Tension (1949)

Directed by John Berry

Police Lieutenant Collier Bonnabel  (Barry Sullivan)  of the homicide department explains that he only knows one way to solve a case: by applying pressure to all the suspects, playing on their strengths and weaknesses, until one of them snaps under the tension. He then cites a murder case involving Warren Quimby  (Richard Basehart).

In flashback, the bespectacled Quimby, night manager of the 24-hour “Coast-to-Coast” drugstore in Culver City, is married to the sluttish Claire (Audrey Totter). Saving and doing without, he is able to afford a nice house in the suburbs, but she is utterly unimpressed, refusing even to look inside. She eventually leaves him for the latest of her conquests, rich Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough). Quimby goes to Deager’s Malibu 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, Freddie, what happened. Freddie remarks that if it had been him, he would have killed the man. Deeply humiliated, Quimby takes up Freddie’s idea. He constructs a new identity, cosmetics salesman “Paul Sothern,” buys contact lenses and flashier clothes, and rents an apartment in Westwood.  As he is moving in, he meets his new neighbor, beautiful, sweet Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse), whom he starts dating.


One night Quimby, identifying himself as Paul Sothern, makes a phone call, leaving a message with Narco (Tito Renaldo), Deager’s servant, that he will get Deager for some unspecified wrong. On a later night, he hitchhikes to Deager’s place, grabs a barbecue prong and walks through the open patio door. He finds Deager asleep in a chair, but cannot go through with the killing. When he drops his weapon, Deager awakes. Quimby grabs the prong and holds it to Deager’s neck, explaining that he came to kill him, but has suddenly realized that Claire is not worth it. Then, seeing that his wife is absent, he mocks Deager, guessing that Claire has said she was going to the movies—the excuse she used while cheating on him. After Quimby leaves, Deager ponders his situation.

Claire later surprises Quimby by returning to him in their Culver City apartment. When he refuses to believe she has come back out of love, she tells him Deager has been murdered. Before Quimby has time to absorb the news, Bonnabel and his partner, Lieutenant Gonsales (William Conrad), arrive to question them. They know that Claire left the murder scene before they were called. She says that she only went to Deager’s place as a day guest to swim regularly, and that she and her husband were Deager’s friends. Quimby is forced to play along to avoid suspicion. The police are looking for Paul Sothern, the prime suspect. However, following his stated policy, Bonnabel leads Claire on, pretending he is attracted to her.

The police get a break when Mary goes to the Bureau of Missing Persons, concerned about Sothern’s disappearance. She brings a photograph. Bonnabel eventually realizes Sothern and Quimby are the same man. However, Deager was shot, and they do not have the gun. Bonnabel maneuvers Mary to Quimby’s workplace to identify him, but she refuses to do so, and states that her faith in Sothern is unshaken.


The police arrest Quimby anyway. Under questioning, he tells them his story, but they find it hard to believe. Later, Bonnabel tells Claire that they had to release her husband due to insufficient evidence; he plants the idea that the gun is the vital clue they need to convict Quimby. Claire retrieves the gun from its hiding place under a rock, and plants it in Sothern’s apartment. Quimby arrives, followed very shortly by the police. Claire claims she was searching for the gun, and Bonnabel encourages her to continue; she “finds” it under a chair cushion, but then Bonnabel explains that all the furnishings had been replaced, and that Claire has just incriminated herself. Claire is resigned to her fate, but defiantly walks out in the custody of Gonsales. Mary protests that nothing in the apartment has been changed; Bonnabel replies that it would have been too much work. Quimby and Mary are free to resume their relationship.


Mild-mannered Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) works long hours as an overnight pharmacist to earn enough dough to make his wife Claire (Audrey Totter) happy – but she never is. She plays Warren for a sap by being not-so-secretive about her affair with bullying Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

Feeling powerless Warren gets the idea of creating a second identity who will be the one to murder Barney. However, in the course of implementing his plan he meets and falls for amateur photographer Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse). With the realization that first-degree murder is a dumb idea he forgets it, but when Claire returns to him and reveals Barney has been killed and he’s the prime suspect, Warren is under great tension to prove his innocence to the investigating detective (Barry Sullivan).

Tension is a low-budget noir that never really delivers on its setup. As the film went on I started to think up more and more questions as to the logic and motivations of the characters and by the end it felt like a dull haze of a story.

A great noir is like a beautiful boxed present. It’s a story that’s wrapped so tight and neatly in its box that you can’t help but marvel at the craftsmanship and time that was spent on it. As you open this present you’re impressed the whole time that every fold, cut and piece of tape was perfectly and intentionally set in that particular spot in order to create a flawless unwrapping of it. Tension is more like a present placed in a gift bag filled with shredded paper. The bag is alright looking and you might not be sure what is in it, but the act of taking the present out isn’t that exciting.


Warren’s big plan to commit the perfect murder begins with him creating a second identity. The bespectacled soft-spoken pharmacist dons some contact lenses, a new suit and carries himself off in a more confident manner by being ‘Paul Sothern’. The transformation isn’t that earth-shattering. I tried to go with it though. It was one of those things where a character completely changes his looks by putting on or taking off a pair of glasses. It’s like when the mousey clearly attractive woman in a movie is pegged as being ‘ugly’ because she’s wearing specks. Then when she takes them off everyone is surprised how attractive she is. Yeah, what a shock.

I will say, I actually wasn’t aware contact lenses were around in 1949, so at least I learned that.

This is where Warren’s plan appears to end and things get muddled. I was never clear as to why he needs to rent an apartment or how exactly this persona will help creating his alibi when Barney ends up dead. Obviously he’s expecting the police will come knocking at his door to question him, so what will he say? It also annoyed me to see how easily Warren decides to begin dating Mary. Why would he want to get involved with her and potentially create more problems for himself? The film never really addresses his reluctance to dating her and him struggling with the decision between Mary and this complex plan of trying to get his wife back.

Also I thought Warren works the overnight hours at the pharmacy, but most of the time we see Paul Sothern spending time with Mary at night. How is this all working?

I can go with a few leaps of logic, but just too many began piling up for me. I’m going to avoid spoilers, but as the story progressed there were enough questionable actions left dangling it became increasingly frustrating.

There’s some good performances, particularly by Totter who is such a heartless and unsympathetic character you can’t help but feel for her poor husband Warren and I was anxious to see his shy, weak pharmacist get his justice. There was some also interesting things going on with Lieutenant Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) and his cagey way of romancing Claire in order to solve the case. Oh, and a young Charisse looks dazzling in this.

It’s not a terrible noir, but it’s one that I probably won’t be revisiting any time soon.

Tension 1949 film noir Audrey Totter

Jan 12, 2007; Hollywood, CA, USA; RELEASE DATE: January 11, 1950. DIRECTOR: John Berry. STUDIO: MGM. PLOT: A mousy drugstore manager turns killer after his conniving wife leaves him for another man. He devises a complex plan, which involves assuming a new identity, to make it look like someone else murdered her new boyfriend. Things take an unexpected turn when someone else commits the murder first and he becomes the prime suspect. PICTURED: AUDREY TOTTER.Mandatory Credit: Photo by MGM/ZUMA Press.(©) Copyright 2007 by MGM


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