Review: Whirlpool (1949)

Director: Otto Preminger | 95 minutes | drama, crime | Actors: Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, José Ferrer, Charles Bickford, Barbara O’Neil, Eduard Franz, Constance Collier, Fortunio Bonanova, Beau Anderson, Myrtle Anderson, Lovyss Bradley, Margaret Brayton, Sue Carlton, Clancy Cooper, Lawrence Dobkin, Johnny Duncan, Charles Flynn, Robert Foulk, Alex Gerry, Bruce Hamilton, Mauritz Hugo, Ted Jordan, Larry Keating, Ruth Lee, Ian MacDonald, Joyce Mackenzie, Howard Negley, Wanda Perry, Anitra Sparrow, Randy Stuart, John Trebach, Nancy Valentine, Jane Van Duser, Mack Williams

From the moment he arrived in the US, the Austrian director Otto Preminger has worked alternately in the theater and in the film world. In 1944 he managed to establish his name for good thanks to the cast-iron film noir “Laura”, the film that launched not only his career, but also that of lead actress Gene Tierney. Preminger was under contract with Fox. The studio expected more successes after “Laura”, but they failed to materialize. Preminger did not limit himself to thrillers and murder mysteries and certainly did not do badly. But none of the films that followed could follow in “Laura’s footsteps.” The authoritarian Austrian had a lot of trouble dancing to the tune of the studio bosses, but in the late 1940s he gave in to the old law that prescribes that you can always fall back on your first success. And so Preminger made three psychological thrillers in a row; “Whirlpool” (1949), “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950) and “The Thirteenth Letter” (1951). In two of the three films, the director is reunited with the star of his greatest success: the beautiful Gene Tierney.

In “Whirlpool,” Tierney spells Ann Sutton, a rich young woman who seems to have it all. She is married to Dr. William “Bill” Sutton (Richard Conte), a respected psychoanalyst and has everything her heart desires. However, Ann carries a big secret with her: from childhood she has the compulsive need to steal things. She is ashamed of it and has never dared to tell her husband about it. One day she is caught in a department store stealing an expensive brooch. David Korvo (José Ferrer), a charlatan who pretends to be a hypnotherapist, sees the whole thing and comes to the rescue of the embarrassed Ann. The next day he calls her. Ann thinks Korvo wants to blackmail her and decides to meet him. However, he offers to help her get rid of her kleptomania and insomnia through hypnosis. Initially, Ann is somewhat reluctant, but eventually she goes with him anyway. However, Korvo appears to have very different plans. Not much later, the body of a woman is found. Ann is the prime suspect, as she was in the victim’s house when she was found …

Psychoanalysis was still in its infancy in the late 1940s. Before then, “Whirlpool” broached a controversial topic and that was grist to the mill of Preminger, who happily plunged into the complexity of the human psyche and preferred to shake things up with a controversial theme. The story, which is logically compared to “Laura” because of the great similarities, is not convincing, however. This is mainly due to a number of improbabilities and plot holes in the script of the experienced screenwriters Ben Hecht (who frequently collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1940s) and Andrew Solt. Expectations are high precisely because such big names are involved in the script. Expectations that “Whirlpool”, at least on a narrative level, cannot live up to. Fortunately, the two protagonists save the film from failure. The role of unstable heroine is perfect for Gene Tierney. The actress herself also had mental problems that would haunt her throughout her life. In the film, Korvo tells Ann that she is a prisoner in her own spoiled, perfect life, can be traced back to Tierney’s own little world, in which as a Hollywood starlet she was required to have it all done perfectly.

In addition to the particularly beautiful Tierney, we see José Ferrer as the slippery charlatan Korvo. He also feels like a fish in the water in his role and with his rich, full voice he also knows how to steer the viewer well with his voice-overs. Those who seem less well-cast is Richard Conte, usually seen as a tough gangster and best known as Don Corleone’s rival Don Barzini in “The Godfather” (1972). As the good, supposedly brilliant psychoanalyst Bill Sutton, he is not convincing at all. He doesn’t play badly, but he is simply not credible and is more reminiscent of a petty criminal from a New York slum than of a distinguished, highly educated academic. In smaller roles we see experienced rotten Constance Collier (in her last film) and Charles Bickford. Preminger and his cinematographer Arthur Miller further enhance the mediocre story with some visual highlights, including mirror shots (to highlight Ann’s ambivalence), daring camera angles, bizarre diagonal shadows and countless references to “Laura”. Anyone who has seen that superior film will definitely enjoy “Whirlpool” more than anyone else.

For fans of the classic psychological thriller or film noir, “Whirlpool” offers a very entertaining pastime. It’s a movie that clearly has its limitations – especially in the script. Anyone who has the necessary background information about the filmmakers and directors will be able to get extra satisfaction from “Whirlpool”. Those nice winks, the acting talent of the two protagonists and the genius of director Preminger make this film noir certainly worthwhile. It is not all brilliant, but it is fun!

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