Tension

May 6, 2009 at 12:33 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , )


Tension is a 1949 release that stars some now relatively unknown stars but who where familiar faces to audiences during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Richard Basehart is the protagonist Warren Quimby/Paul Southern who is best known by American audiences today as the narrator for the original version of Knight Rider, but became a highly recognizable international star not long after this film for Las strada. Those who are familiar with noir know Basehart from several other films such as He Walked By Night, 14 Hours and House on Telegraph Hill.  

Accompanying Basehart in this film are a couple of sexy stars of the day in Audrey Totter playing Quimby’s wife Claire and Cyd Charisse playing Warren’s eventual love interest Mary Chandler. Also notable is Barry Sullivan in one of his best roles as the police lieutenant Collier Bonnabel. 

Audrey Totter as Claire Quimby is a real piece of work. She is a femme fatale, possibly the deadly type. She runs around on Warren, even allowing herself to be picked up at the counter of his own drug store/soda fountain. Warren saves his money to buy her a house on the beach but she will not even get out of the car to look at it.

 It is only a matter of time before Warren finds out that Claire is running around on him and just about that time she decides to leave him for a more masculine and supposedly richer guy, Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough), who already has a home on a secluded beach. 

The story begins to pick up after Warren confronts Claire and Barney on the beach and takes a bit of a beating from Barney. It is rather far fetched, but in noir we are used to plot elements not always adding up, but Warren decides it is time for a new identity and gets contacts to replace his glasses. A four-eyed geek he will be no more, ala Superman. With his new look, he becomes Paul Southern and begins to plot the murder of Barney Deager. 

Warren, as Paul Southern, takes up residence in an apartment complex and immediately runs into Mary Chandler (Cyd Charisse). There could be no better luck and there is an immediate flash of interest between the two and she becomes his girl all the while he is plotting how to murder Deager. No offense to Audrey Totter, but one look at Cyd Charisse and I would have forgotten all about Claire and any vendetta. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the accompanying photo.

 At the moment of truth, with a dagger to Deager’s throat, Warren can’t go through with it. However, in true noir fashion, Deager winds up dead the next morning any way and the hunt begins for Paul Southern.

 Warren is happy in his new life and feels better about himself after not killing Deager. Warren is ready to move on with Mary and forget about Claire and Barney, but this is a noir and even his new life is about to be turned upside down as Claire shows up the next morning at their home and not long after that, Lieutenant Bonnabel. Arriving with Bonnabel is another Lieutenant, Blackie Gonsales, played by William Conrad of Jake and the Fatman fame as well as one of the hit men in The Killers.

 In true Superman style, Bonnabel and Gonsales have a hard time tracking down Paul Southern because they just can’t seem to notice that Warren is just Paul Southern with glasses on and they know where he lives and works.

 It all comes to a head in Paul Southern’s apartment with all five of the main characters stuffed into one room and the guilty one gives themselves away due to their own treachery. 

Barry Sullivan narrates throughout, but it is not overbearing and his voice only comes into the film on a few occasions after the beginning prologue. I think Sullivan is at his best in this film and at times it appears that he and William Conrad are going to steal the picture from Basehart and the ladies.

 Tension has some definite film noir stylistic elements. The way the whole scene where Warren can’t go through with the murder of Deager is pure noir with low angle shots, bisecting shadows and some nice flickering lights bouncing off the ceiling. It would have been more appealing if there would have been a few more long takes in the film to help create more tension as the film grinds toward the end.

 Tension is not what I would call a visually stunning film. It lacks somewhat in visual style and the score is a bit too much, but the story pulls you in and the acting is top-notch. Basehart shows his acting chops in this film, basically playing two different characters as Southern is a much more confident man than the milk toast Warren. Basehart, Sullivan, Totter, Charisse, and Conrad are all excellent in this film and their performances alone make this a must see film noir.

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