Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tension (1949)

Mrs. Claire Quimby is one of the great femme fatales, but she occupies the center of a flawed movie. As Claire, star Audrey Totter creates a full blooded man-eater, but she has to swim against the tide of a silly script. In a way, this underscores a fundamental truth about film noirs: most of them are far from perfect.

If it misses perfection TENSION is still an excellent piece of work. Directed by soon-to-be-blacklisted John Berry (one of the names Edward Dmytryk ratted out to Congress), it stars Totter as the promiscuous wife of milquetoast pharmacist Warren Quimby (played by Richard Basehart). While poor Warren slaves away behind the counter at an all-night pharmacy, Claire runs around town with the likes of liquor salesman Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough). Finally, Claire gets bored with coming back to her husband, so she dumps him and moves in with Deager for a life of drinking and sunbathing. Warren goes out to Deager’s beach house to confront them and gets his ass kicked in front of his wife for his trouble. So far, we’re on pretty solid ground. We’re on pretty solid ground, too, when Quimby decides to kill Deager. It’s his brilliant murder scheme that presents the big problem of the script.

I won’t give away his master plan (because, as I say, the movie still works despite this flaw) but I will say that it does not represent a high point in the history of premeditated murder. You watch it unfold, and you think, “God, Quimby, that’s sorta dumb. There’re a lot simpler ways to go about this, you know.” This problem is compounded by watching the cops fail to figure out the "mystery" for a while.

And yet, TENSION demonstrates another fundamental truth about film noir: great style can redeem an inadequate plot. This movie is a textbook example what a film noir should look like. Berry is nimble with his camera, always finding the best shot and the most effective way to convey information with images. Watch the scene of Quimby coming home after work, afraid of finding his wife gone. The camera movements work like music to wed his fear of finding her gone to an erotic charge of finding her there. Berry’s camera is in synch with a tremendous score by Andre Previn. The composer laces a sexy saxophone under Totter’s every appearance in the film, musical shorthand for a fallen woman promising earthly delights in exchange for a man’s soul. The final component in the film’s style is the beautiful cinematography by Harry Stradling. Stradling’s work was less expressionist than that of someone like John Alton, but it is no less effective. His work here rivals his achievement in Preminger’s masterpiece ANGEL FACE.

On top of everything else, TENSION also boasts a great ensemble cast. Richard Basehart, so often cast as psychos, is perfect as the cuckolded husband burning to get revenge. It’s one of his best performances, and a sign that he was capable of much more than was so often asked of him. Barry Sullivan and William Conrad are a couple of smartass cops, laconic and amused by the world in which they operate (though they’re a little slow to pick up on Quimby’s goofy plan). And Cyd Charisse is lovely and likable as Mary, the dark-haired good girl who falls for Quimby, an effective contrast to Totter’s blonde goddess of evil.

And Audrey Totter—she of the perfect figure and severe eyebrows —here earns her place in the pantheon of deadly femmes. Allen Rivkin’s script may revolve around her husband’s doofus-level strategizing, but Clare electrifies every scene she’s in and lifts the whole movie to a different level. Totter never plays Claire as an evil caricature but rather as a woman with a large sexual appetite and a hunger for the easy life. Even as the plot progresses and Clare becomes more of a monster, she never completely loses our sympathy. She may be no damn good, but when she tells Warren what a schmuck he’s become ( “It was different in San Diego - you were kind of cute in your uniform. You were full of laughs then. Well, you're all laughed out now.”) it’s difficult to miss the disappointment that’s driving her. Femme fatales are always most effective when their evil derives from a real emotional place, in Clare’s case her violent reaction to the postwar suburban-utopia. She prefers the speed and movement of the war years over her husband’s enthusiastic promise of a house with a garbage disposal.

Well, hell, who can blame her?


Here's a link to an interesting interview with Totter.

And here again I'm going to give yet another shout-out to an amazing book by Eddie Muller called Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir. If you fall in love with Audrey Totter--and you should be warned that watching TENSION
might very well put you under her spell--you will want to read this book, which features a long section on her life and career. It also features sections on five other noir goddesses--Jane Greer, Ann Savage, Coleen Gray, Marie Windsor, and Evelyn Keyes. It's a fascinating book about these six women, their careers in Hollywood, struggles in life, and rebirth as cult figures.

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