Release Date(s)1950 (September 17, 2019)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C+
Whirlpool is a noir excursion into melodrama, hypnotism, and murder. Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) is the beautiful and respectable wife of a successful psychiatrist (Richard Conte). She’s also an emotionally fragile kleptomaniac. When smooth-talking astrologist/hypnotist quack David Korvo (José Ferrer) gets her off the hook for a shoplifting incident that could lead to scandal, the suggestion of blackmail arises. But each time Korvo backs off from a position of power, Ann trusts him a little more. So when he offers to make her memories of the shoplifting incident disappear through hypnosis, she agrees. But Korvo is acting not out of kindness. Having scammed a former mistress out of a large sum of money, Korvo hypnotizes Ann into entering the woman’s house. The woman is already dead, and when the police arrive, Ann is arrested for the murder.
The film features some sharp dialogue by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt. Both Tierney and Ferrer are excellent. Ferrer’s Korvo is arrogant—contemptuous of those more successful than he, and unctuously manipulative. Recognizing Ann’s insecurity, embarrassment, and distress, he grooms her for his grand plan. He devotes the time and attention that her preoccupied husband doesn’t, so he can prey upon her weaknesses to frame her for murder.
Ann appears coolly elegant but is tormented with a combination of self-loathing and guilt. Although vulnerable to Korvo’s evil machinations, she is cautious about her reputation. When Korvo asks to meet her in his hotel room, she insists they meet in a public place to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Tierney devoted much of her career playing victims. In Whirlpool, Ann’s brittleness and the disadvantages she faces in a world that provides her little control are contributing factors to her plight. The men in the film—the store detective and manager, Korvo, and even her own husband— might sympathize with her frailties but nonetheless treat her as an object, not an individual. Tierney conveys a combination of caution, neediness, and delicacy as her Ann puts her trust in the scoundrel Korvo and later attempts to negotiate her way through the haziness of a hypnotic trance.
Whirlpool is similar in plot to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, since both films mix murder with a subconscious state, a psychologically induced memory lapse, and an innocent person accused of murder. The psychoanalysis on display in Whirlpool links Ann’s kleptomania to an incident in childhood. Director Otto Preminger (Laura) starts with a fascinating premise, but as the film progresses, it’s difficult to accept the events as portrayed. They appear more as conveniences to tie plot strings together than logical resolutions of the drama.
The 97-minute Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p High Definition resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Visual quality is sharp throughout, with no noticeable imperfections in the print. Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography has a noir-ish look, with blacks deep and lustrous. Often, Ann looks up with a key light illuminating her face so that she stands out dramatically from the surroundings. Director Preminger’s preference for minimal cutting makes for sweeping, elaborate camera movements. A case in point is a lengthy shot in the climactic scene, during which Korvo eavesdrops on the exchanges between the police detective and Ann. Korvo moves from his hiding place to another point in the room as we see the detective and his associate head upstairs to retrieve an important object. Korvo then approaches Ann from the side. Though it’s unlikely that Korvo would be undetected by the two cops in an actual situation, the cinematography enhances the scene’s tension.
The soundtrack is presented in English 2.0 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. A second track—English 1.0 DTS-High Definition Master Audio—is also available. English subtitles are available for the deaf and hard of hearing. Dialogue is crisp, with Ferrer’s enunciation especially sharp. He has some of the film’s best lines and delivers them with arrogance and condescension, particularly in an early scene in the department store. He essentially talks the store employees into letting Ann leave the store without the police being summoned. Later, when Korvo is in the hospital, Ferrer speaks more slowly, as if pain from Korvo’s recent operation has made it difficult to speak. A gun shot is very loud in comparison to the basic sound level to enhance its dramatic impact.
The Unrated 97-minute Blu-ray is released as a Limited Edition of 3,000 units. Bonus materials include an audio commentary, an isolated music track, the original theatrical trailer, a scroll-through of the Twilight Time catalogue, and an insert booklet.
Audio Commentary – Film historian Richard Schickel notes that Whirlpool is part of a group of Otto Preminger films known as The Fox Quintet, of which Laura is the most famous. These films are about women or men with questionable pasts who become caught up in excessive criminal plots. Gene Tierney was a favorite of Preminger, who used her in three films. She typically played women caught up in a past they could not acknowledge. Preminger was known for his objectivity. He preferred his scenes to have very little cutting. Early in the film, the question “What is bothering this woman?” arises. Tierney came from a wealthy family but had a troubled off-screen life. She was placed in institutions for mental illness twice and had a daughter who was born mentally deficient. Richard Conte was “a street kid from New York who got into the theater in the mid 30s when there was a call for roughneck types.” He often played gangsters and was a “heavy contender” for the role of Don Corleone in The Godfather. Dr. Sutton (Conte) is ambitious, preoccupied by his work and neglectful of his wife. Korvo is resentful of those more qualified and better trained than himself. Schickel provides career overviews of the actors, including Constance Collier, whose film career dates back to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Schickel criticizes the gallbladder operation as a mundane intrusion into the drama. Korvo gets to Dr. Sutton by playing on his jealousy and insecurity. The film offers the viewer not reality but “a dark glamour that is very potent.” Korvo never changes. He’s the sneaky villain throughout. Schickel completes his commentary by stating that Whirlpool is “a very improbable movie but a likable and interesting melodrama.”
Isolated Music Track – The David Raksin score can be heard with dialogue and sound effects muted.
Original Theatrical Trailer – There are two options: the normal trailer and the trailer with an isolated music track.
Twilight Time Catalogue – Twilight Time Blu-ray releases from 2011 to the present can be accessed by a click-on menu.
Booklet – An 8-page insert booklet contains an uncredited essay, 5 black-and-white movie stills, and a full-color reproduction of the movie’s original poster.
– Dennis Seuling