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Tag Archives: Richard Basehart

Tension (Nov. 25, 1949)

Tension
Tension (1949)
Directed by John Berry
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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.

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He Walked by Night (Nov. 24, 1948)

He Walked by Night
He Walked by Night (1948)
Directed by Alfred L. Werker
Bryan Foy Productions / Eagle-Lion Films

He Walked by Night is a police procedural directed by Alfred L. Werker, with uncredited directorial assistance from Anthony Mann. The starkly lighted cinematography is by John Alton, who had previously worked with Mann on two of his most memorable film noirs: T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

Docudrama films were a popular genre after World War II. The genre began with documentarian and newsreel producer Louis de Rochemont’s purportedly true espionage stories The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), as well as his fact-based legal drama Boomerang (1947).

Producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin’s film The Naked City (1948) wasn’t based on any single true incident, but it sought to depict realistic police work — a team of detectives recording the details of a crime scene, interviewing witnesses, tracking down leads, and pursuing suspects.

He Walked by Night didn’t invent the police procedural, but it’s probably the single most influential film in the genre. It featured Jack Webb in his first credited role, and his relationship with the film’s technical advisor, LAPD Sgt. Marty Wynn, led to the creation of the radio show Dragnet in 1949. (The series hit television in 1951.)

The film begins with a screen of text explaining that what you’re about to see is a true story, and is based on the case of one of the most diabolically cunning killers ever to be hunted by the police. It ends with the following sentence: “Only the names are changed — to protect the innocent.” Sound familiar, Dragnet fans?

Like every film or book that can properly be called a police procedural, He Walked by Night features a team of police officers and detectives. The lead investigator in the case, Sgt. Marty Brennan, is played by Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady, fresh off a starring role in another docudrama, the “ripped from the headlines” prison escape drama Canon City (1948). The other police officers include Capt. Breen (Roy Roberts), Sgt. Chuck Jones (James Cardwell), and police laboratory technician Lee Whitey (Jack Webb).

Richard Basehart

The meatiest role in the picture belongs to Richard Basehart, who plays Roy Morgan (a.k.a. Roy Martin), an electronics-obsessed former serviceman who — in the tense opening scene of the film — graduates from breaking & entering to murder.

Basehart delivers a lean, mean performance. He has some great scenes with his fence, Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell), but other than that he has very little dialogue. The film hangs on his performance, and he’s completely believable as an endlessly resourceful sociopath who’s able to elude the police through a combination of planning and luck. (The character was inspired by the real-life case of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, who went on a crime spree in 1945 and 1946.)

He Walked by Night in the Sewers

It’s a cliche to say that the real star of a film noir is its cinematography, but it’s usually true. John Alton’s photography consistently gives the low-budget film an intense, driving atmosphere. Nearly ever shot in the film is a masterwork of lighting and composition, culminating in the final chase through the Los Angeles sewer system.

He Walked by Night is currently in the public domain, so it can be seen on YouTube (below), and is available on DVD from a variety of companies. The only caveat is that some of them look pretty lousy, so noir fans who want to own this film on DVD are advised to pick up the disc from MGM and to avoid at all costs the cheapo disc from Alpha Video, which looks just terrible.

Cry Wolf (July 18, 1947)

Peter Godfrey’s Cry Wolf is a good-looking thriller with two great stars and an intriguing setup, but it never quite fulfills its promise, and eventually peters out with an ending that you can see coming a mile away.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a young widow, Sandra Demarest née Marshall, who arrives at the creepy New England mansion of Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn). Mark is a cold, imposing patriarch who lives with his brother, Senator Charles Caldwell (Jerome Cowan), and his teenage niece, Julie Demarest (Geraldine Brooks).

Sandra claims she was married to Mark’s deceased nephew, James Caldwell Demarest (Richard Basehart). She says she was working toward her doctor’s degree in geology. Jim came to her as a friend and she helped him. She needed money. He needed his inheritance. (Jim and his sister Julie have money that is kept in trust until they are 30. If, however, Jim were to marry, control of his inheritance would immediately pass from Mark to Jim’s wife.)

Sandra tells Mark she knows he would have preferred to choose a wife for Jim himself — someone placid — and she assures Mark that she is not a placid girl.

Jim gave Sandra $2,000 to complete her studies and she was to divorce him in six months. There were no other strings. They were married five months before his death. She has come to collect his inheritance. Two thousand dollars has become $2 million.

