I’m finding myself in a film noir groove between this and my reviews of The House on 92nd Street and The Narrow Margin. Tension doesn’t set out to espouse grand themes as in House; if anything, I’d consider it in the vein of The Narrow Margin with its B-movie plot and cast. Despite it’s gritty, cliché look at infidelity it buries deep to explore masculinity and femininity more overtly than other noir movies. Fine performances by Audrey Totter, a film noir regular, Richard Basehart, and Cyd Charisse elevate this above its soap opera structure.
Warren Quimby (Basehart) is a mild-mannered pharmacist whose two-timing wife Claire (Totter) wants to leave him. Bent on revenge, Quimby creates an alter ego to murder Claire’s lover and get away with it. As he immerses himself in his new personality, Warren finds himself falling for a woman named Mary (Charisse). When Claire’s lover ends up dead anyway, Warren finds himself implicated and has to figure out how to save his own life.
Film noirs revolving around relationships and marital infidelity tend to be one-note; mainly following someone trying to kill a lover or otherwise avenge their relationship. What sets Tension apart is the immersion in exploring relationships between men and women, and what makes them tick. Warren is a modern-day (for the time) Horatio Alger, finding himself continually kicked and trampled on by his cold wife; he literally gets thrown into the sand by Claire’s lover. You see the violence bubbling underneath when Warren goes nuts and smashes a bowl in anger. Basehart’s performance works here as he’s not overly glamorous. He’s a good-looking man who is also a kind, compassionate individual. His love for Claire is his curse as it’s said there’s “nothing he wouldn’t do to keep her.” Tension’s key theme is exploring how a man discovers his masculinity, at the expense of the ladies around him. By killing Claire’s lover, he’ll take his revenge and find the masculinity that Claire has smothered. In his alter ego, Warren discovers the cool ladies man he’s always been, yet he never becomes an outright jerk, à la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Tension shows that a man isn’t made up of good or evil, but various shades of gray and that when pushed, either side can prevail. The movie does push the theme of the title a bit too much. Lines of dialogue like “You keep turning the other cheek till you’re dizzy,” convey the message in strong prose, but the opening of the movie sets up a cheesy detective story that never gels with the driving narrative. The first five minutes introduces Lt. Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) explaining what tension is with a rubber band. It’s a silly “definition” opening that belittles the audience’s intelligence, and considering Bonnabel isn’t the main character in the movie, you’d be led to believe this is a soap-opera potboiler that spoon-feeds the audience. I’m all for the narration giving the movie a cheap detective story feel, but I hate scenes that chew the scenery and remind the audience they’re not smart…supposedly.
The police investigation is the one device at odds with the thrust of the plot. The cops don’t engage in the story until half-way in, and since Bonnabel introduces the story as an example of tension defeating the bad guys, there’s no element of surprise. Even if you’re interested in Warren proving he didn’t kill Claire’s lover, there’s never a threat to Warren being arrested and charged with the crimes because Bonnabel has told us so. Sullivan is a generic cop figure filled with “ya see’s” till the cows come home. The script wants you to believe he is God’s gift to women, and that he can get a woman to spill her guts with a simple cup of coffee. The misogyny drips off the character, and it’s at odds with the script’s exploration of men and women. He does lay the masculinity theme on pretty thick when he accuses Warren of not being “man enough” to talk to Mary. It sets up this idea that men, especially in this genre, shouldn’t have emotions, especially not when it comes to women. Warren is a sweet, compassionate husband and that’s the reason why Claire walks all over him. When the narrative shifts to following them solving the murder, you miss the wild antics of Claire and the relationship blooming between Warren and Mary. I’d have preferred seeing Warren unravel the mystery and find the solution to his defense, as opposed to the conventional cop procedural. The ending feels impersonal, with the cops solving the mystery; not to mention it all hinges on the cops apparently knowing Claire was guilty from the beginning. It’s a similar device used in Dial M for Murder, where the entire climax is predicated on one person having insider knowledge of the suspect’s actions. It truly limits the impact of the plot, and again, could have been stronger had we followed Warren who wouldn’t have had any advanced forethought.
The battle between men and female has never possessed such largesse in film noir as it does here. Women are vicious spider-women and men are sexual dupes in the genre, and not much else. Tension doesn’t rewrite the wheel with characterization, but it brings the distinctions out into the open. Warren’s masculine failings are apparent, but throughout the movie there’s two dolls each representing the female characters. Claire’s doll is a gaudy, made-up porcelain doll mimicking’s Claire’s beautiful face but fragile inner state. She’s the character shattered completely by the tense forces working around her. She may have a pretty face, but it’s painted on and masks her cold, hard exterior. To diverge, I adored Audrey Totter. She has the face of an angel, but a heart of stone! Her look is similar to Lana Turner, but she’s vindictive and promiscuous in a way that Turner only stepped around. Claire has no issues with taking off her wedding ring and leaving with a stranger she’s just met, and there’s no doubt sex will be involved! She’s the obvious gold-digger who shrilly asks “What’s better than money?” Totter is the spider just waiting for a bug to fall into her web. Her voice modulates from high when she’s being seductive, to deep when she’s revealing her true personality. Warren dreams of buying a house to create the happy, soon-to-be-1950s stereotype of domesticity, and Claire literally slams the door on the dream; she’s not housewife material.
In contrast is the raven-haired Cyd Charisse as Mary. Obviously, we’re supposed to understand Claire as the cool blonde fatale and Mary as the shy brunette homebody. Mary gives Warren a styrofoam/pipe cleaner doll of her that’s plain, with no distinguishing features; it’s a stick figure representation of her and it’s àpropos to her character. She’s plain, nothing special, and I think it does Charisse a disservice because she’s none of those. Mary is the weepy nice girl with no personality, connecting her back to the hollow outline of a woman as envisioned by the doll she creates. Claire describes Mary as “sweet, breathless” and those adjectives are all that’s needed to describe Mary. She’s sweet, devoid of life, but appropriate for Warren. I have to believe that the script is aware of the stereotyping of women and is exploring that, while at the same time reinforcing them by not making Mary as full-bodied a character as Claire. Hell, just the name Mary connects back to the Virgin Mary and the stereotypical 1950s housewives we’ll see the next year.
Overall, Tension has a stark 1940s B-movie title, but underneath that is a compelling film noir exploring gender and wrapped up in a sexual murder mystery. Audrey Totter and Richard Basehart are great, and so is Cyd Charisse to a lesser extent. The cops are generic and uninteresting, but they’re shoehorned into the tail-end of the film and don’t spoil the enjoyment.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.