Tension (1949) – A Review
Mild-mannered Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) works long hours as an overnight pharmacist to earn enough dough to make his wife Claire (Audrey Totter) happy – but she never is. She plays Warren for a sap by being not-so-secretive about her affair with bullying Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).
Feeling powerless Warren gets the idea of creating a second identity who will be the one to murder Barney. However, in the course of implementing his plan he meets and falls for amateur photographer Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse). With the realization that first-degree murder is a dumb idea he forgets it, but when Claire returns to him and reveals Barney has been killed and he’s the prime suspect, Warren is under great tension to prove his innocence to the investigating detective (Barry Sullivan).
Tension is a low-budget noir that never really delivers on its setup. As the film went on I started to think up more and more questions as to the logic and motivations of the characters and by the end it felt like a dull haze of a story.
A great noir is like a beautiful boxed present. It’s a story that’s wrapped so tight and neatly in its box that you can’t help but marvel at the craftsmanship and time that was spent on it. As you open this present you’re impressed the whole time that every fold, cut and piece of tape was perfectly and intentionally set in that particular spot in order to create a flawless unwrapping of it.
Tension is more like a present placed in a gift bag filled with shredded paper. The bag is alright looking and you might not be sure what is in it, but the act of taking the present out isn’t very rewarding.
Warren’s big plan to commit the perfect murder begins with him creating a second identity. The bespectacled soft-spoken pharmacist dons some contact lenses, a new suit and carries himself off in a more confident manner by being ‘Paul Sothern’.
The transformation isn’t that earth-shattering. I tried to go with it though. It was one of those things where a character completely changes his looks by putting on or taking off a pair of glasses. It’s like when the mousey clearly attractive woman in a movie is pegged as being ‘ugly’ because she’s wearing specks. Then when she takes them off everyone is surprised how attractive she is. Yeah, what a shock.
I will say, I actually wasn’t aware contact lenses were around in 1949, so at least I learned that.
This is where Warren’s plan appears to end and things get muddled. I was never clear as to why he needs to rent an apartment or how exactly this persona will help creating his alibi when Barney ends up dead.
Obviously he’s expecting the police will come knocking at his door to question him, so what will he say? It also annoyed me to see how easily Warren decides to begin dating Mary. Why would he want to get involved with her and potentially create more problems for himself? The film never really addresses his reluctance to dating her and him struggling with the decision between Mary and this complex plan of trying to get his wife back.
Also I thought Warren works the overnight hours at the pharmacy, but most of the time we see Paul Sothern spending time with Mary at night. How is this all working?
I can go with a few leaps of logic, but just too many began piling up for me. I’m going to avoid spoilers, but as the story progressed there were enough questionable actions left dangling it became increasingly frustrating.
There’s some good performances, particularly by Totter who is such a heartless and unsympathetic character you can’t help but feel for her poor husband Warren and I was anxious to see his shy, weak pharmacist get his justice. There was some also interesting things going on with Lieutenant Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) and his cagey way of romancing Claire in order to solve the case. Oh, and a young Charisse looks dazzling in this.
It’s not a terrible noir, but it’s one that I probably won’t be revisiting any time soon.