Saturday, July 18, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Tension(1949)

Well, it was bound to happen eventually. At least a few of the films in this summer-long project had to be duds. It's not that Tension is a complete failure, or even without merit. The plot holds promise, the direction is competent, and there are some interesting moments throughout, but the film is just so remarkably ill-conceived in it' execution that I was never quite sure whether I should be laughing or rolling my eyes. The tone veers wildly from one extreme to another, and never seems to hit a comfortable note.

The film opens with Police Lieutenant Collier Bonnabel(Barry Sullivan) talking through his process on the job, how he gets criminals to crack during interrogations by carefully reading their body language and expertly applying various types of pressure. This prologue is all done with Lt. Bonnabel speaking directly to the audience, and to make the metaphor clear, he's pointedly fidgeting with a rubber band the entire time. As he reaches the climactic moment in his speech, Lt. Bonnabel snaps the rubber band, letting us know what always happens to criminals who happen to cross him. This scene is, to put it bluntly, ludicrously overwritten. The speech sounds like someone trying to come across as a two-fisted pulp hero when in actuality he's never been out from behind a desk. There's no authenticity here, and everything is incredibly on-the-nose. Then the prologue is over, and we enter the story proper, still with Lt. Bonnabel narrating. He pops up here and there to provide narration, which does little beyond describe what we see on the screen.

Richard Baseheart plays Warren Quimby, a pharmacist whose entire life is devoted to the idea of pleasing his wife, Claire(Audrey Totter). He works the graveyard shift for 12 hours a night to save up to buy a house, but his wife would rather spend the money on expensive perfumes while they live in the city where she can enjoy the nightlife. That Claire has a tendency to step out on Warren is no secret; Claire blatantly flirts with men she meets in the Pharmacy, and Lt. Bonnabel's narration relates the fear Warren faces every morning, never knowing if he'll return to find his wife in bed, or still out from the night before. Warren is comically milquetoast, in his pharmacist's smock, wearing glasses designed for optimal nerdiness. He can only whine at his wife as she pushes him around and propositions men in front of him.

Eventually Claire leaves him for a wealthier man named Barney Deager(Lloyd Gough), and Warren begins to fall apart. He goes to try and reclaim his wife, only to be beaten on the beach by his wife's lover, in a scene with all of the dramatic weight of a body-building ad from the back pages of a comic book. The jerk even steps on his glasses and kicks sand on him.

A trip to the optometrist, and the discovery of contact lenses, gives 'our hero' Warren the brilliant idea to concoct a new, secondary identity, one with perfect vision. A scapegoat for the police to pin the murder on once he kills his wife's lover. To this end, Warren rents an apartment in this new identity's name, makes himself visible to his neighbors in this new guise, and leaves threatening messages for Barney care of his new identity. All while also working 12 hour shifts at the pharmacy and maintaining his regular life, of course.

I'm discussing the nuts and bolts of the plot in much more detail than I normally do, and in my notes I still have another couple paragraphs to go, so I'm going to just cut right through it with some fastpaced recap. Warren meets a beautiful neighbor, and has second thoughts about murdering Barney, but still sets out to complete what he started. This is probably the best scene in the film. The writing and acting in this scene finally hit the same wavelength, and the lighting and staging capture the scene in striking shadow-filled images. It's a bright spot at odds with the rest of the movie. Warren never goes through with it, and he rushes out to excitedly propose marriage to his new girlfriend. But first: another complication! Barney ends up dead anyway, and now the police are seeking his alternate identity, the one that wants to get married. Enter Lt. Bonnabel, finally appearing on screen after narrating a ton of stuff he was not there for.

The plot doesn't really get any easier to swallow here. It takes the cops an incredibly long time to realize that Warren and their murder suspect are the same person, even though they have a rather large, clear photo of the suspect. The simple fact that he's not wearing glasses in the photo is enough to trip up the homicide detectives for a laughably long time. A lot of my problems with Tension arise from the character of Lt. Bonnabel, whose prologue gives the film an unintentionally cheesy vibe, like an Ed Wood film without the personality. His voiceover pops up randomly throughout the film, which is supposed to make this seem like notes from a casefile, but actually makes him seem like a voyeuristic outsider. It somehow gets worse once he actually enters the film as an actual character. His actions never seem professional or realistic, and he comes across as deeply, deeply creepy. He begins an affair with Warren's wife, and while it's later revealed that this was a ploy to get her to spill the beans, it never feels appropriate. The fact that he's apparently sleeping with Claire never actually plays into how she's caught, and feels like yet another chance for the film to humiliate Warren. This isn't Sam Spade allowing himself to be seduced to crack a case, this is like Joe Friday feeling up some hippy chicks before busting them for possession. It's uncomfortably sleazy.

As I've said, Tension is competently made, with flashes of what could have been a much better movie. If the movie had leaned harder into the cartoonish elements, it could have been a gonzo black comedy. Likewise if it had sustained the noir greatness of the scene where Warren decides not to kill Barney, it could have been an undiscovered classic of the genre. As it is, the film feels like a jumble of styles that never really mesh together.

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