Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Drug Store Delilah: Audrey Totter in TENSION (1949)

Audrey Totter is one of many actresses we naturally associate with noir; her best remembered films include noir classics like Lady in the Lake (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), and she also appears in a supporting role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Less well known than these other pictures is director John Berry’s 1949 MGM film, Tension, in which Totter stars as one of film noir’s nastiest femmes fatales, an adulterous wife who drives her milquetoast husband to change his identity and contemplate murder. While noir devotees may disagree about the overall merits of the picture, Tension undoubtedly provides Totter with a fabulously unrestrained example of the bad girl type, and her Claire Quimby merits a place in the film noir hall of dangerous dames right alongside Phyllis Dietrichson, Kathie Moffat, and Elsa Bannister.

Totter’s character, Claire, is the wife of Warren Quimby, a mild-mannered pharmacist played by Richard Basehart. While Warren works the late shift at an all-night drug store, Claire carries on an affair with a hairy lug named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough) because he has money and a more macho personality, and eventually she leaves Warren altogether. Humiliated by a confrontation with his wife’s lover, Warren plots an elaborate scheme to murder Barney, but his plans falter when he meets Mary (Cyd Charisse) and begins to fall in love with her, just as he finally realizes that his wife is no good.

From her very first appearance Totter oozes malice and selfishness; her viper’s eyes brim with disdain for her husband and the life he provides for them. Even the way she eats a sandwich reveals her crass, wasteful nature; she only takes a few bites of it before moving on to pie. For reasons we never quite grasp, Warren lives only to serve her, but she gives him the cold shoulder and sends him scurrying back to his customers. Freddie, the soda fountain jerk, recognizes her ability to wreck men’s lives without a second thought and begs her not to flirt with him. “Don’t stink me up,” he implores. Claire finds his fear of her amusing. “OK, Junior,” she says, even as she makes him lie to Warren when she leaves with another man.

Like many of noir’s bad women, Claire cares most about material possessions and status. “What’s better than money?” she asks early on, and she isn’t being sarcastic. Her eyes linger lustfully on a fur coat in a magazine, but she does nothing to help earn the money she wants to spend. She expects men to give her everything that she desires, and it’s clear that her husband isn’t measuring up. When Warren protests her appropriation of an expensive bottle of perfume from the pharmacy’s stock, she retorts, “A big guy would spend this much on me in one evening,” and then she proceeds to more or less take a bath in the stuff, daring her unhappy spouse to stop her. Claire dominates her husband with a baleful glare, constantly belittling and abusing him, even as she puts on her best, most feminine airs for Barney and, later, the homicide detective Collier Bonnabel.

In another key scene, Totter embodies the femme fatale’s rejection of bourgeois feminine ideals of domesticity and motherhood. Warren has secretly saved his money to buy the couple a real home in the suburbs, which he naively assumes is the kind of life Claire wants. When they arrive at the house, however, Claire refuses even to get out of the car. Once again giving Warren a poisonous stare, Claire drowns out his remonstrances and pleas by leaning on the car horn. She wants no part of middle-class monotony, and very shortly afterward she decamps with her lover, whose beachfront property offers something more like the constant party Claire imagines as the good life.

Audrey Totter’s performance really sells the depth and intensity of Claire’s rotten heart. She never lets us think that Claire has any real class; she’s a two-bit tramp through and through, ready to jump from one convenient lover to the next in order to look out for her own immediate interests. Like the painted doll she carries around with her, Claire is pretty but vulgar, and we’re not surprised late in the picture to learn that she has a long criminal record lurking in her past. Totter plays Claire without any redeeming qualities; she’s a lethal combination of vanity, greed, and deception. AndrĂ© Previn’s score also provides Claire with a slinky theme that highlights her lack of subtlety; whenever she enters a room the music reminds us that she’s all kinds of trouble, especially for Warren. Unlike many of noir’s other deadly dames, Claire never comes across as a strong character; instead, she is grasping and vicious because she is weak. A human parasite, she needs men to earn money for her, protect her, and lie for her, but even as she feeds off of them she poisons them with her own venomous nature.

Totter’s drug store Delilah makes Tension essential viewing for those interested in the femme fatale archetype, and the character provides a pointed contrast to Totter’s turn as the anguished, sympathetic wife in The Set-Up. Totter also offers a different take on the bad blonde in The Unsuspected (1947), in which she plays Claude Rains’ duplicitous, gold-digging niece. Although Audrey Totter never became a huge star, and her film career stalled in the 1950s, she made an indelible mark on film noir with her performances. When it came to being a bad girl, she was truly one of the best.

This essay originally appeared in The Dark Pages, a newsletter devoted to film noir. Follow the link to subscribe.