Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) is stopped as she gets into her car after shopping at a swanky department store, and looks indignant until the store detective asks her to open her handbag, whereupon he plucks out a brooch that she has shoplifted. She is ordered into the manager’s office to be questioned, but the stress causes her to faint, and on waking she appears confused, though the staff suspect she is faking. One man who thinks she’s genuinely bamboozled is hypnotherapist David Korvo (José Ferrer) who steps in to smooth over the situation, telling the manager that Ann is suffering mentally and may not have been in control of her actions, and besides her husband Bill (Richard Conte) is a psychiatrist who could bring scandal onto the store. They let her go…
But Korvo doesn’t let her go, he has her in his clutches now Ann has the notion that he has the key to her mind in one of many thrillers from the nineteen-forties that were obsessed with psychoanalysis. This was director Otto Preminger’s entry into that subgenre, though it may have been more apt in light of his leading lady, who he had given one of her most celebrated roles earlier in the decade with Laura. Gene Tierney was that lady, and as her career wore on sadly she became more known for her mental fragility than her acting, a troubled soul whose illness many put down to her struggling with her handicapped daughter who she had been carrying when she contracted measles, leading the baby to be born blind, deaf and mentally disabled.
This contradiction in Tierney’s life still informs a considerable following to this day, seeing as how she was one of the most beautiful stars of her era, had great success in the movies, but in her private life was labouring under great depression. She has a scene here when Ann is in custody where Preminger filmed her speech of quasi-confession in one long take and she comes across as especially vulnerable, though whether that was her performance or whether her actual experience was bleeding through into it was difficult to say, though from such questions are cinematic fascinations made. Whirlpool didn’t feature her best reading of a role, necessarily, but seeing her as a character so obviously in need of help and not receiving it can speak to an audience.
Particularly when you knew her background, and that she was seeking help in real life, even in an affair with future President of the United States John F. Kennedy (another example of Tierney’s contradictions since politically she was a Republican). The film tended to lose tension when Ann was stuck in the cells on a murder rap because that meant we were spending time away with Conte, who could be fine in the right part but here was too stolid to be truly engaging. On the other hand, José Ferrer, for whom this was his second movie, could have been done with more screen time as in contrast to the delicate Ann, he was practically a lip-smacking bad guy you could relish with great enjoyment when you’re not sure how he’s carried out the crime.
Korvo has concocted for himself the perfect alibi, and when you find out his mind over matter powers have been a strong contribution to that it makes up for the fact he spends half the movie in a hospital bed. Preminger’s work was often fertile ground for character actors, and Whirlpool was no exception, Ferrer most obviously but also in the smaller roles; Charles Bickford (who had a remarkable life if you want to look him up) was the detective who Bill has to convince – though he falls for Korvo’s machinations when he thinks Ann was having an affair with him – and brought a gruff integrity to his dogged search for truth, while in one and two scene wonders the likes of Constance Collier and Fortunio Bonanova brought colour to this menacing world. What it said about psychology was less certain, more of a gimmick in Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt’s script than anything of value and treated with suspicion when opportunists abounded, though we never doubt Bill has a chance to cure his wife. The finale was highly amusing, as Ferrer took the cake. Music by David Raksin.
[The BFI have released this on an excellent-looking Blu-ray box set entitled The Otto Preminger Film Noir Collection (Region B only). It is accompanied by Fallen Angel and Where the Sidewalk Ends, as well as a detailed booklet, trailers and commentaries for each title and a career interview with Preminger from the early seventies. Click here for the box set on Amazon.]