Snap! Crackle! Pop!: TENSION (MGM 1949)

The best films noir deal with post-WWII disillusionment, and that’s exactly what drives Richard Basehart’s sad sack Warren Quimby in TENSION. This cynical, downbeat, and downright sordid little tale of infidelity and murder is  boosted by first-rate performances from Basehart and scorchingly hot Audrey Totter as his manipulative bimbo of a wife, with a taut screenplay by Allen Rivkin and solid direction by John Berry. It may not make anyone’s top ten list (or even top thirty), but it’s one of those ‘B’ films that really works, provided you’re willing to suspend disbelief for an hour and a half.

Mild mannered pharmacist Quimby met and married Claire while stationed in San Diego during the war. He, like many others, hopes to someday live the American Dream: house, kids, the whole nine yards. Trampy Claire doesn’t give a crap about that; she prefers excitement, the high life. Claire is messing around with well-off Barney Deager, and when Quimby confronts them on the beach, he gets an ass kicking (Deager: “Now get going and don’t come back, ya four-eyed punk!”). Something snaps inside Quimby, and he gets contact lenses, calls himself ‘Paul Southern’, and rents a place to establish a residence, meeting and dating pretty young Mary Chanler.

But Quimby has a plan, and begins a series of harassing phone calls to Deager, saying he’s “gonna get” him. He goes to Deager to tell him there’s no hard feelings, then (as Southern) sneaks into Deager’s house to murder him. But the meek Quimby can’t go through with it, and his plan changes to move forward with Mary and start a new life. Then Claire comes back, Deager is found dead, and homicide cops Collie Bonnabel and Blackie Gonzalez are on the case, ratcheting up the tension to trap a killer…

Basehart is perfect as wimpy Warren Quimby, the would-be killer who can’t get the job done. He’s such an underrated actor, never quite getting that signature role but doing fine work throughout his career. His noir resume includes the classics HE WALKS BY NIGHT and Robert Wise’s HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, mainstream dramas like Fellini’s LA STRADA, MOBY DICK (as Ishmael), THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, and the title role in HITLER. Basehart’s most familiar to fans as Admiral Nelson on Irwin Allen’s 1960’s TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA , adding gravitas to the sci-fi silliness. One of my favorite Basehart films is the early TV Movie SOLE SURVIVOR (1970), a supernatural WWII drama featuring William Shatner and Vince Edwards; you can catch this one on YouTube – it’s worth it!

Noir’s Queen of Mean Audrey Totter is the slutty, manipulative Claire (sexy sax music plays whenever she comes onscreen!), treating Quimby like dirt until she needs him. Claire’s hot as a pistol and hard as nails, and is another fine portrayal in Audrey’s Bad Girl Hall of Fame. Barry Sullivan plays homicide Lt. Bonnabel, introducing the movie in a pre-credits sequence while fiddling with a rubber band. Sullivan’s Bonnabel uses some unorthodox (and probably unconstitutional!) methods to snare the killer (and I’m sure you’ve guessed whodunnit by now), and that’s where that suspension of disbelief I mentioned comes in handy. His partner Gonzalez is another film noir regular, beefy William Conrad Cyd Charisse gets a non-dancing part as sweet’n’innocent Mary, Lloyd Gough plays the unsympathetic victim Deager, Tom D’Andrea is Quimby’s soda-jerk pal, and Familiar Faces Virginia Brissac, John Gaulladet, Theresa Harris, and Phil Van Zandt appear uncredited.

Though TENSION may not rank high on anyone’s all-time great films noir lists, it’s a grimy little ‘B’ thriller that’s worth watching. It’s got good performances by Basehart and Totter, moody cinematography by Harry Stradling, and a premise that, while maybe not believable, will have you stretched out in suspense right until the end.

 

 

 

Happy 100th Birthday Kirk Douglas: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (MGM 1952)

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Today is the 100th birthday of movie legend Kirk Douglas! Like Olivia de Havilland earlier this year, Kirk is one of the last living Golden Age greats. Bursting onto the screen in film noir classics like THE STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS and OUT OF THE PAST , he first received top billing in the 1949 boxing noir CHAMPION, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance. Later, Kirk starred in some of the best films Hollywood has to offer: ACE IN THE HOLE, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , LUST FOR LIFE (his second Oscar nom, though he never won the statue), PATHS OF GLORY, SPARTACUS, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. One of my personal favorites is 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

One of those Hollywood movies about making Hollywood movies, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is expertly directed by insider Vincent Minnelli, who knew this material like the back of his hand. Aided tremendously by DP Robert Surtees’s  B&W  photography, with a fine score by David Raskin, Minnelli directs Charles Schnee’s roman a clef screenplay about an ambitious producer who’ll stop at nothing to get his artistic vision onscreen. Classic film fans will have a blast figuring out just who is based on who, some obvious, others not.

