One of the better film noirs. Great performances from all the principles: Audrey Totter, Richard Basehart, Cyd Charisse, and Barry Sullivan. Unlike some noir thrillers that get too clever to make sense, Tension is well-plotted. The pacing keeps Basehart and Totter twisting until the end.
We’ve got the girl-next-door Mary (Charisse) and the tramp Claire (Totter) in and out of Warren’s (Basehart’s) respectable life. Warren and Deager (Lloyd Gough) are rivals, but the innocent Mary and the evil Claire are complete opposites. Deager is certainly a jerk, but he recognizes that Warren is a “nice little guy.” Warren, on the other hand, planned to murder Deager; he pulls back at the last second, realizing that Deager has also been manipulated by Claire. They’re in the same boat.
In typical noir fashion, Warren outsmarts himself. His alter ego ‘Paul’ has the unintended side effect of attracting Mary’s attention. That their relationship is great leads, nonetheless, to some agonizing scenes–especially when the lieutenant throws them together in the drug store. They have to pretend to be strangers to fool him. The lieutenant already knows that Paul is Warren; but he has to act as though he doesn’t know in hopes that one of them will snap.
The lieutenant’s role is very aptly played by Sullivan. He drives the plot after Deager’s murder. Both Claire and Warren give shaky statements when he first interviews them, and Mary mucks things up for ‘Paul.’ But as soon as the Lieutenant sidles up to Claire she becomes vulnerable; she’s shown that she can’t resist men. His subsequent pretense that the case has gone nowhere, that Warren is free, and the murder weapon is the only red flag, simultaneously serves to relieve Claire and force her hand.
The denouement in Paul/Warren’s apartment is perfect. Yet another of the Lieutenant’s deceptions reveals Claire’s attempt to incriminate Warren. The mystery lies in how Claire will be caught; we know Warren’s innocent. But we also know that he’s set himself up by his history with Deager, especially with the elaborate revenge plan.
Only a couple of bits in Tension ring false. Why would Claire kill Deager anyway? If she gets tired of him, why not just leave him? She has nothing to gain from killing him. For a while I thought that the killer might turn out to be someone else, but there weren’t really any other characters crawling around waiting to murder anyone.
Also, since the Lieutenant has such a commanding role; do we really need him narrating too? Still, Tension worked extremely well. I can’t think of another noir of this caliber that maintained dramatic ‘tension’ with no car crashes, not much on-screen violence, no back alleys, gangsters, no strained rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, and not all that much time in the dark. Well-worth checking out a few times. 9/10.