Friday, January 09, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Tension (1949)

Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) is the mild-mannered night pharmacist at Coast to Coast Drugstore in the Los Angeles area. When Quimby learns that his wife Claire (Audrey Totter) is unfaithful, he devises an elaborate plan to develop another identity as "Paul Sothern," who will murder Claire's lover Barney (Lloyd Gough) and then disappear forever.

However, Warren/Paul doesn't count on falling in love with Paul's neighbor Mary (Cyd Charisse) and decides murder would be quite pointless when he can simply be happy with Mary. Warren's in a heap of trouble, however, when Barney turns up dead. Whodunit? It's up to Lt. Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) to create enough TENSION to cause the real murderer to crack.

TENSION is a terrific little film noir with an excellent cast, wonderful location shooting in the greater L.A. area, and a jazzy score by Andre Previn (who was all of 20 years old at the time). I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I especially loved the film's setting and atmosphere, including the large pharmacy/hamburger counter, which is an interesting relic of a bygone era (IMDb indicates this set was also used in MGM's 1950 film SIDE STREET), and the exterior shots of the pharmacy's street, Malibu, and the charming apartment building where "Paul" sets up a second home. A comment at IMDb supplies the information that the apartment building still exists and is located off West Olympic Boulevard; sadly, it may be demolished in the next year or so.

This is the third movie in which I've seen Audrey Totter in the last couple of weeks, and she's an utter chameleon, who looks and acts quite differently in each film. She was a goofy, eccentric, black-haired Romanian in THE SAILOR TAKES A WIFE (1945) and a calm, competent doctor with her hair in a bun in HIGH WALL (1947). In this one she's a provocative blonde floozy with an Ann Sothern type hairdo. (The irony there is that Sothern serves as the inspiration for Paul's last name!) Totter is terrific in every incarnation. I have become a definite admirer. Ms. Totter turned 90 last month.

Here is a terrific interview with Audrey Totter that ran in Classic Images in 1999. There are great anecdotes about Robert Taylor, Robert Montgomery, Ray Milland, and Clark Gable, among others. (2016 Update: The link no longer works.)

The mild-mannered druggist turned would-be murderer was one of several odd characters played by Richard Basehart within a span of a few years. He also played the murderer in HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) and the man on the ledge in FOURTEEN HOURS (1951).

William Conrad adds some spark to the proceedings in his role as one of the homicide detectives, Lt. Gonsales. I enjoyed the humor his character provided and the interplay of Gonsales and Bonnabel. It was a bit like getting a preview of the TV detectives Conrad would play on TV's CANNON and JAKE AND THE FATMAN. The same year TENSION was released, Conrad also played a murder detective in EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, reviewed here.

Cyd Charisse also had a dramatic role in EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE. She's lovely in TENSION as Mary, who has faith in "Paul" even when she discovers he isn't quite who she thinks he is. It's a treat to see her in another non-dancing role relatively early in her career.

TENSION was directed by John Berry. He was blacklisted and moved to Europe shortly thereafter. It's a black and white film which runs 95 minutes.

TENSION is available on DVD as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 4. It can also be bought on a "double feature" disc paired with WHERE DANGER LIVES. Extras include a featurette and a commentary with Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, and Audrey Totter herself. (September 2017 Update: TENSION has been reissued on DVD by the Warner Archive.)

TENSION is part of the library at Turner Classic Movies. The trailer can be viewed here.

March 2014 Update: I had the wonderful opportunity to see this film again -- this time in 35mm -- at the Noir City Film Festival.


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