Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Kind of Dame

TENSION (1949; d: John Berry)

The "tension" the title refers to is adeptly elucidated in the movie’s opening moments by a hard-boiled, heavy-handed  homicide detective, Lt. Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan), who gives it to us straight--speaking directly to the audience--about what it takes to crack a murder case (and likewise, a murder suspect).  “I work on people.  Play up to their strengths, pour it on their weaknesses.  I romance them or ignore them.  Kiss them.  Press them.  But whatever way…keep stretching them.”  All this is of course demonstrated with the help of a large rubber band, you see, because “everything, everybody, has a breaking point.”  To make his point plainly, the good lieutenant snaps the rubber band, which frantically ushers in the title credits sequence.


Intermittently narrating with a bit of extra gusto and the inside scoop, Lt. Bonnabel introduces us to affable, hard-working Warren Quimby (the always excellent Richard Basehart), night manager at one of the city’s drugstores.  A recent veteran of the second world war and a young husband, Warren is tied up at work 12 hours a night, 5 nights a week, holding true to the dream of buying a house in the suburbs and raising a family with his lovely young wife, Claire (Audrey Totter).  But a dream is but a dream.  

Soon after meeting the bespectacled, mild-mannered Warren, we discover his wife Claire is quite a piece of work.  She's mean, impractical, selfish, averse to the binds of marriage, but more than anything else, she lives for the attention of men--and her moral compass is swinging every which way.  It’s her second nature and everyone seems aware of it except Warren, who is just beginning to realize the scope of his denial. 

In that sense, Audrey Totter captures many a returning soldier's worst fear: that the girl whose lingering memory he’d held so much hope for, the one he spent his darkest hours pining for, is anything but the sweetheart he thought she was.  As Claire, Audrey Totter is strikingly sexual and effortlessly cruel, an absolute natural femme fatale if there ever was one. 

"You're cute."
One night a big-shot by the name of Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough) steps into the drugstore and moves in on Claire, wooing her with his flashy car and brash manner. This, it turns out, is just her kind of man.  After a couple of doses of big Barn, Claire is packing her bags and not looking back.

Not willing to give her up without a fight, Warren rushes out to the beach house love-nest where his wife and lover wallow in sin, only to be easily thrashed by the swaggering alpha-brute. 

Driving home thoroughly beaten and emasculated, Warren's humiliation is total.  Having lost the woman he so desperately loves and in such an ugly manner, he loses sight of himself and everything else, becoming entirely focused on revenge. 

One of the most remarkable things about TENSION is its frankness.  In 1949, most movies (the so-called “A” or studio pictures, in particular) weren’t willing or able to show sex and marriage in this light, and so the films noir, the mystery thrillers, became the refuge.

There is much I don't want to reveal, as TENSION takes some unexpected turns and ought not to spoil, but I would like to mention a young, stunningly beautiful Cyd Charisse (the dancing goddess supreme from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN) also stars, though in a bit of a thankless, dance-less, legless(!) role as—dare I say it—the nice girl.  Yuck.

Let her dance!  I don't want to go off on a rant here, but nobody goes to a rodeo to watch the horses graze.  

Nevertheless, amidst an exhilarating array of meaty dialogue and terrific performances from its leads, the aptly-titled TENSION delivers the goods while never quite giving away its next move.