Tuesday, July 15, 2014

WHIRLPOOL (1949)

Otto Preminger, 1949
Starring: Gene Tierney, José Ferrer, Richard Conte, Charles Bickford

A psychiatrist’s beautiful, but troubled wife, Anne, is arrested for theft after concealing her kleptomania and insomnia from her husband. A con artist and hypnotist, David Korvo, deftly rescued her from the embarrassment, but presses for a future meeting. Convinced he is going to blackmail or attempt to seduce her, an outraged Anne is relieved to find out that he only wants to use his hypnotic powers to help her. She gets a good night sleep for the first time in months, but is soon found guilty of the murder of one of Korvo’s previous rich, female clients when she appears in the woman’s house with no memory of the evening. Did Anne kill the woman or is she being framed?

Based on Guy Endore’s (The Werewolf of Paris) novel Methinks the Lady, the script is from the great Ben Hecht, who had also worked with director Otto Preminger on Angel Face and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Though this is often categorized as film noir, Whirlpool is more of a psychological melodrama than a crime film and my only real complaint is that I wish more genuine elements of crime and mystery had been introduced. It’s too obvious that Korvo is the killer and the film’s only real mysteries are whether or not Anne’s husband will forgive/believe her and whether he and the detective will be able to crack Korvo’s alibi.

Though the film is incredibly enjoyable, it is not able to compete with Preminger’s best films noir, Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Angel Face. There are numerous plot issues from a purely logistical standpoint and it’s simply going too far to accept that Korvo hypnotizes himself to get up and walk around after gall-bladder surgery – this is touching on the kind of camp territory that Universal horror plunged into in the ‘40s through series like the Inner Sanctum Mysteries and other drivel. Tierney’s Anne is also too obviously innocent. Though her innocent is doubted for a time in Laura, I had a similar issue with her in both Preminger’s Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends. She’s simply too likable to be convincingly guilty, morally ambiguous, or a true femme fatale. (This is also why she is so sympathetic as the mentally diseased, manipulative murderess in Leave Her to Heaven).

The acting is phenomenal and stars Gene Tierney and José Ferrer are practically able to overcome the numerous plot issues. Tierney is perhaps channeling her own experiences with mental illness in her role as Anne, which she struggled with for many years. She was institutionalized and underwent shock therapy for depression and her portrait of a fragile, unstable, depressed, elegant, and privileged wife is unparalleled in ‘40s cinema. This blend of contradictions captures the psychological difficulties of being a “kept” woman during a period of shifting gender roles. Tierney occupies this transitory position in many of her film roles and as a result captures a sense of isolation, of not belonging.

I absolutely fell in love with José Ferrer. The incredible actor is probably best known to contemporary audiences because he’s the father of Twin Peaks’ amazing Miguel Ferrer and – thanks to his off-again, on-again marriage to Rosemary Clooney – he’s George Clooney’s uncle. Ferrer made his career with his award-winning theatrical and filmic renditions of the titular character in Cyrano de Bergerac, though he excelled at playing villains – I would love to see his Iago in Othello. He had well-known roles in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), Joan of Arc (1948) with Ingrid Bergman, Crisis (1950) with Cary Grant, Moulin Rouge (1952), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and – believe it or not – Dune (1984). He was the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award, which was the first of many awards for Ferrer. There is a sad twist to Whirlpool’s themes of romantic dishonesty and infidelity. Ferrer was married five times. His first marriage with renowned stage actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen ended due to her controversial, long-time affair with the great Paul Robeson. He was married to actress Rosemary Clooney (White Christmas) twice; both times ended in divorce because of his affairs.

Richard Conte (The Big Combo) and Charles Bickford (The Woman on the Beach) are constantly overwhelmed by Tierney and Korvo, but Bickford in particularly gives a good performance. Conte is probably the worst thing about this film. He’s miscast as Anne’s husband, a brilliant psychiatrist. The script also expects to be a man at the head of his field, who somehow fails to release that his wife is a depressed, insomniac, kleptomaniac. He also runs through an implausibly quick range of emotions; initially after the murder he hates her and is convinced of her infidelity, but soon he realized he is to blame for acting too much like her father (!) and becomes determined to prove that Korvo is the murderer, despite the man’s airtight alibi. The implausible marital relationship between Anne and her husband is the film’s most nebulous point, though it makes a number of interesting observations about marriage between wealthy, successful individuals. Preminger, Ferrer, and Tierney were all divorced and married numerous times, with both Tierney and Ferrer remarrying the same spouse twice.

As a thriller, Whirlpool pales in comparison to Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), a superior, earlier example of the use of hypnotism and psychiatry in a twisted romance. Hitchcock’s film is also more overtly subversive. Whirlpool does benefit from some excellent work from Academy Award-winning cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, whose shots of Tierney are particularly impressive. The film comes highly recommended and anyone who was not previously acquainted with Ferrer should prepare to have their minds blown. The film is available on DVD, though I would love to see a Blu-ray box set of Preminger’s noir and thriller works.

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