Whirlpool

Whirlpool (1950) is another borderline film noir. It is  a stylishly shot crime movie with a cast whose credentials speak of a strong pedigree in the school of dark cinema, directed by Otto Preminger, who was certainly no stranger to noir. I suppose it might be seen as more of a whodunit (or should that actually be a “how did he do it”, given the seemingly unbreakable alibi involved) and it might not feature all the classic ingredients, but the strong emphasis on the psychological aspects of the story as well as its examination of matters relating to trust and manipulation nudge it in the direction of film noir.

It takes a thief. Well, the story opens with a thief taken, even if it looks as though psychoanalyst’s wife Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) is too classy and polished to fit that particular bill. Nevertheless, that’s what she is, having been spotted, trailed and then approached by a store detective after walking out of a shop with an expensive piece of jewellery stashed away in her purse. Since she is not short of money, it becomes evident that she is a kleptomaniac, acting under the influence of some private compulsion. This fact is pointed out by a convenient witness to the embarrassing episode, one David Korvo (Jose Ferrer). While he may not be clad in shining armor he does have a smooth line in persuasive patter, more than enough to allow him to ride to the rescue of this felon in distress. One might have thought that a woman married to an eminent psychiatrist (Richard Conte) would be ideally placed to obtain the finest treatment, but no film noir would be complete without the presence of secrets someone wants to keep buried. Such is the case with Ann Sutton, whose success in suppressing traumas suffered in the past has left her with little appetite for shattering the illusion of the perfect wife she has carefully constructed around herself.  So what is Korvo’s motivation in all this? Despite his protestations that he’s no blackmailer, and his very public determination to display his innocence, his money is made via fortune telling and hypnosis. What becomes increasingly apparent is that this man is a master manipulator, and that Ann Sutton is about to become just one more cog in a devious and murderous scheme.

Otto Preminger had memorably worked with Gene Tierney on Laura and they would collaborate again on Where the Sidewalk Ends and, somewhat later, on Advise & Consent. Preminger was good at tales of damaged people and as he moved into the 1950s he was drawn to scripts that featured ever more complex individuals and circumstances. Ben Hecht’s adaptation of a Guy Endore novel is characteristically slick and the plot, while twisty, always moves smoothly. In noir terms, Preminger would do much more interesting things with the idea of the troubled and criminally inclined female in the superlative Angel Face a few years down the line. In a sense, Whirlpool feels like something of a throwback; as much a puzzle plot murder mystery as regular film noir, it combines a critique of quackery and charlatanism, which had waxed and waned in popularity from the early years of the twentieth century on, with that kind of slightly reverential take on Freudian psychoanalysis that was in fashion in the post-war period. The focus is on the well-heeled and leisured classes, people with good jobs, nice clothes and the time and money to indulge in some lightweight self-analysis. If the idea of admitting that all may not be as idyllic as the shiny new decade promised to a psychiatrist (even if that person happens to be one’s spouse) was something to be reserved for a different type of person,  consulting some flimflam artist like Korvo was acceptable. Perhaps it was a way of acknowledging the existence of post-war angst without having to take it too seriously.

Knowing how hard Gene Tierney had to struggle with mental health issues in real life gives the movie a bit of an edge. It adds poignancy to those moments where she is expressing dismay at her instability, a feeling that this is not merely a woman playing a part but someone who is in fact living it out. Richard Conte comes across rather stiff at times, which is probably the way his part was written – too much empathy too readily expressed at too early a stage would not have made sense given the reluctance of Tierney’s character to confide in him. Nevertheless, he does seem a little too controlled and reined in, particularly in the scenes where he’s confronting Ferrer’s smugness. On the other hand, it could be said that this contributes to an air of tension. The meeting between a recuperating Ferrer, taunting and needling even as he sweats in pain, and a deeply wounded Conte does have a palpable undercurrent of menace. Ferrer is well cast, unctuous and dissembling, adept at the kind of emotional larceny that easily outstrips Tierney’s petty pilfering.

The main supporting part is filled by Charles Bickford, someone whose name pops up here from time to time and whose presence in a movie I generally welcome. The weathered features and gruff manner suited a range of roles and his dogged but fair-minded police lieutenant in Whirlpool represents one of those times when he made the most of a relatively small part. The script has him cast as a recent widower, which is a nice touch that serves to round out and humanize what might otherwise have felt like a purely generic character. That moment when he wakes at night, stung by his conscience, and then glances briefly at the small framed photo of his late wife on the bedside table before making up his mind to go along with Conte’s hunch is true and simple, and it helps to ground the movie beautifully.

Whirlpool is an interesting movie, fanciful in its telling (is the kind of hypnosis depicted even possible?) yet authentic in its presentation. I guess almost everyone involved has done better work elsewhere, but none of them could be said to have been below par either. The Bfi Blu-ray from some years ago looks excellent to me and the film can be accessed easily on DVD or even online depending on one’s preference.

