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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » High Tension (1936, Fox Cinema Archives)
High Tension (1936, Fox Cinema Archives)
Fox Cinema Archives // Unrated // December 16, 2014
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted January 30, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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Laughs outweigh action in this snappy romantic comedy. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released High Tension, the 1936 romantic comedy from producer Sol Wurtzel, directed by Allan Dwan, and starring Brian Donlevy, Glenda Farrell, future director Norman Foster, Helen Wood, and Robert McWade. With he-man Donlevy headlining a story ostensibly about deep-sea diving and oceanic cable engineering, one might think High Tension would be mostly brawn, but smart-assed repartee is the order of the day, and nicely put over it is, too, by the mouthy cast. No extras for this okay fullscreen black and white transfer.

1935, San Francisco, the offices of The Trans-Pacific Cable Company. A break in the company's ocean-floor cable, 2100 miles out in deep water, is causing havoc with the clients who depend on Trans-Pacific cablegrams to conduct their business. Owner Willard Stone (Robert McWade) is screaming for hotshot engineer Steve Reardon (Brian Donlevy) to fix it, but he's already down below, in a diving bell...reading a pulp entitled The Son of Neptune, a highly-fictionalized account of Reardon's own already inflated sea tales, written by Reardon's girl, Edith "Mac" McNeil (Glenda Farrell). The hero of the hour yet again for fixing the cable, Reardon returns to Frisco and demands a two-week vacation and a $1000 bonus so he can marry Mac, but he overshoots his date that night by four hours--thanks to two bottles of Scotch--and Mac isn't having any of it. Going on a bender, Reardon gets into a bar fight, only to wake up in bed with young engineer Eddie Mitchell (Norman Foster), the bar's piano player who saved Reardon's wad of dough. Deciding then and there to mentor Eddie, a year passes and Eddie's now a top-flight deep-sea cable operator. Reardon, ready to settle down again with Mac, lets Eddie take a supervisory job in Honolulu, while he agrees to work in the home office for Mac's sake. But when Eddie's controversial plan to blow up a coral reef makes everyone nervous at the home office, Reardon volunteers to go help, pissing off Mac and eventually Eddie...particularly when he makes time with beautiful secretary Brenda Burke (Helen Wood).

Now this how a B is supposed to move, so I'll try and make this review equally short and sweet. After reviewing the stilted, ponderous International Settlement, High Tension was a welcome little sprint. Scripted, ironically, by none other than International Settlement's writing team of Lou Breslow and John Patrick, now with an assist by songwriter/screenwriter Edward Eliscu, High Tension doesn't waste time on layered characters or dense dynamics; instead, it tries to cram in as many wisecracks as it can inbetween the slangy bantering and the fistfights and the drunken singing (Donlevy scores with a boozy And That Woman Made a Monkey Out of Me) and the bookending deep sea stuff, for an eventful, brash 63 minutes. There's a loud-mouthed, pushy feel to High Tension, embodied by Donlevy's braggart character, that's quite loose and fun. Donlevy's arrogant bullsh*tter is the kind of fast-talking showoff--a charming, overconfident boaster who pulls off his conceit because he can back it up with results--that to this day continues to be one of the most recognizable stereotypes in American movies. Unfortunately, what you don't see too often any more is the equally fast-talking, smart and smart-mouthed, no-nonsense battler American girlfriend--perfectly realized here by future Torchy Blane delight, Glenda Farrell--that served as the antidote to commitment-phobic blowhards like Donlevy. When Farrell and Donlevy scrap in High Tension, it's amusing not just because the lines are funny, but because they're both so good at playing pissed-off, you appreciate the effort--a commitment to performance that doesn't happen all that often in B efforts like this one.

Director Allan Dwan (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Sands of Iwo Jima), a legend in the business for plugging away decade after decade, delivering literally hundreds of unassuming-but-entertaining titles, keeps the tone agreeably brittle, letting gags like Donlevy pegging a boss with a dart (the off-camera scream, followed by the other office staff hooting and hollering, is priceless), or having a jail cell full of cons, tired of Donlevy's bragging, sarcastically croon, "Byyyyyyye, Steve!" off-camera as he's bailed, roll out with a surprisingly modern feel. Dwan's staging of the action scenes, from a well-choreographed bar fight, full of fun details (the minute the fists fly, someone gathers up all the billiard balls), to a vicious/hilarious fight between Donlevy and Joe Sawyer (with a piano between them), and the brief diving sequences, are just as casually knockabout as his dialogue passages. By the time High Tension winds up, with Farrell humorously strangling Donlevy ("You poor fish!") as she crows over snagging him for five years on a ship together, you know you've seen a trifle...but a surprisingly finely-crafted, perfectly entertaining trifle. And you can't ask anything more from a B, than that.

The Video:
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for High Tension looks okay, with some grain, a medium-sharp image, mostly steady contrast, and a modest amount of print damage.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is acceptable, with low hiss, and a reasonably re-recording level. No closed-captions or subtitles.

The Extras:
No extras for High Tension.

Final Thoughts:
Sharp, funny, bickering romantic comedy, masquerading as an action flick. Deep-sea diving and ocean cables are talked about a lot here, but High Tension is really about Brian Donlevy shouting and bragging up a storm to amusing effect...while Glenda Farrell smirks. A fun, snappy B, I'm highly recommending High Tension.


Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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