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Movie star Georgia Lorrison, director Fred Amiel, and writer James Lee Bartlow have all turned down former mega-producer Jonathan Shields’ request to participate in his comeback film. All three are summoned to the office of studio exec Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon  ), who knows why the trio hate Shields so much. Flashbacks tell us each of their tales, beginning with Amiel (Barry Sullivan), who was an “AD on Poverty Row” making “four-day quickies” when he first encountered Shields. Jonathan’s father was a former studio chief who was so hated by Tinseltown the son had to hire mourners for dad’s funeral, including Amiel. Determined to restore the Shields name to its former glory, the pair begin producing and directing low-budget “B’s” for Pebbel. Given a script for a horror shocker called “Doom of the Cat-Men”, they turn an average potboiler into a masterpiece of quiet terror, and the movie becomes a surprise hit. When Pebbel wants a sequel, Shields pushes to make Fred’s adaptation of the book “The Far Away Mountain”, asking for a million dollar budget. He secures the services of Latin heartthrob Victor ‘Gaucho’ Ribera (Gilbert Roland, basically playing himself), and gets his wish- but there’s a catch. Shields hires big-name German director Von Ellstein, leaving poor Fred out of the picture.

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Next up is Georgia, daughter of the late matinée idol George Lorrison, who Jonathan knew back in the day. Georgia is played by Lana Turner, and she’s absolutely fabulous! The movie star’s daughter is a hot mess, a boozer and a “tramp” with suicidal tendencies working as an extra, but Shields is determined to make her a star. Her insecurities cause Georgia to get smashed and almost stop production on his latest epic, and Shields confronts the drunk and self-pitying Georgia in her apartment, a scene that’s pure Hollywood dynamite! When she confesses her love for him, Jonathan strings her along to get the performance he wants out of her. The preview is another hit for Shields, but he doesn’t show up for the celebration. Georgia leaves the party and drives to Shields’ mansion, catching him dallying with extra Lila (Elaine Stewart). Heartbroken, Georgia flees in tears, vowing never to have anything to do with the man who made her a star again. This is without a doubt my favorite segment of the movie, and Kirk and Lana are terrific together!

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Finally we come to James Lee (Dick Powell ), a college professor whose novel ‘The Proud Land’, a Civil War saga “liberally peppered with sex” is a best seller. Shields desperately wants to adapt it to the screen, with Bartlow writing, but he’s reluctant to go to Hollywood. His Southern belle wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame in her Oscar-winning role) is another matter, and she persuades hubby to fly to the West Coast for two weeks as a courtesy to Shields. Two weeks turn into months as James Lee works on the script, but Rosemary, star-struck and blinded by the Hollywood lights, becomes a distraction. Shields talks him into leaving for Lake Arrowhead so the two can work in peace, getting his randy old pal Gaucho to “squire” Rosemary around town. Tragedy strikes when Gaucho and Rosemary die in a plane crash as they’re heading for Acapulco. Shields tries to keep Bartlow busy with work, but their film suffers a blow when Von Ellstein walks off the set, causing Shields himself to take over the director’s reins. The movie bombs, and it’s soon revealed Shields set up Gaucho with Rosemary, knowing the notorious ladies man would sweep her off her feet, freeing Bartlow to write. The ending finds all three still refusing to work with Shields again, but they all eavesdrop on Pebbel’s conversation with the producer, listening intensely as he describes his latest vision over the phone…

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THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is filled with stars, but Kirk Douglas is the one who shines brightest as the ruthless Jonathan Shields, destroying anything in his path that gets in the way of his artistic vision. He’s the Super-Glue that holds the film together, and at the top of his game. There are so many Familiar Faces in this one your head will spin, like Leo G. Carroll as the Hitchcockian Henry Whitfield, Paul Stewart as Shields’ yes-man, plus Stanley Andrews, Barbara Billingsley (Mrs. Cleaver!), Madge Blake, Vanessa Brown, Francis X. Bushman, Louis Calhern (the voice of George Lorrison), THEM’s Sandy Descher, Steve Forrest, Kathleen Freeman, Ned Glass, Dabbs Greer, Kurt Kaszner, Paul Maxey, May McAvoy, Jeff Richards, Kaaren Verne, Ray Walker, and of course the ubiquitous Bess Flowers !

Winner of five Academy Awards (besides Grahame, the picture also won for Best Art Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Costume Design), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is a must-see for all classic film lovers, and fans of the great Kirk Douglas. Happy 100th Kirk, here’s to a hundred more!!

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