Lawrence Russell

Whirlpool (1949) dir. Otto Preminger writ. Ben Hecht & Andrew Solt (based on the novel Methinks the Lady by Guy Endore) cine. Arthur Miller (effects by Fred Sersen) audio Winston Leverett/Harry M. Leonard (Western Electric) art Leland Fuller & Lyle Wheeler edt. Lois Loeffler music David Raksin

star Gene Tierney (Ann Sutton) Richard Conte (Dr. William Sutton) Jose Ferrer (David Korvo) Charles Bickford (Lieutenant Colton) Barbara O'Neil (Terri Randolph) Constance Collier (Tina Cosgrove) Edward Franz (Martin Avery) Fortunio Bona (Baron Parveau) et. al.

|| A statuesque beauty exits a Wilshire Blvd department store and gets into a new 1950 Ford convertible which the car-hop has just delivered to the sidewalk loading zone. Before she can start the engine she's confronted by the store detective who accuses her of theft. He grabs her purse and sure enough, finds a new costume pin. A kleptomaniac in an Oleg Cassini suit? Seems so... although surely there must be some mistake. The incident is observed by a man with a vague Mediterranean pallor who might be there by chance... or by design.

Whirlpool The thief turns out to be Mrs. Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), the wife of a well known local psychiatrist, Dr. William Sutton. This information is revealed when David Korvo (Jose Ferrer) intervenes, saves her from the manager and the store detective. Korvo knows who she is, although she doesn't know him. The manager knows who Korvo is, although he doesn't know Ann Sutton, apparently, one of his store's valued customers. It's all possible, of course, although most people would recognize immediately that Korvo has an agenda.

What? At first Ann Sutton thinks it's blackmail, then seduction. "I'm not looking for a lover," she says over martinis, but Korvo isn't easily dissuaded. He tears up her "gratitude" cheque [5,000 dollars], then gives her the Wilshire Store's shop-lifting file which he has somehow managed to get. See? his interest is purely professional. She tears up the file, smiles. How can she repay him?

Although married, Ann agrees to meet him at a party being hosted by one of his friends. Here, in an adjacent room, he proceeds to analyze her discontent, her neuroses, then, as a quick-fix therapy, hypnotizes her. Presumptuous in the extreme, this man has no boundaries, uses insult like a sex-whip. He commands her to give him her hand. She extends it slowly, as if from another dimension, then withdraws it. Non plussed, he tells her to fall asleep, and she does... so he wins one, loses one. It seems that no hypnotized subject can be persuaded to do something that isn't in her basic nature. Or at least this is the thesis that the writers advance.

It's this ambiguity of game, intent, crime and sickness that drives the action as a modern melodrama, stylistically similar to a stage play with closed, static sets, lengthy conversations, a beautiful female whose virtue is on the line, and a fascinating man whose villainy knows no bounds.

In fact, Whirlpool owes its cachet to the superb performance of Jose Ferrer (fresh from an acclaimed Broadway stage stint as Iago) as the villain David Korvo, for, without the novelty and vitality of this vicious character, the film would be a failure. As many have observed, Richard Conte is a bit too street coarse to be comfortable in his role as the sensitive psychiatrist William (Bill) Sutton, and you keep expecting him to revert to his famous hard man persona, go nuts, choke this insolent slime Korvo for messing with his wife.

But more fatally, perhaps, the narrative structure is handicapped by director Preminger's live theatre sequencing, especially as seen in the absurd ending where all the principals show up and have their say. Perhaps the writers can be blamed for this, although it must be noted that Preminger was also the producer, and received his training in the theatre in Vienna... and was under heavy pressure to reprise Laura (1946), his previous hit with Gene Tierney. The DVD reissue has a scene-by-scene commentary by the canny film historian and critic Richard Schickel who discusses the problematic aspects of the final scene (at Theresa Randolph's house), but admits a fondness for the unreality as befitting the film period. He might be right. You could argue that the stage expressionism fits the chic psychological landscape of a bourgeois zombie and her crazy hypnotist.

