Saturday, October 19, 2019


Twentieth Century Fox, 97m 17s

Gene Tierney's elegant visage takes on an aura of sadness in this outing, to great cumulative effect. Her psychologically troubled character is one of many featured noir protagonists to be tormented by the past, even if one restricts comparable productions to the common year of 1949. The long-term effect of the past maintains a tight grip on characters in CRISS CROSS, THE CROOKED WAY, IMPACT, THE RECKLESS MOMENT, SIDE STREET, THE THREAT and TRAPPED. But old traumas are just part of the story in WHIRLPOOL, a film very much concerned with how men think of females, from childhood through adulthood, and how patriarchal dominance might impact a woman's hesitance to trust men. At stake is the potential destruction of a moral woman in an immoral world. This feature is among the most progressive of noirs and one of the most compelling to be produced and directed by Otto Preminger, who was well versed in the genre.

For the uninitiated, the story opens in The Wilshire Store in Los Angeles, California, where a store detective (Ian MacDonald) busts socialite Ann Sutton (Tierney) for pocketing a pricey pin. The gotcha moment causes Ann to pass out, conveniently perhaps. When she regains consciousness she faces the wrath of store personnel, but is aided by David Korvo (portrayed with tenacity by José Ferrer), who smoothly gets Ann out of harm's way. The following afternoon he gains her trust, though not nearly to the extent he would prefer. Self-described as both astrologer and hypnotist, David takes her to a party given by Tina Cosgrove (Constance Collier), where he demonstrates an uncanny ability to read others with his eyes. Ann proves herself susceptible to David's hypnotic suggestions, but again she resists his best romantic impulses. While at the party Ann encounters his ex, Theresa Randolph (Barbara O'Neil), who cautions Ann that David is driven only by money. Ann does not want to hear it, and becomes noticeably upset with Theresa, who later is found strangled with Ann's scarf. Naturally Ann is the prime suspect.

WHIRLPOOL shares a kinship with other "woman in peril" noir permutations of the late 1940s and early 1950s, including POSSESSED (1947), THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949), THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (1950) and SUDDEN FEAR (1952). With their textured female protagonists and dark narratives that envelop them, these titles prove the main character of the film noir need not be male. Ann Sutton is another of noir's complex female leads, both strong and vulnerable. Though introduced as an impulsive shoplifter, Ann possesses a bank account large enough to write an unexpected check for $5,000 with little hesitation. She needs to steal accessories like a shark needs sharper teeth. Eventually she reveals that as a young woman she stole to get back at her father, who always thought of his daughter as a child. That is to say her fragile disorder is explained in psychoanalytic terms, ironically hidden from her husband Dr. William "Bill" Sutton, M.D. (Richard Conte), a man with extensive training in psychoanalytic theory.

For years Ann has feigned contentedness in her role as the supportive wife of a highly-regarded doctor. In truth she remains tormented by her childhood. Her turbulent situation as an adult remains much as it was in her past; the only difference now is she steals out of marital frustration. In some ways, her husband treats her as a child, as her father always did. Despite unresolved issues with her upbringing, Ann's sturdy moral character remains as the married woman repeatedly resists the spirited advances of David. He hypnotizes her at Tina's, but even while she is under hypnosis he cannot coerce her hand into his, much to his consternation. In a later scene, David unsuccessfully attempts to meet with her in his hotel room. He becomes noticeably petulant after she sticks to her well-grounded morals. Though many of the best realized sequences highlight the dynamic between Ann and David, the most critical conflict in WHIRLPOOL stands between Ann and Bill. After eight years of marriage, Bill loses trust in his wife, who is devastated to realize her husband does not believe in her innocence and loyalty.

In a nod to the patriarchal culture the movie reflects, Ann's existence is defined more by what men think of her than anything that is within her reasonable control. After having been raised by a father she claims never loved her, Ann attempted to escape to Bill, a reputable psychoanalyst dedicated to the health and wellbeing of his patients. That he is a professional to be taken seriously is suggested by his title affixed to his home's front door. Interestingly, that same door implies a barrier that separates him from his wife when she needs him most. The emotional and intellectual distance between Bill and Ann is emphasized further when Ann expresses an interest in Bill's practice. His reply is telling, "Just stay as you are, as you've always been, healthy and adorable." What strange words to be spoken from a husband to a wife; those might be the thoughts a father thinks but never articulates to his daughter, that impossible hope his child never matures. Later Bill again contextualizes his partner in terms of her physicality when he mentions he likes to see her noticed by others who must recognize, like it or not, she is with him. Clearly the doctor is interested more in an ornamental wife than one who may be his equal on a more meaningful level. The continuation of his marriage depends upon his ability to get his wife to openly discuss her history, as well as her present. Early in the film Bill hints at this need when he discusses a patient who cannot open up to him. At that point in the narrative, he has no idea his wife finds herself in roughly the same circumstances as his patient, at war with herself and the conditions that feed her descent into kleptomania. That husband-wife scene introduces one of the film's major themes:  it is unhealthy to bottle-up feelings, "...locked away in the characterization of a serene and devoted wife," as Ann later describes her sense of alienation. Her marriage parallels her childhood and best explains the film's title treatment. The story is all the more moving considering the well-chronicled mental health issues that plagued the actress Tierney for much of her adult life.

