Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2 + 2 = Richard Basehart

Delving deep into his varied filmography of late, I can say with confidence that Gypsy's not the only one who loves Richard Basehart. Growing up in the 60's, I first became familiar with Basehart as the curmudgeon-y, designer and Admiral of the scientifically advanced submarine, Seaview, in the hit 60's sci-fi show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Thereafter, I would notice him showing up in guest roles on various TV programs with only the occasional, if memorable, supporting part in a film. In the 1972 Charles Bronson western, Chato's Land, he is one of the more interesting, colorful members of a posse on the hunt for Bronson's titular native American character. And in the 1977 adaptation of The Island of Doctor Moreau, he turns in a convincing performance as the reasoning but feral man-beast, Sayer of the Law.

But I never truly appreciated Basehart until recently when I started viewing his earlier work. The variety and artistic quality of his roles is remarkable with the man portraying everything from a Mayan priest to a suicidal ledge-jumper. The joke of MST3K's female robot falling for the seemingly bland, diminutive, character actor is that he is anything but the charismatic, masculine, leading man type. However, his early resume suggests otherwise as Basehart convincingly portrays classic heroes like Ishmael in John Huston's, Moby Dick, classic villains like Robespierre in Anthony Mann's, Reign of Terror, and all manner of interesting characters in between. In Jean Negulesco's version of Titanic, Basehart plays a defrocked priest looking for redemption. In Sam Fuller's, Fixed Bayonets, he's a Korean war corporal who dreads the responsibility of the inevitable command situation but takes charge anyway. In the classic noir, He Walked by Night, he plays an ice-cold but very intelligent serial killer and in Fellini's, La Strada, he plays a perceptive, fun-loving, clown acrobat who delights in needling Anthony Quinn's talentless strongman. I'd argue that one of the things that makes Basehart such a believable actor in these eclectic roles is his lack of distinguishing physical traits. He's a decent looking guy, but he doesn't overpower with handsomeness and is not a buff he-man. His voice has a pleasant bass quality but is not immediately recognizable. Neither does he have any distinctive gestures, ticks or go-to actor motions that separate him from the pack. He's just a skilled thesbian with enough presence to hold the screen but not dominate it. Probably as a consequence, his lead roles were limited to smaller features while he often played supporting characters in the more prestigious films and was overshadowed by the likes of Gregory Peck, Yul Brynner and Burt Lancaster. Nevertheless, Basehart chose wisely in the pictures he did star in leaving a legacy of often overlooked gems.

The 1949 film noir, Tension, opens with a surprisingly suave Barry Sullivan, as lead detective, Collier Bonnabel, who spells out his character's crook-catching philosophy with a nice little monologue issued directly to the camera. This cleverly placed, foreshadowing prologue concerning the concept of tension, not only tips the viewer that murder is indeed forthcoming, but also describes Bonnabel's methodology which will play out in the latter half of the story. Sullivan's character does not reappear until then but the tension he speaks of is certainly in evidence in the interim.

Anyone that has ever been overly infatuated will have nothing but sympathy for the eager to please main character of Tension, Warren Quimby, who will stop at nothing to make his lady happy, up to and including working night shifts, serving breakfast-in-bed and putting a down payment on a too-expensive house in the country. Richard Basehart, starring as the mild mannered, aptly-named, Quimby, is married to a woman who is, to put it in my grandmother's words, "too wild for him". Basehart is perfect for the role as he is neither an unsympathetic, "yes, dear" milquetoast nor a tough guy who inexplicably puts up with his spouse's crap. He's just an average nice joe who feels lucky to have such a hot dish waiting at home and is someone who elicits pity whenever he's seen casting a nervous eye about for his wandering wife when she's not there. Noir great, Audrey Totter, who has her femme fatale thermostat set to Ann Savage levels of boiling and rocks a 40's bullet-bra like no one else, plays the loose cannon, won't-stay-on-the-porch bride of Quimby. Totter is incredible in the role and reaches levels of uncaring bitchiness that I pray I never see acted out in real life. One scene in particular involving Basehart surprising her with a gift shortly followed by her cold reaction to it made me want to give him a comfort hug him and lay the smack down on her. When Basehart later raises his hand to do just that, I found myself guiltily cheering for him and it's Totter's effective performance that brings on the dramatic titular tension.

Everntually, being brazenly cuckolded by Mrs. Quimby and subsequently beaten down by her wealthy, hirsute, beach-dwelling boyfriend in true Charles Atlas ad comic book fashion, Mr. Quimby has all he can stand and decides a little payback is in order. He assumes a new identity by replacing his spectacles with contact lenses (Superman rule: no one can recognize you sans glasses) and gets the idea of adopting the new name of Paul Sothern in a very cool meta way.

Of course, complications ensue in the form of flexible, girl-next-door photographer, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse), the reemergence of detective Bonnabel along with his portly partner, and even Mrs Quimby's unexpected return. The intelligent Allen Rivkin script is unpredictable enough to keep the viewer from getting bored but it doesn't try to overcomplicate matters and is easy to follow. The step by step procedural aspects make sense and work well on the whole though it does take a comically blown up photograph for the detectives to see the obvious. The third act involves a great bluff and sustains that tension right to the end with a satisfying conclusion. The story and characters are certainly not as dark as some noir, but just as engaging.

As talented as Basehart is, he has a knack for working with people who are equally strong and Tension is no exception. Totter all but steals the movie but there are also unexpectedly strong character performances by the two detectives in the film played by Barry Sullivan and the great William Conrad. Conrad, most known for his later work in the TV shows, Cannon and Jake and the Fat Man, was a legendary radio voice for decades most notably as the original Matt Dillion in Gunsmoke. He also appeared in a number of films noir including The Killers, The Racket, Dial 1119 and Sorry, Wrong Number. The chemistry he has with Sullivan is outstanding and illustrated in a scene where they are questioning a theater attendant. As they depart, Conrad buys a box of popcorn at the snack bar which Sullivan smoothly takes out of his hands, passes off to an incoming kid, then taps Conrad on his rotund gut. It's a very cool, if unneeded, sign-off to the scene that nevertheless speaks to the characters' close relationship and it's executed with brilliant subtlety by both actors. Their tag-teaming of suspects in the interrogation scenes is done with equal aplomb. 

John Berry, who was blacklisted for his short film, The Hollywood Ten, directed Tension. He does a fine job of mixing unusual-for-noir, bright, daytime shots along with more traditional nighttime imagery. The beach shots, both day and night, are particularly impressive and the overall framing and shot composition succeeds in scene after scene. Because of Berry's limited work in the genre, the unorthodox look and slightly less dark tone of the film, I don't think he or it gets appreciated enough. Neither does Richard Basehart, except by Gypsy.

Top 10 recommended Richard Basehart films:

  1. La Strada (1954) dir. Fellini
  2. Moby Dick (1956) dir. Huston
  3. Tension (1949) dir. Berry
  4. He Walked by Night (1948) dirs. Werker/Mann
  5. House on Telegraph Hill (1951) dir. Wise
  6. Fourteen Hours (1951) dir. Hathaway
  7. Fixed Bayonets (1951) dir. Fuller
  8. Reign of Terror (1949) dir. Mann
  9. Decision Before Dawn (1951) dir. Litvak
  10. Titanic (1953) dir. Negulesco