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.

 

 

 

Secret Agent Double-O Dino: THE SILENCERS (Columbia 1966)

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Out of all the James Bond-inspired spy spoofs made in the Swingin’ 60’s, one of the most popular was Dean Martin’s Matt Helm series. Based on the novels of Donald Hamilton, the films bore little resemblance to their literary counterparts, instead relying on Dino’s Booze & Girlies Rat Pack Vegas persona. First up was 1966’s THE SILENCERS, chock full of gadgets, karate chops, and beautiful babes, with sexual innuendoes by the truckload.

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Our Man Matt is a semi-retired agent of ICE (Intelligence and Counter-Espionage) living in a Playboy Mansion-style pad, and working as a globe-trotting photographer. He’s luxuriating in his bubble bath pool with sexy secretary Lovey Kravezit (“Lovey Kravezit? Oh that’s some kinda name!”) when former boss Mac Donald calls. Evil spy organization Big O (Bureau for International Government and Order) is once again plotting world domination, and the reluctant Helm is pulled back into service.

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Matt is teamed with his former partner Tina to thwart Operation Fallout, a nefarious plot to detonate nuclear bombs at Alamagordo and set off a war between the U.S. and Russia. The two spies are sent to Phoenix to retrieve a computer tape from operative Sarita, who works as the featured attraction at the Slayboy Club. Sarita is assassinated onstage, and the tape winds up in the hands of beautiful but klutzy Gail Hendricks. Matt thinks she’s an enemy agent, and they make their way to San Juan, where they’re captured. Tina turns out to be a double agent, and Matt must battle the odds inside Big O headquarters to stop Operation Fallout and defeat evil leader Tung Tze.

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All this serves as an excuse to surround Dino with gorgeous women and make with the double entendres in his smooth as Bourbon voice. Dean’s basically playing himself here, or at least his public image of a fun-loving, skirt chasing, boozy lounge lizard. His easygoing charm makes it work, and he has a ball as the ring-a-ding spy. Dean can be heard singing on the soundtrack whenever he’s thinking of girls, and there’s a funny moment when, while driving with Gail, Frank Sinatra comes on the radio crooning “Come Fly With Me”. “Oh, turn him off”, says Dean, “He’s terrible”. He switches the station and Dean himself is on singing his own hit “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes”. Martin smiles and says, “Now that guy can sing!”.

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All the women are appropriately attractive. Stella Stevens is the graceless Gail, an innocent caught up in the sinister skullduggery. She give a fine comic performance, and can take a slapstick pratfall with the best of them. A former Playmate of the Month, Stella’s seen to best advantage in the films THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (with Dean’s ex-partner Jerry Lewis), Sam Peckinpah’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, and Irwin Allen’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Daliah Lavi (Tina) was an Israeli actress featured in the spy spoofs THE SPY WITH A COLD NOSE and 1967’s CASINO ROYALE, as well as Mario Bava’s THE WHIP AND THE BODY. Beverly Adams (Lovey Kravezit) was in HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, but was best known as the wife of celebrity hairstylist Vidal Sassoon. Nancy Kovack appears as counterspy Barbara, who tries unsuccessfully to knock off Helm. Kovack was a 60’s staple who acted in countless TV shows of the era (MAN FROM UNCLE, STAR TREK, BATMAN, etc), and played the ingénue in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE OUTLAWS IS COMING (The Three Stooges’ last feature), and retired from films after marrying conductor Zubin Mehta .

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Cyd Charisse gets “Guest Star” billing as Sarita, the dancing spy. The former MGM musical star gets to strut her stuff once again in both the movie’s opening credits (where she does a striptease number) and onstage at the Slayboy Club (her vocals are dubbed by singer Vicki Carr). It’s basically a cameo role, but it’s good to see the leggy Miss Charisse dancing onscreen again.

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The males are all Familiar Faces to movie fans, composed of a fine set of 60’s  character actors. Victor Buono plays villain Tung Tze, and though he’s about as Oriental as Dino, he’s always a welcome presence. Gruff James Gregory is ICE chief MacDonald, and Robert Webber , Roger C. Carmel, and Arthur O’Connell are various Big O bad guys. Director Phil Karlson, known for his tough films like KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and THE PHENIX CITY STORY , shows his lighter side in this one and balances the comedy and action well.

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Producer Irving Allen was once the partner of Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who broke up when Cubby decided to bring James Bond to the silver screen. Allen wasn’t interested, and missed the boat on a franchise that’s still going strong today. After seeing the success of the Bond films, Allen jumped on the bandwagon and obtained the rights to the Matt Helm novels, adding more comedy to the mix. THE SILENCERS and its sequel MURDERER’S ROW were box-office hits, but the final two (THE AMBUSHERS and THE WRECKING CREW) didn’t do so hot, as the spy craze was ending. Martin declined to do a fifth (THE RAVAGERS) and Matt Helm went into retirement. Attempts to revive the character have failed, including a weekly TV series starring Tony Franciosa. The Matt Helm movies are a product of their era, with Dean Martin’s breezy style carrying the load. All the wink-and-a-nod sexual innuendoes seem innocent in today’s anything goes world, but the Matt Helm series is worth watching as artifacts of a time past, no classics but still entertaining.

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