Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Otto Preminger's Whirlpool isn't even listed in Film Noir, An Encyclopedia of the Film
Style but at its core it is a psychological noir. It doesn't have much of a reputation.
After dismissing the film at a screening 30 years ago, Savant was surprised to find it rich in ideas
that relate to other dark thrillers of the time, and not just Preminger's
Imperfect casting and the need to prop up a story idea packed with wild ideas work against
Whirlpool, but there's something at its center that's uncommonly honest about relationships,
and how easily they can be twisted.
Astrologer, womanizer and psychologist-without-portfolio David Korvo (José
Ferrer) latches on to Ann Sutton after rescuing her from a shoplifting charge that she's terrified
will get back to her well-known psychiatrist husband, Dr. William Sutton (Richard Conte). Korvo's
smug charm and
insinuating manner disturb Ann, but when he convinces her that he's not interested in blackmail,
she puts her faith in him. Little does she know that the diabolical Korvo intends to involve her
in a bizarre murder scheme.
Whirlpool starts as a glossy women's magazine tale with all the trimmings - a pampered but
disturbed wife, a loving but remote husband and an interesting but dangerous other man. Ben Hecht
and Andrew Solt's script comes from Guy Endore, a writer who gained interest by writing a bizarre
historical fantasy called The Werewolf of Paris. This thriller weaves pulp ideas of
hypnotism, guilt and marital trust in a view of psychoanalysis rather sophisticated for the time;
the brand of headshrinking shown here is a lot more credible than the knee-jerk goofery that writer
Hecht put into Alfred Hitchcock's
Whirlpool goes in for hypnotically-induced crime, a gimmick associated mostly with cheap
thillers and considered fairly low on the intelligence chart, a step or two below amnesia. But
audience resistance to the show starts earlier, for other reasons. Quack conman David Korvo is so
oily and insulting he couldn't cadge directions on the street, let alone win the confidence of the
society folk that fawn over him. This requires that his casual chump targets (Constance Collier's
matron, Fortunio Bonanova's insecure Italian) be unusually stupid. Barbara O'Neil has wised up to
Korvo's game but the movie cuts the woman no sympathy, even giving her a shock streak of white hair
similar to Elsa Lanchester's monster-do in The Bride of Frankenstein.
That leads us to the Frankensteinian aspect of other ideas stitched into Whirlpool.
(Spoilers) O'Neil's portrait is the centerpiece at the scene of a crime, occupying a visual
space analogous to the painting in Laura but otherwise minimized. Charles Bickford's
pragmatic older detective on the case has just lost his wife, but unlike Dana Andrews he makes no
connection with the lady in the picture.
Korvo manages a superhuman feat of endurance thanks to his abilities of self-hypnosis, (spoiler)
overriding exhaustion and pain to skulk across town while still recovering from a gall bladder
operation. This permits the flashy actor to hold center stage for an impressive scene, but reminds
us in retrospect of Richard Basehart's equally daunting feat of acting, operating on his own
bullet wound in the powerful
He Walked by Night released
the year before.
Korvo considers himself a genius but repeatedly reveals his bitter motivation: To humble and ruin
an authentic respected psychoanalyst and steal his wife in the bargain. This makes him sort of
a Lucifer character, striving to pull down those he feels aren't worthy of their higher place in
society. Korvo's elaborate scheme to plant false evidence is masterful and almost foolproof.
Where Hecht and Solt trip up is in the familiar error of forcing psychoanalytical realities to fit
the strict patterns of a thriller. Korvo isn't the only one using
superhuman skills on himself. Ann Sutton confesses her ignorance of her obvious guilt, and then
performs an instant and accurate self-analysis of the childhood origin of her problems. Her husband
at first turns his back but reverses direction to confirm Ann's self-diagnosis
and perform an Act Three cure, with True Love as the medicine.
The plotting may be pat but some ideas behind Whirlpool are solid. The core problem for
Ann's mental dysfunction -- simple kleptomania, as she's proven to be a resolutely faithful wife --
is sourced in a vague malaise in a claustrophobic marriage controlled by her husband.
Naturally the stifling restrictions are about money ... a subtle suggestion that the cure for
modern relationships is consumerism -- let her spend money, Doc, and all will be okay. The
underlying feeling is an upscale version of the soul-sickness felt by Dick Powell in the
great noir by Andre De Toth, Pitfall. Life is stagnant, I'm going to work every day
(or dressing up in Oleg Cassini fashions) and none of it seems to have a meaning.
Whirlpool works to a fairly predictable ending, wrapping up its loose ends and disposing of
the villain (he of the leaky gall bladder) in fine fashion. 1
José Ferrer is almost too much for the role, even though I can't think of anyone who could
do it better; how many actors can convincingly play a charming megalomaniac? Gene Tierney is fine,
but this is
yet another major vehicle that merely asks her to be beautiful, confused and feminine. She's
best when deflecting Korvo's reptilian advances. Richard Conte doesn't convince as a psychoanalyst
due to our prejudiced view of him as a working-class tough guy, but his eventual rallying to his
wife's defense plays well. Charles Bickford is barely granted an attitude beyond unconvinced
skeptic, and we really aren't ready for his change of heart. It's an interesting legal setup when
an accused criminal isn't allowed to have a private conversation with her husband or her lawyer!
Fox's DVD of Whirlpool looks great and David Raksin's score sounds fine as well. It's a
sure bet that this tepid boxoffice performer hasn't been out of the vault much, as it's rarely
screened even at Otto Preminger retrospectives.
Beyond a trailer, the sole extra is a typically loose commentary by critic Richard
Schickel. Schickel surely knows as much about movies of this period as anyone. He keeps his comments
at the general level and doesn't sweat the details. The very listenable track isn't
heavy on information, and the lack of prep creates situations like the one in which he names
Preminger's 'big five' 20th-Fox movies, only
to throw in an RKO film by mistake. If that sounds petty, perhaps Savant is a Korvo-like pretender,
secretly set on undermining the credibility of a master critic! In all fairness, Schickel mostly
sticks to analyzing the movie's surface, showing us how to watch it and pointing out many of its
subtleties. Perhaps that's enough.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo), English (Dolby Digital 1.0)
Supplements: Commentary by Richard Schickel, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 3, 2005
1. Cynics might find a
connection between this scene and a vulgar but famous gall bladder moment in
Andy Warhol's Frankenstein. Seriously though, just like Clifton Webb in Laura, Ferrer's
final gunshot destroys the important prop that clears up the mystery.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson