A bitter post-war American Dream frayed into Nightmare
TENSION is a powerful film noir with an engaging story and some terrifc performances. Mild-mannered pharamacist Warren Quimby is married to a an over-sexed, unfaithful, dissatisfied tramp – mercenary man-trap Claire (Audrey Totter). After disparaging his manhood, and his paltry efforts to make her happy, she leaves him for hunky, brutal liquor salesman Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough). Warren plans his revenge, and the movie keeps tossing in unexpected plot twists until the very last frame….. This film does not conform to any strict formula of noir construction, but is a genuine noir classic by breaking so many of the rules.
Audrey Totter is brilliant as the unfaithful bitch of a wife. She burns up the screen and makes a minor B picture look like a masterpiece. Lloyd Gough is perfect as her flashy, insensitive lover. Tom D’andrea is marvelous as Basehart’s friend and colleague – Freddie. William Conrad is terrific in a small role. He walks a fine line between humor and violence as a smartass Mexican cop. John Berry’s taut direction is fast-paced and assured, and Previn’s energetic score is sultry and provocative. Lovely Cyd Charisse as Paul’s object of affection plays nice-girl Mary Chanler - and therefore, not the most interesting character in such a gritty film.
Sure, the plot has holes you could drive a steamroller through. Still, it’s worth watching to see one of the most underrated actresses of all-time – Audrey Totter - chew the scenery. Her pouty baby face could go from fierce to lustful to innocent and back within the blink of an eye. She purrs her lines in a feline contalto, a canine growl and a sultry whisper. She is sensual, strong, and, seductive. Her superb performance as the floozie Claire is chilling and memorable. Totter is the glue that holds this film together. For once you can believe that the female lead in a noir could be the cause of all this trouble.
Audrey was great in movies like LADY IN THE LAKE (1947) and THE SET UP (1949). Her thirty seconds of screen time in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946) as the mystery girl who steals John Garfield away from Lana Turner are enough to melt the butter on your popcorn. She is one of the truly talented actresses of her era, and a genuine Film Noir Icon. Here she is the quintessential noir bad girl – described in lurid detail in every pulp crime novel ever written. Dripping with sex and cheap perfume and bad ideas and still somehow likeable, or at least irresistible. She earns her musical theme in the movie- a sultry, teasing clarinet roll- as no femme fatale ever has. TENSION is well-worth watching for her performance alone.
Kudos to Richard Basehart as the husband. Baseheart was not afraid to play Warren as a wimpy loser, and he displays the fear and insecurity that most male leads would never reveal. The locations are perfect – the all-night drugstore, the seedy bowling alley, the Malibu beach house…..all photographed in a crisp, timeless black and white that’s as fresh today as it was over 60 years ago.
The film has some flaws, of course – most notably the character of Lt. Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan), the detective/narrator who plays it a little too darn cute with the lead characters instead of simply doing his job and arresting the killer. (It’s sorta tough to remain an impartial investigator after you’ve french-kissed
one of the suspects.) And then there’s the unbelievable coincidences: Warren devotes his life to killing Barney Deager then has a sudden change of heart – all on the same night that someone else decides to kill him. Very convenient.
But still, TENSION is a suspenseful, intelligent, quirky, and intriguing little film. Superb atmosphere, solid performances, and excellent cinematography combine to create an engaging mystery. This film is highly recommended and a must for lovers of film noir.