For some reason, it’s always easier to spot cinematic trends in classic film. Every studio wants to capitalize on the last big success (or successes) which can lead to a movie that often feels like an imitation than something genuine. Such is the case with Whirlpool, a drama on the cusp of the stark reality of the film noir world of the ’40s and the lush melodrama that would dominate the 1950s. Heavily inspired by everything from Laura (1944) to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1949, and would, in turn, inspire 1953’s The Blue Gardenia, Whirlpool is a beautifully filmed curiosity project available in a dazzling Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) is a kleptomaniac recently caught stealing in a department store. She’s enticed into using hypnotism to cure her by David Korvo (Jose Ferrer), but Korvo ends up using the treatment to frame Ann for murder.
As I mentioned in my intro, it’s obvious to see where the studio hoped lightning would strike twice. Otto Preminger and Gene Tierney had success with Laura and, like that feature, Whirlpool is a story where the audience is only given pieces of information, though it never goes into the deep ambiguity Laura did. The audience always sees what Ann is doing at any given point, so when she ends up in the home of Barbara O’Neil’s Theresa Randolph and finds her dead, the audience is aware Ann didn’t do it. The emphasis on hypnosis and psychiatry – Ann isn’t just being hypnotized, her husband, played by Richard Conte is also a psychiatrist – was also heavily popular in works like Spellbound, of which this movie hews a bit too close for my comfort.
Gene Tierney, always beautiful, lacks the barbarous punch she had in Laura and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Because this movie has its hooks deep in the melodramatic she’s all emotion, constantly putting her face into her hands. It’s high drama, but one that often feels phony and contrived. Though this excess of emotion isn’t relegated to just her. Jose Ferrer is nothing but oil and slime as Korvo. He’s a villain so nefarious if he had a mustache he’d twirl. And at the extreme other end of the spectrum is Richard Conte as Bill, the good psychiatrist who, with little provocation, believes his wife is philandering and practically disowns her.
That’s the biggest shift from Laura to this. Laura placed an emphasis on male characters and how they perceived Laura, told through flashbacks that had the air of selective memory. Here, Ann’s story is told and shaped by men with no room for ambiguity. They shape her narrative and they get her out of trouble. Ann has no real sense of place in her own story. This would be fine if you had actors of weight like Clifton Webb or Dana Andrews, but Conte and Ferrer are just bland and uninspiring.
There’s a fantastic commentary track with critic Richard Schickel that gets into the nitty-gritty of the feature, so even if you don’t enjoy the finished product you can listen to the film’s history and it’s placement within Preminger’s work. Julie Kirgo’s accompanying essay is also a must-read for how it examines women’s roles at the time and hints at deeper complexities in Ann’s relationship to womanhood and her wifely duties that I wish the film explored better.
Whirlpool is great for Tierney fans and Preminger completists even if it does feel incredibly clunky and stale. It’s not necessary a whirlpool so much as it’s a babbling brook.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.