Thursday, June 19, 2008


Like most movie buffs, I have piles of DVDs and countless movies taped off TCM to watch. It’s often quite overwhelming, so much so that when I have a spare evening I don’t know what to watch.

Sometimes the problem is solved for me when someone dies. If there’s a title associated with that person then I’ll watch that in tribute. Ghoulish, I know, but it’s a helpful factor in the “What to Watch” decision-making process.

I was sad to hear of Cyd Charisse’s passing the other day, but it appears she led a good life, and to live relatively healthy to the age of 86 is cause for celebration.

So dipping into the piles, I pulled out “Tension” (1949), a terrific film noir in which she played a supporting role.

Richard Basehart plays Warren Quimby, a mild-mannered, bespectacled pharmacist married to Claire, the prize shrew of all time (the wonderful Audrey Totter). How shrewish? Claire picks up men right in front of her husband while waiting for him at his pharmacy!

There’s a terrific scene where Warren takes Claire to a house in the suburbs he wants to buy for them, where they can lead a good life and raise a family. Her response is a bored honking of the horn to let him know she wants to leave.

No American Dream of homeownership for her, and she soon takes off with Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough), a sleaze ball with a fancy convertible and a beach house.

Still in love with his wife, Warren plans the perfect murder of Barney. Disguised, Warren establishes a new identity as Paul Sothern, and moving into a new apartment, he visits with his new neighbor Mary (Cyd Charisse).

(As part of his disguise, Warren goes to the eye doctor to buy contact lenses. I didn’t know contact lenses were available in 1949 but they were. Fortunately there’s been some modifications since then because Warren holds one up. Holy cow, it looks like a monocle!)

Warren and Mary fall in love and he starts to think he may have a new life together following the murder. Warren goes to the beach house to commit the deed but can’t do it. Warren tells Barney he can have Claire and says goodbye.

Of course, Barney is found murdered the next day. Two homicide detectives (Barry Sullivan and a pre-Cannon William Conrad) come to interview Warren and Claire, who has come home. The police are on the lookout for Paul Sothern, who no one seems to know. It’s as if he never existed. Shortly thereafter, Mary shows up at the police station to file a missing person’s report for Paul Sothern, and yes, she does have a picture of him….

“Tension” operates in classic film noir territory. The essentially decent guy in head over his head with the wrong kind of woman, under suspicion for a murder he didn’t commit, and the police hardly the paragons of virtue seen in more sanitized movies.

“Tension” was directed by John Berry, who was a victim of the Blacklist in the 1950s. Too bad, as he had a strong feeling of what constitutes a good thriller. Evocative black and white photography on display here, and there’s an exceptionally good score by 20-year-old musical prodigy Andre Previn. His bluesy saxophone motif for Claire tells you all you need to know about the kind of woman she is.

Totter is one of those woefully underrated actresses from the Hollywood’s Golden Age. She’s superb here, her manner dripping with venom as she looks at her husband working hard in the pharmacy. She looks at him like a bug she wants to squash.

All those years spent watching Richard Basehart on the Seaview makes one forget what a fine actor he is. Warren Quimby is head over heels in love with his wife and wants to work hard and provide a nice home for her. Too bad he picked the wrong woman to be his wife.

Cyd Charisse is fine in her role, her brunette features making a strong contrast to Totter’s blonde bombshell looks. She will be missed, but fortunately we have many musical, and non-musical memories, that will keep audiences entertained for generations to come.

Rating for “Tension”: Three stars.

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