Tension (1949)

Tension (1949) is a superlative hen-cucked husband murder mystery double identity hard-boiled cop on the case film noir starring Audrey Totter, Richard Basehart, Barry Sullivan, Cyd Charisse and William Conrad.

Tension (1949) sits at the apex of 1940s fantasy film noir in which the darkest thoughts become rampant reality — it is one of the style's best examples of obsessive, uninhibited dark tales of suburban and urban America, involving a doomed marriage, feral morals and weakness. 

The term fantasy refers here to a certain lack of inhibition in the story telling. 

We see in Tension the absolute transformation of a man into a powerful alter ego, a self-created hero. And we are expected to see the cop on his tail, cop Barry Sullivan with his 'tension' crime-solving elastic band. That's how to snare them.

Barry Sullivan racks up the Tension (1949)

We then see this non-existent hero fall into peril when wanted by the police. The powerful alter-ego is in love with a beautiful, smart and as we can see from her photography and her pipe-cleaner sculptures — creative woman. Cyd Charisse — dreamboat.

The twist on the innocent-man-wanted-for-a-crime-he-didn't commit, is given a unique classic film noir twist — in that the wanted man does not even exist.

Richard Basehart as counter-cuck Warren Quimby in Tension (1949)

The fantasy element of this multi-viewpoint film noir is in this transformation of Richard Basehart from Warren Quimby into Paul Sothern is the powerhouse of fun about the film. Everything about this transformation from counter-serving wimp to the confident, convincing, controlling and all prevailing Paul Sothern is incredible.

Film Noir Tension (1949)

In a scene reminiscent of some of the deepest Americana in the culture, Basehart's character of the sap husband goes to the beach — of course he is wearing his suit, to find his wife and her lover there on the sand, in their bathing costumes.

Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter and Lloyd Gough — Tension (1949) in the sand

Taking them to task in a impish manner, Basehart's character Quimby finds himself in a crumpled heap literally having sand kicked in his face. In an effort to renew himself, Quimby does not turn to the Charles Atlas approach, but instead invests in some contact lenses, divesting himself of his spectacles, and succeeding so well in this that he literally becomes a new, heroic, confident and attractive identity altogether.

The creation of this new character — christened by weakling Quimby as Paul Sothern — is when this classic film noir turns on the fun to full and races into the night to wreak havoc.

Richard Basehart — the double in film noir Tension (1949)

First there's the fact that Paul Sothern emerges from the act of Warren Quimby removing his spectacles. It almost has a Superman like aspect to it, for socially and intellectually, Paul Sothern is Superman to Quimby's Clark Kent.

Let it never be forgot that above all else Paul Sothern is capable of murder, and this is incredibly exciting in Tension (1949) — another stripe in its classic film noir status. This transformation to Paul Sothern is so thrilling because Sothern is a man of the night — glasses removed he does wear a more nifty suit — plus he has an impressive light apartment, light and compact.

But most excitingly of all is Sothern's amazing ability to murder. Enacting Sothern — nay, by this point possessed by him — Warren Quimby goes back to the beach, the scene of his humiliation and choses a  barbecue spike which had appeared earlier — a large tridentine pork prong — among the stranger of all the murder weapons in all the films of the film noir style — and is able to use it.

Paul Sothern has man-at-large capacities but of them all his capacity for murder is his draw. It inevitably draws the police too.

From the Warren Quimby / Paul Sothern perspectives, their choice of and success with women could not be more dividing. Quimby's wife — played by Audrey Totter. the contrast between the burger-mauling scheming and sour-faced Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse as Mary Chanler — who thought of that name?

Mary Chanler as we have already alluded is a beautiful caring kind and competent all round woman. What bad choices Warren Quimby makes that Paul Sothern avoids. What is so alluring about Paul Sothern? Is everyone daft about the man who doesn't exist? It may well be. And is certainly a fault in the relationship Mary Chanler is facing down, but she takes it in her stride, and completely backs up Warren's new identity.

The two cops on the case could not be better cast for some robust, protypal noir — Barry Sullivan plays Police Lt. Collier Bonnabel — who thought of that name? And William Conrad protyapl forceful and hard-boiled cop. In Tension (1949) you will see William Conrad do the best by far cop-with-a-doughnut work in all of film noir cinema. Maybe it is the best cop-doughnut work in all of cinema and is a lot of fun and wort the admission price alone — as they like to say.

Coffee and Donuts — William Conrad in Tension (1949)

Conrad at the same time couples this with a broken record routine when interrogating Richard Basehart as the drug store cuck. It's a great scene for so many reasons, including the cinematic cage from which prisoner Basheart struggles to express his innocence, from the confusing mess he has created.

