Tension (1950)

Film Review


Release Date: 25 November, 1949

Studio: MGM

Director: John Berry

Stars: Richard Basehart, Audre Totter, Barry Sullivan, Cyd Charisse, Lloyd Gough, William Conrad

Writer: Allen Rivkin, screenplay; based on story by John Klorer

Cinematographer: Harry Stradling, Sr.


Lt Detective Collier Bonnabel (Sullivan) of the Homicide Bureau introduces himself and discusses his technique for solving a murder: apply ever more pressure on the suspect(s). Increase the tension until the murderer cracks or gives himself away. He demonstrates the concept of increasing tension by stretching a rubber band ever tighter and tighter.

Bonnabel continues as a voice-over as the case involving Warren Quimby (Basehart) commences. Quimby, a pharmacist, works nights to make money to satisfy his sexy, demanding wife, Claire (Totter). Despite Warren’s attempts to please her, Claire accepts the attentions of other men and goes out with them. Ultimately, she leaves Warren for Barney Deager (Gough), a flashy salesman, who has plenty of money to spend on her. Barney beats up Warren when he tries to get Claire to come home.

Vengeful, Warren plots to murder Barney. He invents a new personality, Paul Sothern, and rents an apartment where “Paul” lives on weekends. Paul threatens Barney over the telephone. At the new apartment, Paul meets Mary Chanler (Charisse), a fine young woman, the opposite of Claire. During his weekends at the apartment, Paul and Mary become friends. At a moonlit beach, Mary declares her feelings for Warren, who says he is the wrong man for her. Despite his growing love for Mary, Warren cannot give up his plan to kill Barney. Warren, finally ready to carry out his plan, goes to Barney’s house and attempts to stab the sleeping man. At the brink of murder, he cannot do it. Barney awakens as Warren stands over him with a weapon. Warren declares that he came to kill him, but is no longer angry and vengeful, Barney and Claire deserve each other. Already, Claire has started seeing other men.

Now carefree, Warren plans to divorce Claire and marry Mary. Back in his old apartment getting ready to meet Mary, Warren is unhappily surprised by the return of Claire. She tells him that Barney has been murdered. Soon, Lt. Bonnabel and Lt. Edgar Gonsales (Conrad) arrive to question the couple. Claire lies about their relationship with Barney, who she says was an old friend. Warren says little. The police are looking for Paul Sothern who threatened Barney. Claire and Warren deny knowing Paul. After the detectives leave, Claire tells Warren that she is back, and he better play along with her. Angry, Warren slaps her, but he stays away from Mary.

Mary, not hearing from Paul, becomes concerned and goes to the missing person bureau. She has a picture of the missing man, and the police identify "Paul" as Warren. He is arrested. He tells them the truth about planning to kill Barney but denies the actual murder. Bonnabel releases Warren because he does not have enough evidence against him; the gun used in the murder has not been found. Bonnabel, using his tactic of applying pressure and exploiting the weaknesses of suspects, decides to work on Claire, whose weaknesses he understands thoroughly. Romancing her, Bonnabel tells Claire that Warren cannot be charged without the gun as evidence. Furthermore, he and Gonsales are being removed from the case, and a new team of detectives will take over and initiate a new investigation. Claire, who wants to have herself cleared and does not want any more investigations of her relationship with Barney, retrieves the gun and tries to plant it in Paul’s apartment. Mary sees her and follows her into the apartment. Warren arrives and demands to know why Claire is there and what she is doing. Bonnabel and Gonsales come in, and Claire tells them she was hunting for the gun. Bonnabel reassures her and tells her to keep looking. She pulls the gun out from under the sofa cushion where she had hidden it. Bonnabel lies and tells her that the gun had not been in the apartment that morning because they had replaced all the furniture the previous night. Claire breaks down. Bonnabel has applied tension, and Claire has revealed herself. Bonnabel and Gonsales arrest her. Warren and Mary are left alone to plan their happy future.

An MGM Silver Anniversary film.


The plot centers on Claire, the bad girl, who manipulates men with her sexual allure and receptiveness. Claire scorns fidelity to any man including her husband. She readily responds to a man's come-on, sticks to him for a while, but soon tires, and takes-up someone else. Warren was cute at first, but his efforts to please her have become tiresome, and she leaves him for Barney. Selfish, Claire craves money and. attention.

Totter supplies plenty of sexual heat to her portrayal of the adulterous, two-timing, trampish Claire. She displays her seductiveness by means of pouty and teasing facial expressions and slinky body movements. A rather husky voice and a languid speech pattern accentuate her allure.

