18 July 2008 | Bunuel1976
TENSION (John Berry, 1949) ***
To begin with, when I was in Hollywood in late 2005/early 2006, this was shown on TCM – along with THE BLACK BOOK (1949) – as part of a Richard Basehart double-bill; however, my hotel room’s TV reception was terrible that night and I had to miss out on both films (thankfully, with respect to the latter, I happened upon its Alpha DVD edition as soon as I got back to Malta…but, as for TENSION itself, it is only now that I managed to get to it)!
And it was worth the wait – as the film turned out to be yet another underrated noir gem: compelling (even original) plot-wise and quite stylish (given the solid production values typical of MGM). Incidentally, Basehart proved a genre fixture during this early phase of his career – also appearing in HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), the afore-mentioned THE BLACK BOOK (really a costumer but the style deployed by two of the genre’s foremost experts, director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton, is unmistakable!), FOURTEEN HOURS and THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (both 1951) and, even later, THE STRANGER’S HAND, THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (both 1954) and THE INTIMATE STRANGER (1956)! Still, the same can be said of his leading lady – Audrey Totter – whose femme fatale here was perhaps the most significant role she ever played: interestingly, when I recently watched her in A BULLET FOR JOEY (1955), I had felt the actress was somewhat past her noir prime (though, having checked my review of that film just now, I realize that I failed to mention this fact!)…whereas she’s at the pinnacle of her sensuality, to say nothing of selfishness, in TENSION. Particularly memorable is the scene where Basehart enthusiastically takes Totter to a beach-house he intended to buy: however, she doesn’t even descend from the car to have a look – rather, when her hubby starts to talk about it, his visibly bored spouse takes the wheel, repeatedly honks the car horn to drown his voice out, flatly asks him whether he was coming with her or staying and, to add insult to injury, contemptuously hits the gas pedal to triumphantly throw fumes in Basehart’s face as he meekly gives in to her rejection!!
The narrative sees mild-mannered drugstore owner Basehart suffering in silence over his wife’s brazen philandering ways; he’s consoled by an underling at his work-place (Tom D’Andrea) while, at the same time, being induced to assert himself – intimating that the boss take drastic action. So, Basehart decides to confront Totter and her brawny, bullying lover (a rather hirsute Lloyd Gough) – but only ends up getting a humiliating beating in front of his wife for his efforts! An intelligent man, he starts thinking about revenge – which he does in an inordinately elaborate yet extremely clever way (this section actually owes quite a bit to Basehart’s earlier turn as a virtually unstoppable cop-killer in HE WALKED BY NIGHT): invent a whole new personality for himself so that he can then threaten Gough using this assumed name, while openly appearing to bear the man no grudge! Still, he loses his nerve at the culmination of his plan…only that Gough still turns up dead, with the evidence alarmingly pointing to Basehart himself!; the thing is that he hadn’t reckoned on meeting and falling for wholesome Cyd Charisse (a neighbor at the apartment house where his alter ego resides) – who, when the latter disappears, goes to the Police with a photo she, an amateur photographer, had taken of him!!
This gave Barry Sullivan, the rugged cop investigating the murder (aided by a burly William Conrad continually in search of food), just the break he needed – since no solid case against Basehart had been established up to that point, the latter’s ‘mysterious alter ego’ ruse having worked only too well! Needless to say, Totter works her charms on Sullivan as well – so that the revelation to Basehart of being wise to his game, in what is perhaps the film’s highlight, carries with it an undertone of perverted self-satisfaction on the cop’s part…and the blow is even harder on the hero since all of this occurs in the presence of Charisse! And yet the detective is not a complete dumb-bell – like Humphrey Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), he would have been willing to play up to her under different circumstances…but since it’s evident that she was behind Gough’s death, he’s not about to let her get away with it.
Finally, it should be pointed out that director Berry was yet another victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee (this was a very sensitive time indeed for Hollywood): after a promising start that included a stint at the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles, his career fizzled out due to his being blacklisted (though he did contrive to make one last good noir – HE RAN ALL THE WAY  – which, sadly, proved to be the untimely swansong for actor and genre favorite John Garfield who was similarly hounded for his supposed Communist sympathies!) and Berry was forced to go to Europe…where he could only find work helming a variety of mostly unrewarding potboilers.