David Korvo. Homme fatale or clown? Like most movie characters, he arrives without a history, so motivation remains circumspect. In this instance, he exists as a gothic noun. "Corvo" is Latin for "raven", an image that sits perfectly with the sinister gloss of the pandiculating mentalist, healer & hustler. This is the key to his character, which is clearly based on the peculiar English writer Frederick William Rolfe (1860 - 1913), who often wrote under the nom de plume Baron Corvo. Rolfe/Corvo was famous for his venomous tongue, and the settling of old scores in his roman a clefs. As a means of reinventing the stock upper-class brute who uses and abuses all who get in his way, the character of David Korvo is a stroke of modern genius. Alienated, embittered, this fluent individual exists as a shadow player on the fringe of the new and wonderful world of institutional psycho-analysis. Here he stalks the wealthy society of post-war Los Angeles as an intellectual werewolf, not unlike the occultist Aleister Crowley, another brilliant apostate dedicated to seduction and criminal begging.

A tantalizing yet inclusive hint of his background occurs at socialite Tina Cosgrove's party, where he does a quick analysis of "the Baron" (Fortunio Bona), then later, when exiting the house, addresses him in fluent Italian. This is a direct lift from the actual Baron Corvo (via the novelist Guy Endore) who spent some time under the patronage of the Duchess Sforza-Cesarini in Italy, knew Italian, wrote on Italian subjects, including the Borgias and the sexual possibilities of Venice. Yet there's a missing sub-plot action here, as the Baron's blonde fiance is supposedly one of Korvo's "proteges". As Korvo tells Ann, she supplied him with the personal information necessary for his impressive diagnosis of the Baron at the party. This suggests the ancient grifter scam employed by a charismatic couple who conceal their relationship in order to seduce & scam others. Yet this part of the "plot" was either undeveloped or edited out. The blonde protege and her mark the Baron just disappear, yet remain as a dangling modifier for the uneasy and mostly invisible back-story.

"Your eyes are full of fear & tension"

|| As head-game bullies go, Korvo is typical, plays on insecurity, exploits neuroses, seeks power and sensual gratification... which contrasts dramatically with Dr. Bill Sutton, who simply wants to free people of their psychological trauma. Sutton is scientific, institutional, committed to the common good... whereas Korvo is an outlaw, a predator, by his own ironic definition "a mere humble astrologer". His targets are usually women, although men aren't immune from his vicious, manipulative invasions... which is dramatically evident in the scene where, after Ann is arrested for murder, Dr. Sutton confronts Korvo in his hospital bed. Here Korvo uses innuendo with the corrosive cunning of Iago poisoning Othello's mind about the loyalty of Desdemona. Sutton is rattled, but refuses to abandon his belief in his wife. It's a good scene, made all the more memorable by the fact that Korvo has just had a gall-bladder operation, is in great pain.

Korvo's control over Ann has it limits, although the true extent of it is left to your imagination. A re-examination of the opening events suggests that just possibly Ann Sutton was already hypnotised when she stole the $300 Mermaid pin. When she is apprehended and led back into the store, Korvo is nearby, watching... trolling or maybe already con-trolling. She faints in the elevator (which is about the only justification for the metaphoric title "Whirlpool") and when she recovers, finds herself in the manager's office on a couch.

The female clerk says, "I could clearly see her reflection in the glass--" but is interrupted by the arrival of David Korvo, who intervenes smoothly on Ann's behalf. The manager reacts respectfully as if he believes Korvo to be a man of some professional and moral significance. Mrs Sutton has an account here, has she not? Indeed. Etc. In a later scene, Korvo auto-hypnotizes himself using a mirror, so if he could do this, he could have hypnotized Ann by using the glass of the display as a mirror, ordered her to steal the pin.

Was such a sequence written and/or filmed, then edited out? Possibly, as there are a number of missing transitions elsewhere that suggest either forced or creative editing, i.e. Ann's hypnosis when she "steals" the recordings of her husband's analysis sessions with Theresa Randolph, then, in alpha rhythm, zombie drives to the Randolph mansion, finds her murdered.

