The Insult that made a Man out of Quimby

TENSION (1949) is a film I always used to get mixed up with SUSPENSE (1946) and also IMPACT (1949), but I think I’ve got it straight now. Barry Sullivan helpfully illustrates the title with an elastic band in scene one, where he talks to us, his chums in the audience, about his patient, sadistic, Porfiry Petrovich style cat-and-mouse approach to catching killers.

But the star of the film is Richard Basehart, that character actor in a leading man’s body, who plays milquetoast drugstore proprietor Warren Quimby — and this is an MGM film so Fred Quimby was running the animation unit — and I’m also assuming at least one of the three writers knew the obscure meaning of that first syllable.

Basehart is quimby-whipped by his mean wife, Audrey Totter, cast much to type, and the noir staples of misogyny and post-war malaise are much in force: “You were cut in uniform,” is Totter’s explanation for her otherwise incomprehensible decision to marry this wimp for whom she expresses nothing but contempt. When she runs off with rich lout “Barney Deager” — the names in this movie are GLORIOUS — Quimby hatches the most pathetic murder scheme ever put on film.

Humiliated by hairy-chested (and hairy-backed, and hairy-armed) Deager on the beach, Quimby breaks his specs. Getting them repaired, he learns of the new miracle of contact lenses, and has an idea. He’ll get a pair of these new-fangled things and be A NEW MAN — unrecognizable as he sets up a false identity as Deager’s neighbour, snuffs him, and then vanishes without trace. Sort of a Clark Kent/Superman thing, only with more murdering. Like the Zack Snyder Superman, in other words.

This plan is so dumb it doesn’t even have to gang aglae for Quimby to be in trouble, but it gangs aglae from the start: he falls in love with Cyd Charisse, who embodies every submissive virtue lacking in his spouse. Then he decides, at the last minute, not to go through with the killing, but someone else does, and suspicion rapidly falls on our mild-mannered pharmacist.

This being MGM, the more conservative aspects of noir are to the fore, but being a John Berry film (subsequent blacklistee), it’s also more complicated. The institutions of marriage and the police don’t emerge untarnished: Sullivan and his partner, surly William Conrad, are nasty pieces of work. When Totter memorialises her slaughtered lover with the words, “He was full of laughs,” Conrad snarls back, “Now he’s full of lead.”

Charisse is a delightful presence so she manages to make her insipid role bearable, but Totter is much more fun. The daft plot’s machinations are cruelly effective in that she and Basehart are thrown back together just when he’s decided he doesn’t want her anymore, and the finger of guilt starts prodding him in the nose even as Sullivan woos his wife right under it.

For a while there I wondered if the writers had lifted the concept from Clouzot’s QUAI DES ORFEVRES, but if so they left out the final twist that allows that movie an absurdly happy ending.

SPOILER:

This one contrives to punish the guilty and reward the innocent (after making them sweat a little), but fades out in a hurry before the final clinch, since embracing a woman other than your wife is technically a no-no even if it’s just a matter of time before the execution.

TENSION stars Ishmael; Adrienne Fromsett; Gabrielle Gerard; Tom Amiel; Walter Winchell; and Frank Cannon.

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12 Responses to “The Insult that made a Man out of Quimby”

  1. I stayed at a hotel in Pocatello, Idaho, which blessedly had Turner Classic Movies (the only hotel I’ve ever stayed in to offer it). I was there on Cyd Charisse’s birthday, so it was all Cyd, all day, including this movie. It struck me at the time as only fairly directed, which deadened the impact of the plot and the acting, but it was still fun. “Charisse is a delightful presence so she manages to make her insipid role bearable” could be said of many of her films.

    They also showed Silk Stockings, and for some reason I started imagining that movie as a kind of bizarro parallel to From Russia With Love, with Charisse as Klebb and Astaire as Bond…

  2. ehrenstein47 Says:

    The blacklisted Berry went to France where he made several films an ended his career as Delphne Seyrig’s love interest in Chantal Ackerman’s musical “The Golden 80s” His las film as a director was the posthumously released “Boesman and Lena.” His son Denis acted for Rivette in “L’Amour Fou” and married Jean Seberg. That marriage hit the skids and he moved on to Anna Karina. Not sure if they’re still married.

  3. Interesting that you mention the conservatism of MGM and its tension with the noir format (they did produce the series Crime Does Not Pay after all, which I’m sure must be interesting sociology and cinema for anyone interested in classic movies or noir). I love both MGM and noir, but I think an interesting series to do would be the most un – MGM movies made by MGM. I’m proposing:

    – Freaks, The Show, The Unholy Three and The Unknown as the all – time winners
    – Greed
    – Anything by King Vidor
    – The Asphalt Jungle (“full of people I would cross the sidewalk to avoid”- Louis B Mayer)
    – Act of Violence

    On the fence: The Picture of Dorian Gray (full disclosure: my favourite horror movie ever made). It has all the MGM class and class, but I think it also does some interesting things with the format (the switches to colour, the Lewtonesque horror, the European decadence, Hatfields cold Dorian)

  4. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    Barney Deager was played by black listed actor Lloyd Gough.
    He made something of a comeback in the ’60s. His wife, actress Karen Morely was also blacklisted.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    To adapt the words of Miss Prism, “The good end happily and bad end unhappily. That is what MGM means.”

    My reaction is divided to TENSION. It’s not very good, but … it does provide a splendid role for Audrey Totter and the Los Angeles resident in me is pleased by the film’s sense of local color.

    MGM wouldn’t seem to be a noir-friendly place, ASPHALT JUNGLE and POSTMAN notwithstanding. The one I’m curious about is a certain NO QUESTIONS ASKED, with a script by Sidney Sheldon (of all people), which involves gangsters dressing in drag so that they can steal jewels from the Ladies Room.

  6. With Arlene Dahl and Jean Hagen as actual ladies.

    This is about as close to a questioning of the status quo as I’d expect in an MGM noir, and it goes further than you’d normally get.

    Chaney and Browning led an MGM school of the grotesque which was actually part of the studio’s makeup until Chaney died and Freaks flopped… had Lon lived longer, much might have been different.

  7. “But the star of the film is Richard Basehart, that character actor in a leading man’s body”

    Surely you jest. He was too short and stocky to be a leading man. I mean, have you ever watched an episode of his series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea? He’s always the shortest member of the Seaview’s crew.

  8. Jeff Gee Says:

    I’m tempted to go with “Mad Love” as the most un-MGM MGM production, but yeah, “Freaks.”

  9. Oh, most movie stars are and were short. The Chuck Heston / John Wayne titans are the exceptions. What I mean by “body” is that producers looked at Basehart and saw a handsome leading man. But he tricked them and did voices and accents whenever he could get away with it. (He’s the first to do a John Huston impression, when he plays a movie producer in Finger of Guilt, right after doing Moby Dick — in which he also seems to have picked up Hustonian inflections, probably from being given line readings.)

  10. ehrenstein47 Says:

  11. TENSION has my favorite dialogue line for a noir slattern: Totter stares at an unwelcome admirer at the soda fountain, and dripping with disdain, tells him what to do in one word: “DRIFT.”

  12. Yeah, she’s really set up quite sharply with that moment!

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