he looked in his uniform were enough to get him the girl of his dreams, at least temporarily. Once Claire flees into the arms of Barney the Beachcomber, Warren is blinded to the reality that her leaving is the single good thing she’s ever done for him. Determined to get Clare back, Warren treks down to Barney’s swinging beach pad and confronts the couple in hopes of convincing his wife to return. This ends badly for not only does she refuse but he suffers the embarrassment of her hulking lover tossing him about like a 98 pound weakling in front of her. Now the fuse is lit and ignites all the fury and revenge Warren can muster. Driving away for the beach beaten and bloodied he reasons with himself if he can’t win back his wife he’ll simply eliminate the competition.

At this juncture the film makes it’s plunge into darkness and takes on the fleeting feeling of a true noir as opposed to a “lover did him wrong” melodrama. To carry out his plan to murder Barney, Warren under goes a transformation physically, philosophically and also apparently economically. Our mild mannered druggist through the wonders of contact lenses becomes the debonair man about town Paul Sothern in order to carry out his plan. He’s also able to afford moving into a new apartment, sports around in a convertible and dresses quite snappy. He, to all casual observers he is Paul Sothern. Strictly by happenstance when moving into his new digs does he also meet his new neighbor, Mary Chanler, a throw away role by Cyd Charisse. With all the main characters now in place, the action escalates and only momentarily slows down with the heavy dose of sappy music used to accompany those moments Paul and Mary share in deep shared thoughts.

Once this stall is behind, Warren/Paul moves swiftly through the dark with his plan to take his full measure from Barney. Arriving at the beach house bathed in shadows, he enters but ultimately when the moment of truth arrives and Warren/Paul has his chance at revenge, he relents. Rather than being trapped in a fatalistic nightmare like other true noir protagonists, he has the ability to escape his self made hell. Just as the leopard can’t change his spots, Warren’s true nature overcomes his temporary journey to the dark side.

Lest we fear all is lost, we have a gal still on the scene who’s more than up the task Warren/Paul found himself lacking in. Without revealing any spoilers, suffice to say the femme fatal saves the day and gives us what we’ve long been waiting for, Barney’s comeuppance. The balance of the film finds the police (Sullivan and Conrad, especially the former) using what could generously be called “questionable” law enforcement tactics. Can you spell “entrapment,” to capture the guilty party who comes to view Sullivan as her next savior/victim.

Upon the films conclusion, I had cause to ponder. Had this film been produced by say RKO rather than MGM, how the entire package would have been top drawer noir. Which is not to say the product as is, isn’t still enjoyable but it causes one to think, what if?

Written by Raven


  1. Raven, I just watched it. Great entertainment here. I also like the glass quarter-sized contact lenses! And when the doctor said he had to make a cast of his eye to fit him.. ouch.

  2. One of the better police procedurals I have seen. It differs from the usual fare in that the lead cop (Barry Sullivan) seems to be sadistic and manipulative in his pursuit of the bad guy (who, in this case, is a gal). Audrey Totter is great in this, as the tough as nails femme fatale. Richard Basehart is excellent as well. I also liked the "tension" metaphor of the rubber band, used in crucial scenes. A great little noir! - Wes Clark

  3. Just watched this film this evening, and quite enjoyed it.

    Afterwards, my wife and I realized that there really were only 6 major locations in the film -- but, during the film, we were so involved in the story that we didn't realize this _during_ the running time.

    Good performances all around, and a nice, economical film noir.

  4. Nice film. The drug store interior was incredible really felt like a real store (although I am sure it was a recreation given the multiple shooting locations there in). Contrast that to the stagey grocery store interior in Double Indemity.

    The suburban homes were cool too -- just a glimpse of 1950 idea of "modern." Now retro-cool.

    Cyd Charrise was the especially great. Very fetching, I love the way these incredible women exist in movies just waiting to strike up a relationship with the first nice guy to walk into their life. Hell she didn't even seem to mind that Paul/Walter was already hitched! You'll notice in a scene that Cyd had some incredibly low slung breasts.

  5. Just a note about the grocery store interior in Double Indemnity: It was a real store, and even the stars were under police guard to ensure they didn't steal any food - it was wartime!