Review: Tension (1949)

tension 1949 movie poster one sheetIt’s that age old tale, a marriage of the wrong people. In the dynamite 1949 noir thriller Tension, it’s milquetoast pharmacist Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) who’s married to the scandalous harlot Claire (Audrey Totter). She flaunts her sexuality in front of him, stealing from the pharmacy and vanishing just about every evening to be with other men while he meekly toils at the counter of the all-night drug store in town.

Finally she meets the older, far more successful Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough) and that affair leads to her moving in with him at his beautiful Malibu beach home. Warren is furious with her, but he’s also furious with himself for being so meek and he vows to murder Deager when his attempt to plead with Claire results in him being beaten up by the older man.

Quimby is a smart guy, though, so he sets up a fake identity as traveling salesman Paul Southern, rents an apartment and establishes a life. It’ll be Southern who commits the crime, leaving Quimby free of any possible guilt in the crime. As Southern, however, he meets and falls for lovely neighbor Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse). Still, Deager humiliated him and that’s unforgivable, so he continues his quest for vengeance.

Until a funny thing happens as he stands over Deager, gun in hand: Southern realizes that he doesn’t need to kill him. He doesn’t need to do anything except walk away from his identity as Quimby and move full time into his far better life as Southern, even including new girlfriend Mary. So he tossed down his gun and walks out, telling Deager “you can have her. You deserve each other”.

When Deager is murdered, however, the plot, as they say, thickens, and Lieutenant Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) shows up and tries to unravel the complexities of the story and figure out who’s really who and, of course, who actually committed the crime.

X and Y being interrogated by Lt. Z, from "Tension" 1949
Chanler (Cyd Charisse) and Quimby (Richard Basehart) being interrogated by Lt. Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan), from “Tension” 1949

The film is actually told from the perspective of Lt. Bonnabel and uses a complex narrative approach where events are foreshadowed by Bonnabel’s dry commentary. He explains to the viewer how his approach as a detective is to keep increasing the suspect’s tension until they snap and everything is revealed. With this philosophy in mind, he cunningly tricks and misrepresents facts to different suspects to see how they react and, in the final climactic scene, well, no spoilers. It’s a doozy and beautifully resolved.

Tension is a hidden gem, a great example of the noir crime movement of the 1940’s, with a tight script written by Allen Rivkin, based on an original story by John D. Klorer. Directed by John Berry, it’s well worth tracking down and enjoying.

Tip: I caught this on Turner Classic Movies, so check the TCM listings for another screening of Tension.

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