TENSION. MGM, 1949. Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Gough, William Conrad. Written by Alan Rivkin and John Klorer. Directed by John Berry.

   A neat, twisty little noir that comes close to perfection.

   Willard Quimby (Richard Basehart) starts out as the bespectacled night manager of an all-night L.A. drugstore, back in the days when every drugstore had a soda fountain, a tube-tester, a cigar humidor and the latest out-of-town newspapers. And I have to say right at the start that photographer Harry Stradling and art director Leonid Vasian make this place come alive with a wealth of detail captured in sharp, deep-focus photography: the perfect real-life backdrop for the characters who live in it.

   We quickly learn that Willard’s wife Claire (Audrey Totter) seems to be trying for the title of Town Tramp in the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, blatantly cheating on him (with a surprising frankness for an MGM film of this period) and belittling him every chance she gets. Nonetheless, he loves her and reacts with dog-like devotion to every crumb of scorn she tosses at him.

   Well we’ve all had relationships like that, haven’t we? But when she moves in with showy Barney Dauger (Lloyd Gough), Warren is devastated. Distraught, he shows up at Barney’s beach house and gets in a scuffle with Barney, who knees him in the crotch (another unexpected moment for a 1949 MGM movie) and leaves him writhing humiliated in the sand in front of his unfaithful wife.

   Someone said something clever once about a little man scorned, but I forget what it was. In any event, it prompts Willard to murder, and he conceives a brilliant/half-baked scheme to get away with it; he gets contact lenses and assumes a secret identity: Paul Sothern, a traveling salesman staying weekends at a nice apartment complex and occasionally phoning threats to Daeger, making sure to leave his name. His thinking is that when he-as-Sothern murders Daeger, Sothern can simply disappear, leaving him safe as Warren Quimby.

   What he doesn’t count on is that his role as Paul Sothern will be much more enjoyable than his life as Quimby. He even meets a pretty neighbor (Cyd Charisse) at his new apartment complex, they feel drawn to each other, and for a while he considers just forgetting about the whole murder thing and making a good life with a nice girl who loves him. But then he remembers his humiliation and steels his resolve to throw away this chance for happiness and make a mess of things.

   Which is when the twists and turns come in and things get interesting.

   I won’t reveal anything from here on out, except to note that Tension proves to be a very apt title indeed. Barry Sullivan and William Conrad make an intriguing pair of homicide cops, especially as Sullivan seems more interested in putting the make on Audrey Totter than anything else. Writers Rivkin and Klorer provide a fair share of dramatic surprises, and director Berry maintains the atmosphere without sacrificing pace.

   I should also add that a few minutes after THE END flashes on the screen and you smile with satisfaction, you may find yourself saying, “Hey, wait a minute; why did….?” Or “How come they didn’t…?” I know I did. But on looking back a third time I had to admit it all makes for engrossing viewing even when logic takes a holiday.