Doubt and mistrust informs Sandra’s relationship with Mark. Mark isn’t convinced that Sandra’s marriage certificate is genuine, and Sandra suspects Mark is up to no good in his mysterious laboratory. Nevertheless, there are clearly romantic sparks between the two. Also, Mark’s niece Julie instantly becomes attached to Sandra, and begs her to stay.

So it’s a perfect setup for a Gothic thriller. Mark struts and preens about the house, a pipe clenched between his teeth, spitting out nasty one-liners like, “Next time you hear some odd noise in the night, just follow the memorable custom of your sex and stick your head under the bedclothes.” And Sandra gets to play at being a grown-up Nancy Drew, pulling herself up to Mark’s lab in a dumbwaiter and then hiding behind a door when he unexpectedly arrives, and later climbing along the eaves of the mansion and dropping down a skylight to spy on him.

Cry Wolf reminded me a lot of Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946), which is another Gothic thriller about a not-terribly-romantic love triangle in which one-third of the equation is absent for most of the picture.

Like Undercurrent, Cry Wolf is competently put together, and it’s worth seeing if you like the film’s stars, but it never really takes flight. Franz Waxman’s musical score and Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography are both top-notch, and add a good deal of suspense to the shadowy proceedings, but there’s only so far that atmosphere can take a picture. Ultimately, Cry Wolf is a mystery that’s not terribly mysterious.

Repeat Performance (May 22, 1947)

The stars look down on New Year’s Eve in New York. They say that fate is in the stars, that each of our years is planned ahead, and nothing can change destiny. Is that true? How many times have you said, “I wish I could live this year over again”? This is the story of a woman who did relive one year of her life. It’s almost midnight, and that’s where our story begins.

A shot rings out. Beautiful stage actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) has just killed her alcoholic, cheating husband Barney Page (Louis Hayward) in self-defense. Distraught, she flees and finds herself in the midst of New Year’s Eve revelers. She wades through the crowd and finds her friend, the troubled poet William Williams (Richard Basehart).

She tells him what happened. “Should I call the police?” she asks.

“Oh heavens no,” he says. “They’d only arrest you for murder. They’ve got such one-track minds.”

Instead, William suggests that she see the influential and wise theatrical agent John Friday (Tom Conway) and ask his advice. On the way, she wishes that she could somehow live the past year all over again, and never go to London, where her husband Barney met the scheming adventuress Paula Costello (Virginia Field). Things would be different for William, too, who is fated to be committed to an insane asylum by a woman named Eloise Shaw (Natalie Schafer).

To Sheila’s surprise, William is no longer standing behind her when she arrives at John Friday’s flat, and she’s suddenly wearing a different evening dress. Furthermore, John insists that it’s only the first day of 1946, not the first day of 1947.

Once Sheila wraps her head around what has happened, she realizes what a rare gift she’s been given, and sets out to make things turn out right this time around.

But she quickly finds that events are conspiring to work themselves out the same way, no matter what she does. She doesn’t need to go to London with Barney to make Paula Costello a part of her life, because Paula knocks on the wrong door when she’s in Greenwich Village in New York, and winds up at Sheila and Barney’s party.

Sheila confides in her friend William, who doesn’t quite believe her cock-eyed story, but is sensitive and open-minded enough to listen to her when she tells him what she thinks will happen. “Barney will fall in love with that woman, William. He’ll go on drinking, become a hopeless alcoholic. He’ll grow to hate me. He’ll try to kill me. I’ve got to escape all that, William.”

Sheila vows that she won’t act in Paula’s play, Say Goodbye, which she did the first time she lived through 1946. She and Barney move to Los Angeles, where he stops drinking and gets back to work on his second play. For awhile, it seems as if Sheila will escape her fate, but then a package arrives. It’s a brilliant new play, Barney declares, but there’s no author’s name on it. “What’s the title?” asks Sheila in horror. “It’s called ‘Say Goodbye,'” Barney responds innocently.

Alfred Werker’s Repeat Performance is very much like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. The narrator, John Ireland, even sounds a little like Rod Serling. It’s a tricky, clever film with hints of metafiction, particularly in the scene in which Sheila says she doesn’t want to play an actress because audiences don’t like actresses as characters.

It’s a wonderful film that stands up to multiple viewings. It doesn’t need to be seen twice to be appreciated, but if you do watch it twice, you’ll catch many bits of dialogue that have a deeper layer of meaning once you know how everything will end.

Walter Bullock’s script, from a novel by William O’Farrell, is intelligent, and does an excellent job of balancing its science-fiction elements with its human drama. The acting is great, too, especially by Louis Hayward, who gives a weird and brilliant performance as Sheila’s unlikable but ultimately tragic husband Barney.