"Wire-tapping the sub-conscious"

|| Whatever you might feel about the ending, the scene that prefaces it is very good, has a crazy pulp fiction allure. Korvo, alerted by a nurse -- probably intentionally, although this is another ambiguity in a very ambiguous story -- that the police are on the verge of finding the missing Theresa Randolph recordings, is forced to leave his hospital bed and go to the Randolph house where he knows his automaton Ann has left them by his command. He's had major surgery within the last 24 hours, so his ability to walk would be neigh impossible. Like a freak incident chronicled by Charles Fort or Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Korvo performs self-hypnosis using a vanity mirror, wills himself to leave his bed, dress, then drive to the Randolph house where he takes an ill-advised time out to actually play and listen to the recordings of his mistress denouncing him to her therapist Bill Sutton. Because of this "relationship" we are left with the impression of a man driven by a homoerotic jealousy of his former mistress.

"She may be telling the truth or laying the foundation for an insanity appeal," says the police shrink after Ann confesses her thievery. Childless, she exists as a trophy wife, and typically blames her husband for her malaise. Yet the automaton woman is a classic male fantasy, and in this context is subversive. A criminal somnabulist or bi-polar victim can always find moral refuge in institutional psychology. Innocence becomes a question of redefining the crime. Motivation supplants act, sickness supplants motivation.

|| A secular Jew from Vienna, a couple of Hollywood Blacklist writers... the real backstory to Whirlpool? Hecht was initially credited under an alias while Guy Endore who wrote the source novel Methinks the Lady -- himself an experienced screenwriter -- wasn't part of the team. A committed Stalinist until the Kruschev renunciation, Endore is best known for his pulp classic "The Werewolf of Paris" (1933) [the film version was made by Hammer in 1961 renamed The Curse of the Werewolf, starring Oliver Reed], and you can see a lycanthropic element in his character of David Korvo. While Korvo doesn't feed on children and virgins, he has the viral appetite of a mind parasite.

The Werewolf of Paris

Methinks the Lady -- a play on the Hamlet line -- was also published as "Nightmare", a more direct and generic title than the film version's metaphoric "Whirlpool". Consider Nightmare's sub-header: "She led a double life -- wife to one man, wanton to many" and you can see that, conversely, Preminger's film navigates the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code with the stony virtue of a nineteenth century melodrama. The secret hypnosis therapy of Ann Sutton uses sex as innuendo, as if the lavicious scenes have been excised, and you are convinced of her victimization and innocence only by the lack of visual evidence. Blackmail is replaced by a frame-up, as Korvo is reduced to murder in order to solve his problem.

Interestingly, William Irish's story "Nightmare" was filmed in 1947 as Fear In The Night starring DeForest Kelly as a bank teller who is manipulated into committing a murder while hypnotized... and least anyone thinks Preminger's Whirlpool owes nothing to this moody B-noir mystery, let him/her compare the scene where the villain Bellknap hypnotizes his patsy DeForest Kelly using a pocket watch as a mirror to the scene where Korvo auto-hypnotizes himself using a small mirror. Cinematically, both shots are identical.

This plagiarism is the sort of theft that gets a student expelled from the academy but in Hollywood usually rates an Oscar nomination.

Whirlpool is now being marketed as "film noir" and while it does have a couple of scenes that use shadow & light expressionism -- Ann's night drive, and Korvo's night exit from the hospital -- it isn't film noir. Preminger flood-lit his scenes, used live theatre blocking, followed the verbal style of the drawing room drama. These various stage conventions include "theatrical Time", static scene blocking, verbal exposition, and secrets known to the audience but with-held from the characters. Thus the virtue & reputation of the heroine are in jeopardy, exacerbated by a "misunderstanding", i.e. her relationship with David Korvo (itself a secret from her husband), and the secret of her kleptomania.

Director Preminger's apparent distrust of cinematic montage probably explains some of the absurd time & space transitions, although the dysfunctionality of the narrative can be rationalized as a hallucinatory point-of-view, the so-called "subjective Time" of the hypnotic state.

© LR 10/05

*of related interest: Nightmare Alley (1947)
Fear In The Night (1947)


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