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A quintessential ‘femme fatale’ storms her way through ‘Tension’

A quintessential ‘femme fatale’ storms her way through ‘Tension’


Directed by John Berry

Screenplay by Allen Rivkin

U.S.A., 1949

Who is the infamous femme fatale? From what dark depths of humanity was she born and will men ever be able to truly resist her seductive moves? Such queries can spark endless discussions, among them the quality of the actresses who have portrayed them throughout the decades, especially in the early days of the noir genre. What appears to be all showmanship and flash hides the real talents of the actresses interpreting the roles. Not everyone can pull off the task with flying colours. Some actresses simply have the ‘fatale bug.’ Jane Greer was one of the most popular of her contemporaries, her role in Out of the Past being the most celebrated. Another talented, seductive thespian of the time that should not be overlooked is Audrey Totter, who made quite a career for herself with a great many roles in noir films. Her most glaringly evil part is undoubtedly in the sharply written, John Berry directed Tension.

Welcome to one of the city’s few 24 hour pharmacies. This one particular establishment is run by the honest, gentile but physically and psychologically meek pharmacist named Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart), married to his snotty, flirtatious, untrustworthy wife Claire (Audrey Totter). Claire is quite the little firecracker, going around with handsome rich men, with a care as to what Warren might think. After she apparently runs off for good with an oaf by the name of Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough), Warren decides to take matters into his own hands via drastic means. He vows to change his identity, track down the couple and murder Barney. It is through this process that he meets the delightful Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse), with whom he quickly forms an intense bond. When the moment arrives to give Barney the fatal blow, common sense gets the better of Warren, who renounces his plan. However, when Claire shows up at his place a few days later, announcing that Barney has been shot dead, Warren knows his misadventure is far from over, especially when Lt. Bonnabel and Gonsales (Barry Sullivan and William Conrad, respectively) believe Warren’s alter ego to be the prime suspect!

Before the actual plot commences, the viewer is greeted by Lt. Collier Bonnabel, standing in a police station office, toying with an elastic band with his two hands. He explains in a matter of fact tone that as a detective, his strategy in smoking out the guilty from all the suspects in an investigation is to apply pressure by constructive means, playing the suspects emotions, desires, and paranoia .When the tension mounts too high, the guilty will eventually snap and confess. Lest the notion be overlooked, some individuals are more difficult to break than others, and a strong femme fatale will typically resist for a long, long time. John Berry’s Tension sees its story diverge into two distinct if complementary threads. One concentrates on the work of the lieutenants Bonnabel and Gonsales (although more the former than the latter) as they weave their way through the pile of lies and coverups in order to book Barney’s killer. The film paints both investigators in rather positive light, demonstrating that good, proper investigation requires intelligence and genuine planning. Director Berry skilfully adds onto these examples of cunning the film’s titular ‘tension’ in acute fashion. On more than one occasions suspects are accosted by the lieutenants, who pose them some innocent and less innocent questions, their ulterior motives of revealing the real killer never in doubt to the audience. The suspects are put on the spot awkwardly, and since the viewer’s emotions lie firmly on Warren’s side, they feel the tension just as much as the story’s protagonist. One brilliant example occurs when Bonnabel takes Mary to Warren’s pharmacy one evening once he has clued in on the fact that Warren and the man they think they should be after are one and the same. Mary is unaware of Warren’s existence, having only met the man’s alter ego, thus creating quite the surprise when she is ‘acquainted’ with Warren himself! But of course, she knows she cannot reveal said surprise before Bonnabel, at the risk of seeing Warren, wrongfully accused, sent away to jail. It is a fantastic scene in that it harkens back to the emotional bond between two would be lovers and raises the stakes even higher than they were before.

The second portion of the film surrounds the interactions between the suspects, which brings the review to the topic of the femme fatale. Audrey Totter, an unforgettable beauty, oozes her way comfortably into the role of Claire, Warren’s conniving, sexed wife constantly on the prowl for a new date who can impress her. If one thinks about it for a moment, the nature of the femme fatale is somewhat hammy and over the top. To pull off the job properly, an actress will have to strike a fine balance between playing the part to the hilt to some degree while still extracting a sense of emotional reality that will in some way ground the character a little bit, otherwise she is but a cartoon. Totter was one of the genres most flexible actresses, capable of interpreting a number of roles with phenomenal conviction. In Tension, she once again burns up the screen, although this time the ante is upped considerably. Claire is one evil bird, no doubt about it. John Berry certainly makes no attempts at hiding the fact that she is up to no good from the moment she appears on screen for the first time. Totter evidently relishes the role, dedicating herself to Claire with energy and swagger. Her character expresses a stunning level of borderline contempt for all those who fail to strike her fancy, typically putting them into a lot of trouble in the process. Without question, a surface level evaluation of the film concentrating purely on the acting and who impresses most leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind that Totter owns the show. Practically dominating every scene in which her character appears, she is easily the most memorable aspect of the film, the one that shall leave the most lasting impact on the viewer. When considering some of the diametrically opposed roles she has played (like the faithful wife in The Set-Up), Tension is a testament to her range.

A deeper appreciation of  Tension reveals that, at its core, it is a wonderful story about how good can triumph over evil, even under the most perverted of circumstances. Consider the plight of Warren Quimby, who for the longest time has refused to give in to the fact that Claire is more than likely cheating on him. When further evidence proves irreproachable, Warren temporarily gives in to a thirst for retribution, adopting a new persona and name in a process that shall, he hopes, end in the demise of the monster who ‘stole’ his wife. Yet after everything falls sweetly into the place, with Barney very much at the mercy of Warren’s wrath, the latter recognizes the absurdity of his behaviour. Warren is first and foremost a decent human being. Anybody can dream to see their rivals fall victim to misfortune and punishment, but a decent person will not necessarily act out on it, preferring to repel whatever dark desires eat away at them. The second half of the story therefore sees a good person who renounced evil try to survive unfortunate circumstances all the while being chased by good and honest cops. It should appear rather obvious as to who the killer is (although it still won’t be revealed in this review), but the mystery plays second fiddle to Warren’s titanic struggle against the odds. He is very much a character worthy of the viewer’s empathy. He will not stand for his wife’s egregious behaviour, nor should he. It is equally pertinent to note that whenever Warren takes on his alter ego, his true self never entirely dissipates. Behind the posing and posturing are indications of the kind, charmingly awkward Warren that exists deep inside. It is in this respect that praise need be showered onto Richard Basehart. Certainly not one of the biggest names of the era, he deserves full credit for lending believability to his dual role.

Supported by a thunderous score reminiscent of the opening notes to the theme of On Dangerous Ground, Tension proves to be a delicious example of a story featuring a quintessential femme fatale and a whole lot more.

-Edgar Chaput