Tension (1949)


*. The prologue delivered by Lt. Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) is a good foreshadowing of what’s to come, being both simplistic and overdrawn at the same time. We are told, for example, that “homicide” is just a “fancy name for murder.” In 1949, wouldn’t the audience for such a movie have known this?
*. Bonnabel’s creepy quiet delivery and playing with the elastic band is the real scary part, however. Just what is such a detective capable of? We are about to find out . . .
*. In brief, he’s capable of shockingly unorthodox behaviour, making love to his main suspect in order to trick her into giving herself away. He’s sort of like a male honey trap, which gives off a very weird vibe. Look at the way he keeps playing with that elastic band, or the way he rolls his knuckles across Claire’s door at the end. This is the kind of guy you don’t want touching you.
*. It’s a movie of first impressions. As we’ve seen, Bonnabel strikes us right away as a creep. Warren Quimby is a pill-dispensing milquetoast (a nice old-fashioned term derived from an excessively timid early twentienth-century comic strip character named Caspar Milquetoast). Audrey Totter’s Claire Quimby is rough and ready: stuffing her face with a hamburger and telling guys who don’t measure up to “drift.” And Cyd Charisse is doing the splits above a stairway.


*. I wonder how Barney Deager’s pelt was viewed back in the day. As evidence of his virility? Of course by today’s canons of manscaping he may as well be a freckled Orangutan.
*. The whole beach scene would be endlessly recycled for bodybuilding advertisements that ran in the back of comic books. Quimby is the proverbial 98-lb weakling getting sand kicked in his face. Though it looks as though he actually gets kneed in the groin by Deager, which may be meant to reinforce his cuckolding/emasculation. This is also underlined by Deager calling him a “four-eyed punk.” I’m not sure, but “punk” might have meant something different in 1949 than it does now. Originally it referred to a prostitute, but it was in the process of changing. It certainly didn’t mean a tough street kid.


*. Isn’t Claire and Barney’s shacking up together shocking for a movie of this time? She’s still married to Warren, and yet she’s openly living with her new guy.
*. I don’t think Claire has any romantic feelings for Warren, though she does seem to pity him as a romantic sap. It is odd that she wants to keep that framed photo of the two of them together. Maybe she’d just like to keep the frame. I’ve known people who have done that. But her fascination with her doll is a point I really can’t figure.
*. I have to admit (and if you’re being honest, you’ll admit it too): watching Claire get slapped by Quimby is a highlight. But watch her face as she turns and goes in to the next room. Did she enjoy it? That was a psychological point that noir was always dancing around. In Ace in the Hole (a movie many consider to be a sunshine noir, and that came out only two years after Tension), they had to delete the part of a line where Jan Sterling tells Kirk Douglas to never slap her again because she might start to like it. This will probably trigger in most noir fans a memory of the scene in The Maltese Falcon where Mary Astor and Bogie both slap Peter Lorre and Bogie tells him that when he’s slapped he’ll take it and like it.


*. I wonder if Claire is confessing to Warren when she first tells him that Deager is dead. And does he know what she’s saying? That’s an ambiguity they could have done more with.
*. Cyd Charisse looks like money. She has the face, the legs, and a hairstyle that must have taken hours to prepare. I’m not sure her wardrobe is that flattering though. She’s in need of a boost given her low-set bosom.


*. Much of the movie seems to me like a cascade of improbabilities. I don’t see how Quimby’s switching from eyeglasses to contacts changed his appearance that much, to the point where no one can recognize him. I can’t imagine a detective behaving like Bonnabel. I thought Claire was too easily trapped by a subterfuge she should have easily seen through. And I didn’t buy Quimby’s jail cell for a minute. It’s just a monkey cage set apart from the rest of the set, without a bench or any other furnishing other than a single stool. That is not a real jail cell but a piece of stage dressing.
*. It’s not a significant film. Audrety Totter is fun to watch. Sullivan is disturbingly slimy. Charisse is beautiful but dull. Basehart is hard to believe in. The plot is silly and there’s not much interesting about the rest of it.


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