Warren, enthralled with Claire, seems a naive weakling. After Claire rejects him for another man, he becomes angry and vengeful. After meeting Mary, a good woman, Warren’s character becomes stronger and more self assured. Warren and Mary meet cute, she falls and he catches her. Wholesome, loving Mary is the opposite of trampish, self-centered Claire, she is the kind of woman a man should marry.

Richard Basehart generally maintains a youthful, fresh-faced appearance. However, during Warren’s second encounter with Barney, he takes on a nasty, scornful demeanor that changes him from slightly menacing into downright frightening. It’s a look Basehart had recently used to good effect in Roseanna McCoy (1948) and He Walks By Night (1949).

Bonnabel quickly takes Claire's measure and easily deceives and manipulates her. His deceptions pressure Claire into retrieving the gun and attempting to frame Warren, consequently revealing her own guilt. These tactics and the outcome prove the efficacy of the tension strategy laid down by Bonnabel at the start of the film.

This intriguing drama is unusual for its plot construction. It is organized into two sections. The first section focuses on Claire’s sluttish persona, her rejection of Warren, and Warren’s revenge plot. The second section focuses on Detective Bonnabel's use of tension to pressure Claire into revealing her guilt. Claire remains the central character as the action shifts from her relationship with Warren to her relationship with Bonnabel.

Andre Previn (b. 1929) composed the score, quietly romantic strings behind Warren and Mary on the beach, mysterious and sinister strings as Warren approaches Barney to kill him, and Claire’s own theme played on bluesy alto saxophones. Tension is one of Previn’s earliest film scores, he was barely 20 years old at the time. An all around musician: composer, conductor, arranger, and noted jazz pianist, Previn has conducted symphony orchestras in Europe and America, composed in varied genres, won four Academy Awards, and received many grammy awards. He was created a Knight of the British Empire in 1996, and received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in music in 1998.

Despite a nearly 60 year career in theater and film, director John Berry and his films are little known, except for He Ran All the Way (1951), John Garfield’s final film. In 1951, Berry was named a member of the American Communist Party at a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearing. To avoid testifying to the committee, Berry moved to Paris where he spent 13 years in self-exile. His American career did not resume until 1964. His films, before, during, and after his years in Europe, are highly varied in quality, ranging from interesting and provocative to inferior and boring.

Berry was attracted to theater at an early age and began his career as an actor. Joining the Mercury Theater and assisting Orson Welles soon had him interested in directing. A significant early experience was his 1942 tour with Welles' road company of the play Native Son (1941). The "enormous prejudices" he observed on this tour may have influenced his choice of subjects later in life.

Berry went to Hollywood in 1944. Producer John Houseman, who knew him from his affiliation with the Mercury Theater, hired Berry to direct Miss Susie Slagle's (1946). His subsequent films were a series of ups (Tension, From This Day Forward (1946)) and downs (Crossing Hearts (1946), Casbah (1948)). For a friend, he directed the documentary The Hollywood 10 (1950), about the ten writers and directors who had refused to testify to HUAC and were jailed for contempt of Congress. Director Edward Dmytryk, one of the ten, recanted and named communist party members, including Berry, at a HUAC hearing in April 1951. Before he could be called to testify, Berry moved to Paris.

While in Europe, Berry wrote and directed for stage and screen. In 1957, he co-wrote the screenplay and directed Tamango, a French produced film about an 18th century slave ship rebellion. The film did well in Europe but major US distributors refused to handle it, presumably due to its depiction of an interracial romance. When released in the US by a small distribution company, Tamango played to good business in many larger cities.

Berry returned to the US in 1964 to direct an Off-Broadway production of Blood Knot (1961), a two character play by South African playwright Athol Fugard. While continuing his theater work, Berry returned to directing American-made films. His first film, Claudine (starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones (1974)) was a success. Two more, Thieves (1977) and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978), were not good. Subsequently, he directed a few made-for-television movies and a few films in Europe. His final film was an interesting adaptation of an Athol Fugard play, Boesman and Lena (2000), filmed in South Africa.


Recess to May 14 Due for Red Probe; Report Chaplin Being Investigated. Variety. May 2, 1951

Just For Variety. by Army Archerd. Variety. November 14, 1958

He Ran All the Way-to Paris-And Came Back Again. by Guy Flatley. New York Times. May 26, 1974

John Berry, 82, Stage and Film Director Who Exiled Himself During Blacklisting of 1950’s. by Ralph Blumenthal. New York Times. December 1, 1999.

John Berry. Variety Obituary. December 6, 1999