 

Leave Her to Heaven

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is a visually and emotionally arresting piece of cinema. Shot in lush, vibrant Technicolor, with an unashamedly melodramatic plot which unfolds in a succession of rustic settings, this is the kind of movie which is guaranteed to root out that perennial bone of contention relating to color and film noir. While I am happy to consider it noir, I certainly respect the views of those who are reluctant to do so. Ultimately though, the labels or categories applied are immaterial, fading to insignificance next to a startling central performance which manages to simultaneously compel and repel, and that is no mean feat.

Alfred Newman’s ominous score sets a sombre tone for the opening on the water in Maine. The arrival of novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wide) is the cue for stolen glances and mumbled words of sympathy. He’s fresh out of prison, having served a two year term and as he sets off across the lake to keep a date with destiny his lawyer (Ray Collins) fills in the background for a mystified companion, and leads the audience into the long flashback that occupies the bulk of the running time. On the way to New Mexico, two strangers on a train exchange some flirtatious banter, the kind that feels light and amusing due to its ephemeral nature. These people are Richard Harland and the intense, and intensely beautiful, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney). She’s been reading his latest novel and, because she hasn’t recognized him as the author, offers a frank and less than flattering critique of the writing. Coincidences wrapped up in misunderstandings are the staple ingredients of many a story and frequently offer a good jumping off point. Here they form the basis for a whirlwind romance which sees Harland bewitched by Ellen, while she casually discards both her old engagement ring and the man who gave it to her (Vincent Price). Make no mistake, this is a love story. However, it is a story of a twisted, all-consuming and all-destructive love, one where insecurity and possessiveness trample generosity and trust, where the heights of joy are abruptly flipped to become the depths of evil. Without going into spoiler territory for those who haven’t seen the movie, the first hour charts Ellen’s gradual succumbing to the persistent whispering of her inner demons, culminating in a scene that is shocking in its coldness. What follows is a rapid downward spiral, leading Ellen ever deeper into a state of moral decay and trapping those nearest to her in the web of deceit and selfishness she has spun.

I have only a passing acquaintance with the work of John M Stahl. I’m aware that he was responsible for the original versions of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life (both of which would be famously and successfully remade by Douglas Sirk) and I have seen The Walls of Jericho, again with Cornel Wilde. He brings a striking visual aesthetic to Leave Her to Heaven, ably assisted by Leon Shamroy’s sumptuous cinematography, and makes particularly effective use of nature. I have read of the film’s blending of references to Greek myths into the story and while I can see where the connections are being made, I’m not convinced they are all entirely apposite. What does strike me, however, is the significance not just of water, as others have suggested, but of the lake, and its positioning within the narrative at the beginning, in the middle, and again right at the end.

This symbol of life and death, indeed of the journey of life itself, is always present, from a vague and undefined early hope, through bitter tragedy, and finally on to a hard won reward of sorts. One thinks of the lake and its calmness, but it is a superficial calm masking something stirring softly beneath, perhaps something darker and more dangerous. Is there a reflection, as the water reflects and as the sunglasses donned for that darkest of all scenes also reflect, in the beautiful perfection and composure of Gene Tierney’s features?

Tierney could convey a powerful stillness at times that, again like the symbolism and imagery of the lake, is of a deceptive type. There is too that sense of a hidden thing lurking and submerged, revealed or betrayed by the suggestions of hurt, fear, love and on occasion downright malice which flash momentarily from the eyes. She forms the emotional heart of the tale, remaining a slightly mysterious and unknowable figure. The reasons for her murderous possessiveness are never fully explained – there is the obvious attachment to (or obsession with) her late father, yet this only partially explains her behavior, and it would seem reasonable to assume some sense of displacement was prompted by the adoption of her cousin (Jeanne Crain). What matters though is not so much why these impulses exist as the fact that they do. Especially in the first act, she comes across as something of a force of nature, that scene where she scatters her father’s ashes in the New Mexico wilderness, on horseback and with Newman’s soaring music carrying her over the ridges is notable. It serves to point up the contrast with Wilde, who watches it all from afar, meek and passive. In fact, the traditional roles are subverted on a number of occasions: Tierney’s bold and prolonged staring at Wilde at their first meeting is remarkable for its provocative unconventionality, and of course it is she who later proposes marriage, again in contravention of what would have been regarded as the norm.

Crain is fine in her supporting part, but it is a fairly one-dimensional role. Cornel Wilde makes for a personable lead, moving smoothly from love to dismay and on to horror and despair. However, I do wonder how a character who is so clearly unperceptive could make a living as a successful writer. Vincent Price, who appeared in a number of films alongside Tierney around this time including Laura, only has two scenes in the movie. His big moment occurs in the climactic trial where his vengeful and driven prosecutor takes center stage. His remorseless lashing of the witnesses on the stand veers dangerously close to histrionics but also highlights the raw wounds inflicted on his pride and dignity.

Leave Her to Heaven is film I felt was due a revisit for some time now and I was motivated to move it up to near the head of the queue when I read this post last month. That piece expresses some doubt as the whether Tierney’s character can be properly referred to as a femme fatale, and I tend to feel the same. Surely someone ruled by their own destructive impulses belongs in a different category. And so, just as the movie comes full circle, so we finish where we started, pondering the worth of labels. I’ll let others decide what they wish to call the film, I’m satisfied to think of it as simply a great example of the filmmaker’s art.