Silver Screen Standards: Tension (1949)
Although it’s not as celebrated as noir classics like The Maltese Falcon (1942) or Sunset Blvd. (1950), director John Berry’s Tension (1949) is one of my go-to picks for the genre because it packs so much punch to appreciate into 95 minutes of keenly depicted obsession, betrayal, and duplicity. Back when I taught a film unit on noir to college freshmen, I often used this picture for our introductory group viewing, and it always proved a hit with the class. Every scene offers the audience both obvious and subtle elements to contemplate, and the solid cast includes Richard Basehart, Cyd Charisse, Barry Sullivan, and Lloyd Gough – all embodying classic noir types. But there’s one reason that Tension always seduces the viewer, and that’s Audrey Totter as the delightfully vicious femme fatale who drives her husband to murderous extremes of jealousy and hate.
Richard Basehart plays the much-abused husband, a milquetoast pharmacist named Warren Quimby who works the night shift to save up money for a nice little home in the suburbs with his attractive wife, Claire (Totter). Unfortunately for Warren, Claire doesn’t want a house in the suburbs; she wants fur coats and the high life in the heart of the city, and she’s perfectly happy to ditch Warren for the more accommodating Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough). Infuriated by Claire’s betrayal and humiliated when Barney beats him up, Warren decides to murder Barney and cover up his involvement by using a fake identity. He reinvents himself as Paul Sothern and carefully makes his plans. But his budding friendship with a pretty new neighbor, Mary (Cyd Charisse), makes him wonder if the faithless Claire is really worth all this trouble. When Barney ends up murdered by someone else, Warren has to figure out how to avoid taking the wrap for a crime he intended to commit, but didn’t.
All of the characters in Tension are entertaining, especially as the third act springs its various twists and traps, but Totter gives an absolutely engrossing performance as the cause of it all. Her Claire Quimby is pure raging id without a scrap of remorse or decency in her. She’s lazy, vain, wasteful, petty, crass, vindictive, and calculating. She has a cold-blooded, serpentine quality about her that apparently fascinates men but is also deeply repulsive. Even the way she eats – and wastes – a sandwich at the drugstore lunch counter sets the alarm bells ringing. André Previn’s score represents her with slinky theme music that declares her nature every time she turns up, but unfortunately, Warren can’t hear it to take the hint that his wife is no good. Fans of Totter’s performances in The Lady in the Lake (1946), The Unsuspected (1947), and The Set-Up (1950) will love Totter’s take on the femme fatale in Tension, especially because it puts her uniquely expressive eyes to such lethal use. Claire Quimby shoots daggers with those eyes, right into poor Warren’s soul.
The femme fatale is a provocative and problematic standard of the classic noir genre, often equal parts liberation fantasy and misogynistic nightmare, and she means different things depending on who’s watching her. She claims her sexuality but uses it as a weapon to destroy the men who would possess or control her. She wants nice things but is willing to commit terrible sins to get them. She usually ends up dead or at least headed for jail by the final scene, but she makes a lasting impression on the male characters and the audience that transcends her fate. Claire Quimby is a particularly hellbent version of this type; she lacks the moments of complexity or humanity that soften other fatal women like Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944). Claire’s hatred for domesticity and maternity is made explicit when she rudely rejects the little house in the suburbs that Warren has bought for them; Claire wants nothing to do with that quiet, constricted, dowdy life. She’s the kind of villain who would make fur coats out of puppies if she were smart enough to think of it. But her relentlessly evil nature is what makes her so much fun. Sometimes you just want to watch a wrecking ball tear down a house, and that’s the kind of entertainment Claire Quimby provides. Leave nuance and the whispers of better angels to other dames, and forget about that good-bad girl twist. Claire Quimby is all bad, all the time, and Audrey Totter seems to revel in playing her.
Warner Brothers offered a DVD of Tension as part of a 2007 box set, Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4, that also includes Where Danger Lives (1950) on the same disc. Unfortunately, the box set is now hard to get and quite expensive, but you might be able to find the single DVD double feature from online retailers for less than $20. The DVD includes commentary from Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward and a featurette as well as a theatrical trailer.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.