The charlatan David contrasts obviously with the good doctor Bill Sutton, especially in terms of the selfless professionalism we all hope to encounter when in need of care. Though the story's homme fatale David works out of his place of residence, which draws a correlation to Bill, otherwise the two men have little in common. Bill is a distinguished man of principles, David is a shady opportunist, a scoundrel with no altruistic tendencies and no medical diploma. Despite his many less than admirable attributes, David is a man who possesses startling powers over others, including himself when necessary. He shows smooth-talking confidence when he gets Mr. Simms (Larry Keating) to back off from Ann for stealing from his shop. Like Ann, the viewer cannot help but be impressed, even as one may wonder about David's ulterior motive. At lunch with Ann, he states that a healthy marriage has its basis in deception. As he commends her for keeping her shoplifting attempt from her husband, he theorizes, "A successful marriage is usually based on what a husband and wife don't know about each other." Eventually the narrative completely buries this notion, but not before confirming at least some of what David brings to the table regarding Ann. There is no doubt David is a man without honor, but he is spot-on in his diagnosis of Ann, whose unhappiness he detects. In another of the film's several ironies, David is correct in his (admittedly self-serving) theory that Bill is at fault for his wife's disconnect from her supposedly privileged world. Had that not been the case, there would have been no opportunity for David to inject himself into Ann's life. David's unique qualities are on display best at Tina's party, where he labels Feruccio di Ravallo (Fortunio Bonanova) as a manic-depressive, complete with fresh scars on his wrist! Though David later mentions to Ann he had information on Feruccio prior to meeting him, that initial exchange between David and Feruccio ("The Baron") stands as one of the oddest and darkest of noir revelations. David exposes Feruccio's suicide attempt in a party setting, and Feruccio shows only admiration for what most probably would find profoundly humiliating. It is difficult to imagine that scene as plausible in the context of any other genre movie, but hammered into the noir narrative, the on-the-spot evaluation does not strain credibility.

Master filmmaker Otto Preminger reunited with his LAURA (1944) star Gene Tierney and that film's composer David Raksin. Other commonalities between the two productions abound. For instance, an arrangement of masks displayed above David's bed closely recalls the home of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the hoity-toity columnist from LAURA. Preminger associates mask collections with deceptive characters. In another homage to LAURA, consider the large portrait of Theresa Randolph above her fireplace, an image linked to a murder riddled with complexities. In more general film noir terms, WHIRLPOOL can claim one of noir's best bad guys in David Korvo, whose carefully constructed plans do not mesh with his expiration date. One of the film's social concerns is the traditional family in jeopardy, a particularly potent theme of the post-WWII noir era. The Suttons look happy on the surface, but risk being destroyed from within. It could be argued the noir force of fate entangles Ann with David, though the spark for his appearance is her lack of fulfillment as a trophy wife. That trait makes her predisposed to his skill set (real-life hypnotist Fred Schneider was brought in as a technical consultant for the hypnosis sequences). The compromised film noir family is defined further by the character Lieutenant James Colton (the always credible Charles Bickford), the cop who wants to bring charges against Ann for the murder of Theresa. Colton's beloved wife died on the operating table due to a botched surgical procedure. The identical procedure protects the cynical mentalist David, whose recovery from gallbladder surgery at the time of Theresa's death ostensibly places him in the clear for her murder. The truth behind his whereabouts energizes the film's distinguished final act, when David unknowingly accelerates his deserved decline. The moribund David embodies one of the genre's "walking dead," similar to those depicted in DETOUR (1945), DECOY (1946), ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948), D.O.A. (1950) and the Billy Wilder masterpiece ACE IN THE HOLE (1951).

The idealized portrait...

...a film noir hallmark

Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt combined on the screenplay, an adaptation of the Guy Endore novel METHINKS THE LADY... (1946). I cannot say enough good things about Hecht, whose many screenwriting credits include essential film noir properties such as KISS OF DEATH (1947), RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947) and the stellar WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), Preminger's follow-up to WHIRLPOOL, with Tierney again cast as his female lead. Solt's next credit was even more impressive:  director Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), one of the most consummate of all film noirs and certainly one of the most downbeat. Director of photography Arthur C. Miller is credited with the cinematography of close to 150 productions, his final effort being director Joseph Losey's THE PROWLER (1951), a personal noir favorite of mine.

New to domestic Blu-ray as of last month, this region-free Twilight Time disc produces a richly defined presentation of one of my preferred noirs of the late '40s. The level of film grain adds to the authenticity of the presentation, well accounted for in this review's screen captures. Since this is the usual 3,000-unit Twilight Time build, it is recommended the noir collector press the ‘buy’ button while the disc is readily available. Framing is at 1.33:1, audio options include English 2.0 DTS-HD MA and English 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

Twilight Time Blu-ray


The audio commentary track with film historian Richard Schickel was extracted from the "Fox Film Noir" DVD issued in 2005. As was the case with his track for GILDA (1946), Schickel's commentary is intermittent rather than steady, but his observations are solid. He identifies WHIRLPOOL as typical Preminger material:  someone with a compromised past descends into an obsessive criminal plot. Schickel helpfully observes that Preminger shied away from excessive editing. The filmmaker preferred to let the mise en scène do the talking, a practice that lent a strong sense of objectivity to his work. Another good observation is that despite his well-documented reputation as a tyrant on the set, Preminger nonetheless boasted a healthy stable of recurring collaborators. Schickel admires the film under review, but not to the point he is unable to discuss some of its plot concessions and improbabilities. He also credits screenwriter Hecht as one of the important forces behind the adoption of psychoanalytic themes in film, i.e. the Alfred Hitchcock titles SPELLBOUND (1945) and NOTORIOUS (1946).

Other bonus material includes the isolated music track and original theatrical trailer (2m 39s), also with isolated music track. The usual Twilight Time catalogue is a menu option, and a booklet essay by Mike Finnegan is part of the packaging.