Tension (1949) stretches the limit of tolerance in the rocky marriage of a mousy pharmacist, and becomes the plaything of a savvy detective solving a murder.
Actually, it’s the rubber band that’s the plaything of Barry Sullivan as the detective. He uses one as a visual aid in the first few moments of the film, breaking the fourth wall, speaking to us directly. He tells us that by manipulating tension, he breaks down criminals.
“Everybody’s got a breaking point.” At several points in the film, he takes out another trusty rubber band and stretches it in his fingers to remind us.
Mr. Basehart is Warren Quimby, a mousy name for a mousy guy. He works the night shift at the all-night drugstore in a post-war southern California where suburban sprawl is pulling highways after it like a loose thread unraveling. Where Malibu beach houses are inevitably the scenes of trysts, and murder.
Mr. Basehart worries about his wife being alone -- or rather, not being alone -- while he is working. Calls the movie theater to see when the show ended, checking up on her. Fears that when he goes upstairs to their little apartment she won’t be there some night. We might think him a fool and deride his obsession with a woman so unworthy of him. But, that is because we are the audience and we are omniscient. When she enters a room, we hear the blaring, bluesy saxophone music that is her signature. In old movies, a sax equals sex, and a saxophone follows her everywhere.
Nice girls finish their supper before they have dessert.
But, obsessions make us helpless. He shuts up and gets dutifully back in the car. He has lost our respect. He never had hers.
When she returns, it is only to pack. She and her dolly go to live in the liquor salesman’s beach house.
But Richard Basehart can’t let go. He goes to the beach, stomping in his loafers on the sand to ask her to return. He is such an annoying pest -- even we have to admit it -- that Liquor Salesman Lloyd punches him from here to next Tuesday. When Basehart retreats, his glasses broken, the “big man” calls him a four-eyed punk.
Mr. Basehart goes to the eye doctor and gets a new pair of spectacles. They cost $5.
Five dollars. In a word, cripes.
Then Basehart begins to work on a germ of an idea of killing Liquor Salesman Lloyd for humiliating him in front of his wife.
It’s a plan worked out carefully, with us in on his thought processes. He decides to create a fake identity, and have that fake person do the killing, and then fade away into nothing. He goes back to the eye doc for a set of contact lenses, because he has seen a poster there that announces contact lenses will make him a new man.
But his plan begins to unravel, like the miles of California highway, but the unforeseen complications turn out to be a good thing. He doesn’t see it at first, but eventually he will.
But Basehart is a man who finishes what he starts, so he finally picks the day to go kill Liquor Salesman Lloyd.
Audrey isn’t here.
Audrey isn’t here.
The scales fall from his eyes, and Richard Basehart sees she has taken a night off from Liquor Salesman Lloyd to pursue, or be pursued by, another “big man.”
“I must have been crazy. She’s not worth it. If it hadn’t have been you, it’d be some other guy.”
He gloats over Lloyd, who we see is clearly humiliated that she’s bored with him already.
“She’s all yours,” Basehart says with a sneer, and we can sense the weight off his shoulders and the rejoicing in his soul now that he is emotionally and psychologically free of that rude woman who doesn’t finish her hamburgers. Now he is free to love Cyd and start his life over.
She is loving, contrite, and wants him to take her back.
Liquor Salesman Lloyd has been found murdered. Mr. Basehart’s nightmare is only beginning.
Some things I like:
First of all, the drugstore. I know the exteriors were shot in and around Culver City and Malibu, but I don’t know where. Film locations are Robby Cress’ specialty. If you haven’t seen his blog, check out Dear Old Hollywood here.
I don’t know about the interior of this drugstore set. My gut feeling is it’s a real store, because it is so wonderfully packed to the gills with everything a drugstore sold at that time, with the lunch counter and the somewhat worn-looking diamond pattern of floor tile. It almost seems too detailed for a set on a soundstage. But I don’t know.
A young boy of Asian ancestry, and a pretty young African-American woman are among the patrons having their prescriptions filled by Basehart. They are minor roles, but these two individuals should be noted for their not being stereotypes. Also, William Conrad’s name is Edgar Gonzales; we see a police detective with a Spanish surname, also not stereotyped. These three characters are presented naturally, as being all-American, and that is perhaps what is most effective.
Uneasy Victors about America’s involvement in post-War Germany as seen through the movies -- A Foreign Affair, The Big Lift, and Judgment at Nuremberg.
We wait for Cyd Charisse to lose it, hurt or outraged to learn that her boyfriend is already married -- which is even more insulting than being a murderer, too.
But, she’s too much a lady. She swallows her distress, and play acts disinterest.
At one point Cyd, deeply offended by Sullivan’s manipulation, tells him off without ever admitting she knows Basehart. Then in a rising voice as she’s about to stomp out of the place, she turns to Basehart,
“And you do make wonderful coffee!” What she means is I’ll never betray you no matter what, but that’s what comes out of her mouth. Exquisite.
Another fun scene is when Barry Sullivan pulls a similar trick on Audrey Totter. He brings her to Basehart’s furnished apartment and tells her Basehart’s been romancing the neighbor lady. Audrey is no Cyd, and she blows her top in an instant, furious at the thought that the husband she had been two-timing was two-timing her.
“Why that four-eyed little pill pusher!” She is deliciously jealous. She tells Sullivan all about how Basehart murdered Liquor Salesman Lloyd.
Now Sullivan has everyone where he wants them, and pulls one final stunt to unmask the murderer, because so far all he has is hearsay and his gut instincts.
Audrey Totter’s final exit is accompanied by the sultry notes of a sax.
A saxophone never plays like that when I enter or exit a room. I wish it would sometimes.
I have only two questions about this movie. One, the reason for the murder is never really explained, or else I missed it.
Maybe it’s because she doesn’t finish her burger.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century.