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.