Audrey Totter works a burger in Tension (1949)

This doughnut work incidentally is beautifully complimented with some burger work from Audrey Totter at the very head of the movie. The setting for the story is a pretty convincing pharmacy, general store and diner business, which is quite a shop, even bringing to mind the secretive shop meeting scene between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944).

Drugstore meeting in Tension (1949) — Richard Basehart and Cyd Charisse

Although the hero of this double-dealing multi-viewpoint noir is Warren Quimby the owner of this spry and successful (enough) business, we do open with Audrey Totter, for a full exhibition of her less-than-delightful character Claire Quimby. Her work with the burger in this film is the legendary stuff of food-in-the-movies experiences. She mauls then abandons the burger, and in front of the chef. Audrey Totter does not kiss the burger so much as plant half of her face into it — one of the more shocking approaches to diner food in all of the style, and a supreme Golden Age moment in itself. 

Food was never so well approached in 1949. At the same time, is there anything at all redeeming about with Claire Quimby? She seems to drive form bad to worse, always motivated by hate, it appears more than anything else. She seems to be a woman of ill-thoughts and whims, but powerful with it. Certainly her power over sap-husband Warren Quimby is intense.

When Claire Quimby moves back in with grovelling sapling Warren, he is unable to do anything about her arrival and she immediately restarts the relationship by lying to the police, adding to the fantasy of Paul Sothern by without even knowing anything about it. 

Rumours of Paul Sothern mystify the cops but there are huge clues about to be dropped as to his identity. As it goes both Warren Quimy's devious wife Claire, and Paul Sothern's dreamboat smart and competent artistic girlfriend have in common that they contribute to the myth of the fantasy of Paul Sothern. By engaging with Paul Sothern, Cyd Charisse as Mary Chanler — who thought of that name? — adds to the creation — the incredible Paul Sothern. This is a man who cerates a murdered, dark and handsome, simply by looking at a murder magazine on a newsstand.

Audrey Totter's flirty face-mashing burger scene is not quote the opener of Tension (1949). The actual opening scene of Tension crushes it in noirland, with a cop monologue addressing camera in the form of ultra ambiguous good-bad guy Barry Sullivan, who Police Lt. Collier Bonnabel — who thought of that name? 

This picture opens with the framing of the story — framing is hugely popular across the style and film noir specialised in certain kinds of framing — including this one — the cop narrative. This cop who addresses the film audience brings the twisted twang of his elastic band, which is used as lot of fun kind of prop which demonstrates his policing style. In short, Police Lt. Collier Bonnabel likes to apply tension to his every suspect, tension and pressure — astrictions in his applying of the interrogation. 

Police Lt. Collier Bonnabel's greatest moment is when he manages to get Paul Sothern and Warren Quimby and Mary Chanler all in the room together at the same time down at the 24 drug store come diner. It's an amazing scene in a great setting, and it involves cups of great tasting coffee too —  Police Lt. Collier Bonnabel does not fail to bring the noir, whichever scene he is in.

Here the Police Lt. does create the tension and it is hugely exciting watching this ubermensch fantasy become realer and realer, as the tension is applied, hotter and hotter from the Police Lt. — upping the tension and always being ahead of the chase — pulling a cunning trick with a mug of coffee.

The creation of Paul Sothern is B-movie magic. The story told in flashback is a paranoid fantasy for its time. The bespectacled Quimby, night manager of the 24-hour Coast-to-Coast drugstore in Culver City, California, is married to Claire, who is unfaithful to him. 

After saving and making sacrifices, he's able to afford a nice house in the suburbs, but she's unimpressed, and leaves him for the latest of her conquests, rich Barney Deager. 

Quimby goes to Deager's beachfront house to try to get his wife back, but she wants nothing to do with him. When Quimby persists, Deager beats him up.

He tells his sympathetic employee of the Coast-to-Coast Freddie what happened Freddie remarks that if it had been him, he would've killed the man. 

Now cucked into oblivion and humiliated to the core, Quimby takes Freddie's idea and constructs a new identity as cosmetics salesman Paul Sothern. He buys contact lenses and flashier clothes, and he rents an apartment in Westwood, Los Angeles. As he's moving into the new place, he meets his neighbour, beautiful, sweet Mary Chanler, whom he starts dating. How did they think of that name?

Sometimes we view this movie form the point of view of Quimby, and some of the time we see it from the point of view of tension-cop, Barry Sullivan. Sullivan as Bonnabel does continue to narrate the flashback and some stunning night time scenes, as an almost Jekyll and Hyde type of dream is mixed with a hard driven cop story.

The story of Tension (1941) after all is supposed to be about how tough and hardboiled cop Bonnabel approaches the job — and just like a Hollywood screenwriter the task in hand is to create situations of high tension, tautness, tensity and intensity.

Tension (1949) at Wikipedia

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