RSS Feed

Tension (Nov. 25, 1949)

Tension (1949)
Directed by John Berry

I recently did an MGM double bill and watched John Berry’s Tension right after I watched George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949).

After the wit, charm, and progressive gender politics of Adam’s Rib, I was turned off by the first reel of Tension and its tale of infidelity and murder. Audrey Totter is the classic femme fatale with no motivation, backstory, or realistic psychology. She’s just bad because she wants to be.

Ditto for her nebbishy husband played by Richard Basehart, who puts up with being cuckolded to such a ridiculous degree that I wanted to reach into the movie, slap him around, and tell him to stop deluding himself and just get a divorce, already.

Audrey Totter in Tension

But after the plot took one crazy turn after another, Tension totally won me over. The plotting is byzantine but never confusing, the performances are all solid, Allen Rivkin’s screenplay (based on a story by John D. Klorer) is clever and engaging, the score by André Previn is terrific, and the film offers a chance to see the lovely Cyd Charisse in a rare non-dancing role. Also, as an MGM production, Tension looks absolutely fantastic, and features a lot of great location shooting in and around Los Angeles.

Richard Basehart brings the same chameleonic everyman qualities to his role in Tension that he brought to his role in He Walked by Night (1948). Unlike that film, however, Basehart isn’t a trigger-happy sociopath in Tension, he’s just an average guy who changes his appearance to commit murder after he’s pushed to the edge by his cheating wife.

Richard Basehart

Basehart plays a pharmacist named Warren Quimby who works the night shift to make enough money to buy a house in the suburbs for himself and his wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). Unfortunately, she’s as faithless as the day is long, and she runs off with a hairy, knuckle-dragging he-man named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

After Barney Deager beats the tar out of Warren Quimby when he confronts Deager and his wife on the beach, Quimby vows revenge. He gets a pair of contact lenses to change his appearance and moves into an apartment under an assumed name. By creating a person who doesn’t exist, he thinks he’ll be able to murder Barney Deager and get away with it.

Events quickly spiral out of Quimby’s control, as they tend to in film noirs.

He falls for his pretty neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse), who falls even harder for him, his murder plot goes badly awry, and before he knows it, he’s in up to his neck as a dogged pair of homicide detectives played by Barry Sullivan and William Conrad are on his trail.

Tension isn’t exactly a realistic film, but it’s one of the most fun and twistiest noirs I’ve seen in a long time.

7 responses »

  1. I loved your write-up, Adam, and I love this movie. In fact, when I read your first few lines, I was all, “Say WHAT?!?!” and I actually skipped further down in your review to see if you actually were going to trash this movie! LOL. You can imagine my relief when I read that it didn’t take long for you to be won over by its wonderfulness. I haven’t seen this one in a while — it is totally time for a rewatch.

    • Thanks for the kind words! Yeah, I really loved this movie, especially the detectives played by Barry Sullivan and William Conrad. The last line of the movie, delivered by Sullivan, had me in stitches. If you don’t remember the line, you will when you give it a rewatch.

      • I just watched the movie on TCM, but missed the last 3 minutes! They’re all assembled in Paul Southern’s apt. (I loved how he chose the name Sothern 😄) Claire had hidden the gun. Mary intrudes, gets shut out, Warren shows up, crashes through the window struggling with Claire when detectives arrive. Told to continue what she had come for… she produced the gun. Then what?
        Answer with a SPOILER ALERT or privately, but now I must know the last line of the movie!

      • Hi Roberta. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this, and I honestly don’t remember exactly how it ended, so I threw your question out to people on Twitter and here’s what I got. From @Condimentgrrl – “The police officer investigating appears to be helping Claire the wife, but he sets her up to lead them to the gun and they catch her trying to frame Warren and she goes off to jail and he gets to be with Cyd Charisse”

      • Roberta Rimbault

        Thanks for your quick response, Adam!

        Yes, I saw enough to surmise the ending offered by Condimentgrrl… nice that you had that interaction. You intrigued me with your reference to the last line which really made me regret missing the very end. 😝 Oh well, Claire was good at loving ‘em and leaving ‘em… now she was leaving so Paul/Warren could be loving Mary. What was Claire’s motive for shooting the brute?


  2. Thanks Adam. Like the use of the term twisted. I’ll be returning … Like your blog subject. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

  3. Pingback: The 10 Best Films of 1949 | OCD Viewer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: