Tension (1949): Between The Good and The Bad Girl

220px-TensionPoster.jpgBarry Sullivan has an absolute field day as a homicide cop, Lt. Collier Bonnabel, with very calculated methods of getting to the root of every crime. Whether it comes by pushing, cajoling, romancing, tricking, flattering — he’ll do whatever is necessary. What matters to him is to keep stretching them because everyone has a breaking point. You just have to know how to work them so they slip up.

It’s fitting because he remains as our narrator throughout this entire story. Between his fedora and voiceover narration, Tension easily earns the moniker of film noir. He picks up the story at Coast-to-Coast all-night drugstore in Culver City where the bookish Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) maintains an unsatisfying but well-paying gig as manager.

His only reason for holding onto the job is not only security but it’s the only way to try and keep his girl (Audrey Totter). Because she’s a real horror — dissatisfied with the middling life he can give her — and constantly batting her eyes at anyone who gives her the time of day.

Quimby is such a passive and nervous husband; he’s always deathly afraid to walk into his room above the drugstore at night for fear the bed will be empty and she won’t be there waiting for him. You see, his entire worth and aspiration at a middle-class lifestyle are maintained through her. And yet when she scoffs at his attempts to buy them a house in the suburbs, its a rude awakening.

It turns out it doesn’t matter. She finds someone else and packs her bags. What follows is a sudden departure to shack up with the substantially wealthier Barney Deager. You see the same conundrum from The Best Years of Our Lives. They were youthful and on the high of WWII patriotism, but now settling into the status quo, he’s not as cute or funny as he used to be in San Diego. Everyday tedium is no fun for a girl like Claire.

Audrey Totter is easily a standout, and she even gets some saucy music to introduce her and the coda proceeds to follow her into just about every room. She’s almost in the mold of Gloria Grahame — another iconic femme fatale — except her eyes are more bitter, even severe. They burn through just about everyone.

Warren makes his way to the beach and has a confrontation with her brawny boyfriend, but what is an unassertive guy like him (now with broken glasses) suppose to do in the face of such an affront? His options seem hopelessly few. It leads to a needed trip to the eye doctor for new spectacles, and he reluctantly leaves with the year’s newest invention — hard contact lenses.

His soda jerk buddy behind the counter plants the other seed. It drives him to murder. Quimby then gains a whole new perspective, the doctor even touts that he with be an entirely different person, in the most literal sense; he takes on a new name as Paul Sothern. His entire temperament and level of confidence changes. It’s humanly unbelievable and all because of an optometrist. I should have gotten contacts sooner.

The newfound man sets up a residence in Westwood to put his plans in motion. He now has a cool, calculated dopleganger for the perfect crime, available to him at a moment’s notice.

Here we have the most roundabout and, dare we say, ludicrous way to premeditate and perfect a murder. Back in the days when taking on a new identity was a breeze. Erasing and vanishing was a matter of covering up a few loose ends and not leaving a forwarding address.

Basehart could easily be the father of Ryan O’Neal in What’s Up Doc? While not necessarily a taxing role, he is called on to play two characters as he plays opposite two very different women. Cyd Charisse is the sweet and shapely photographer who falls for Paul Sothern, despite knowing so little about him. She is oblivious to his double life, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Still, as is the case in many film noir, the very overt foils are created and Tension extends them even further. The protagonist has a choice between two women and with them two distinct lives. One is represented by the decadent yet fractured China doll, the blonde spider woman who will not release him from her web.

Then there’s the simpler, sweeter pipe cleaner doll, the brunette good girl who is almost angelic in nature and totally available to help the hero realize their happy ending, which remains in constant jeopardy the entirety of the film.

The wrinkle that really spoils it is when Claire slinks back into his life once more, and he is implicated in a murder. All of a sudden the alternate reality he started carving out for himself is altogether finished. Sothern is quashed and Quimby is suffocating in a life he assumed would be gone forever.

The cops must come into the equation now, asking questions, poking around, and pressing on all the sore spots in hopes someone will break. All character logic aside, the picture does ascribe to a certain amount of tautness suggested in its name, but so could any number of movies — even John Berry’s next film He Ran All The Way.

But I found myself enjoying its contrivances more and more with time. Because each twist of the corkscrew made for another pleasure. Barry Sullivan takes great relish leaning on everyone. William Conrad, for once, is on the right side of the law and still gets to play a gruff character.

However, it is his partner who sets up some very convenient and slightly awkward interactions on a hunch. Quimby is forced to interact with his girl from another life as if it was just a piece of pure happenstance. Then, Claire and the purported “other woman” are somehow pulled together accidentally to churn up a little jealousy.

Bonnabel is like Columbo at his most nefarious, except slightly more conniving and less scruffily endearing. He nabs the dame because, being conveniently trapped in a lie, she confesses. Unlike most Columbo villains, she struts out as defiantly as ever. There’s no recompense or sense of somber civility. With the way she was going before, why bother? Thankfully Totter’s performance is not compromised; she remains icy to the end.

3.5/5 Stars

He Ran All The Way (1951): John Garfield’s Final Film

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We meet the belligerent two-bit criminal named Nick Robey (John Garfield) sleeping one off in the grungy apartment he shares with his acerbic mother (Gladys George). It’s not exactly the lap of luxury but it gives us some immediate insight into who he is. He’s an oafish, pitiful excuse for a human being and he’ll never amount to anything. One very visible reason comes from his open disdain for other people; he and his mother share no amount of affection whatsoever. It’s not a very promising portent.

Norman Lloyd, once again, plays some sidewalk sleaze, like he did in Scene of The Crime (1949), this time coaxing his pal Nick into helping him pull a job. It looks as easy as pie. And it is. The man parks, starts walking away with his briefcase full of dough, and they overtake him easily — without a hitch of any kind. But it’s inevitable; in order for there to be any movie at all, something must go wrong. A nosy policeman starts poking around and they scramble to get away before he nabs them.

The cop fatally wounds Lloyd but Garfield gets away, not before gunning down his pursuer. Just like that he winds up a cop killer. Except no one knows his identity definitively. So he’s got to go on the lamb keeping himself masked with the weekend crowds.

It’s a fascinating documentation of weekend diversions, in particular, community swimming pools. With his payload of money in toe, Nick nervously tiptoes around the pool eyeing the oblivious policemen milling about. There he also meets a girl. She’s not only a cover but a bit of a welcomed distraction from his continual paranoia.

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He Ran All The Way takes on a motif reused in Suddenly (1954) and other such pictures as Nick essentially becomes a live-in guest to Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters), her parents (Wallace Ford and Selena Royle), and her kid brother (Bobby Hyatt). He lets them go about life partially unimpeded, keeping one of the family at home at all times as constant leverage. That way there’s no funny business.

While the picture is hardly Garfield’s best, it is imbued with tightly coiled tension that’s instigated in the opening minutes. The ticking clocks never end aided by confined spaces, oddly intimate relationships between captors and hostages, as well as a volatile showing by Garfield. He’s all turned upside down trying to deliberate on his future plans.

Then they have a clash of principles over the dining room table. The family with their stew and him with the turkey and the lavish meal he’s gotten together. They want no part of it but he’s going to get them to eat even if he has to provoke them at gunpoint. In another scene, he inquires gruffly, “What does that church stuff do for you?” Without skipping a beat, still working away on his model vessel, Mr. Dobbs succinctly replies, “it makes you understand the virtue of love.”

Thus, this dialogue aptly frames the story as a tale pitting family versus romance in such a way that only one can come out intact. Peg is the one forced to make a choice. James Wong Howe’s camera works in numerous close-ups and that continues even until the end of the film to underscore moments of isolated impact. Garfield’s face, in particular, is singled out. We see the fear, the anger, and the confusion breaking out across his features time and time again.

A stairwell finale perfectly epitomizes the dynamic between the two leads, see-sawing back and forth perilously. Until they make it to the ground level and things must come to their harrowing conclusion once and for all.

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For all the hell Garfield put his captors through, the look on his face is striking, when it all comes to an end. It’s betrayal and fright and forlornness all rolled into one. Even as he’s a hard-bitten, tormented man, there’s still a sliver of something inside of him that we cannot help feeling sorry for. That’s a testament to the earnestness of his talent.

The context of the picture becomes arguably just as important as the film’s condensed narrative. Like any movie, it was hardly conceived in a vacuum and the early 1950s were, of course, characterized by the paranoid finger-pointing culture of McCarthyism.

The emblematic figurehead that always gets brought up is The Hollywood Ten — who subsequently were some of John Garfield’s closest collaborators. Dalton Trumbo even worked under a pseudonym on this script while director John Berry, for all intent and purposes, might have been christened the 11th member of this targeted group. Following the production, he would enter a self-exile in Europe.

But this would also be John Garfield’s last film and it would primarily be his last film — most people agree — because his heart attack, brought on at the age of 39, was caused by undue stress from the allegations he was embroiled in.

Even though he went before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, his appearance did not completely absolve him and on top of that, a separation with his wife looked to be ending in divorce. He would die on May 21st, 1952, his funeral attended by masses of mourning friends and fans.

He was the apparent forerunner to such other tragic figures like James Dean and Montgomery Clift and the not-so-tragic decline of Marlon Brando. Without Garfield, those fellows would have come out of nowhere but from him, you trace the line of progression from hardboiled stars like Cagney and Bogart. Watch these films and you recognize that same pent-up alienation and angst. Most importantly there’s a newfound sense of vulnerability being awakened.

3.5/5 Stars