Friday, December 04, 2009

TENSION (1949)

An unsung gem of prime film noir. Richard Basehart is a mild-mannered, glasses-wearing, night-shift pharmacist; Audrey Totter is his icy blonde tramp of a wife who mistreats him and flirts shamelessly with other men. Basehart has been saving money to buy a perfect little suburban house, but when he drives her out to see it, she refuses to get out of the car, and even blows the car horn to drown out his pleading. Soon she's run off with Lloyd Gough, whom she refers to as a "big man"; Basehart goes out to Gough's beach house and gets into fisticuffs with Gough (which Totter watches with a mix of disgust and sexual excitement in her eyes). After getting beaten up, the meek pharmacist concocts a plan: he gets contact lenses, leases an apartment, sets up a new weekend identity, and plots to kill Gough. He tries, but can’t bring himself to go through with it. Somebody does, however, and soon the cops are hot on the trail of his alter ego.

Most of the elements of classic noir are here: an urban setting, lots of nighttime scenes, a conflicted protagonist, a femme fatale, moral gray areas, betrayal, and cops. Basehart, whom I'd never seen in anything aside from his 60's TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, is good, quite believable both as the nerdish nice guy and the would-be killer. He's actually kind of nerdy-cute in glasses (Gough calls him a "four-eyed punk"), though how he wound up with Totter in the first place is never explained. Cyd Charisse is a young woman who Basehart meets in his new identity; as usual in a dramatic part—no dancing here—she is adequate and no more. Barry Sullivan is fine as the cop who narrates the story, but the real star here is Totter, looking like a mash-up of the sexiest parts of Carolyn Jones and Gloria Grahame, who glowers and pouts and struts with the best of the noir villainesses. In an interesting twist, it's implied that she and Sullivan have a past: when they first meet, they seem to recognize each other, and he says to her, "I’ve got a file on you that goes back father than you'd like to remember and up to when you wish you could forget." Despite that, they do a little hot canoodling, though mostly he does it because he suspects she might be the killer and he's trying get her to slip up. Outlandishly sexy music plays whenever Totter enters the scene—it's effective the first time around, though it had me chuckling during a second viewing. This movie is not exactly a polished masterpiece, but it is great fun, and is available as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 4 from Warner Bros. [DVD]

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