Why would you want to see a movie about washing machines? Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says noir fans should take this one for a spin.
"A successful marriage is usually based on what a husband and wife don't know about each other"—José Ferrer as David Korvo
A store detective has just nabbed Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney, Laura) outside a department store with a pin she stole. He takes her back into the store to see the manager, but there's someone watching—David Korvo (José Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac), a hypnotist who, as we'll see, has just seen an opportunity to put Ann under his spell. As Ann is being questioned by the detective and the store manager, Korvo barges in, defending her by telling the manager she's obviously a sick woman. She even gets to take home the pin, although it's put on her charge.
When Ann gets home, she's ashamed, haunted by her moment of kleptomania. We see it in her face as she hides not just the pin, but the purse, then looks sadly at her family pictures, just before her husband William (Richard Conte, Ocean's Eleven, The Godfather) comes home. The mystery deepens as Korvo calls and insists that Ann meet him for lunch. She suspects blackmail, but he's offering to treat her. We see his sinister intent as he talks on the phone with a woman ("Yes, granted I'm an oily rascal. Yes, I agree. A liar, a swindler and—what was that last one? Oh, yes, without a trace of human conscience."), his delivery suggesting the truth behind her rant, then meets Ann for lunch and therapy, breaking a glass, something he'll later blame her for, then stealing her scarf and pin. You know the oily rascal's up to something—but what?
The radiant glow of the glamorous Tierney, understandably the object of obsession in Laura, seems a bit out of place in this noir mystery, but it proves advantageous when highlighting the changes in her demeanor as she struggles to try to resist hypnosis, angrily defends Korvo against a former patient's insinuations, or is confronted by police and can't remember what happened. Richard Schickel's commentary points out that Tierney's character here echoed her life; she was twice institutionalized, and her daughter was born mentally deficient.
Ferrer's gentle voice is perfect for the role of Korvo. Even as he makes a pitch to Ann for treatment, he's beginning to take control of her mind. His geniality and charisma, even as he's being slimy, makes him a formidable villain. He's at home matching wits with William and with Lt. Colton (Charles Bickford, Jim Thorpe—All American), the detective seeking the truth.
Conte seems like one of his hard-boiled characters from elsewhere, rather than a celebrated psychiatrist, as he questions Ferrer and listens to his wife. Not exactly what I'd expect, but it kept my interest. When he tangles with Korvo, calling him "You cheap rat!," it has an almost Cagneyesque feel to it. I was especially fascinated by the perspectives that make Conte seem small. The cop who meets him at a door may be a giant, but we often see him at angles that shrink him next to Colton, who stands at roughly the same height. Those shots let us in on his overwhelming situation as he tries to prove his wife's innocence and figure out what happened.
No complaints about the transfer or the sound here. The black-and-white picture is crisp and clear, and the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 sound may not be fancy, but it gets the job done.
Schickel's commentary provides lots of background on the actors and on co-writer Ben Hecht (Spellbound, Notorious), who brings a firm belief in psychoanalysis to the battle between a brilliant psychiatrist and a rogue who messes with his patients' minds. He's got some insights into the direction by Otto Preminger (Laura) as well, noting, for example, that the director uses very little cutting, which gives the scene in the department store as a crowd of employees surrounds shoplifter Ann an effective claustrophobic feel.
Whirlpool builds its suspense early. I was intrigued, and trying to stay one step ahead, as I tried to figure out what Korvo's plot was, and what Ann's role in it would be. By the time the police came into the picture, I could see the holes in his scheme, as mystery fans should see easily (especially since a variation on one of the twists here was used in a Monk mystery). When the mystery flags, however, the actors take over with fine performances—especially Tierney as the troubled woman caught in a frame, and Ferrer as the slimy and perhaps equally disturbed Korvo—that make you want to stick around to see how it plays out. It's light on the shadows and camera angles we've come to expect from the noir style, but Ferrer's villainy makes the argument that bridges the genre gap.
Whirlpool is obviously a second to the classic Laura for both Tierney and Preminger, but it's still enjoyable. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Critic Richard Schickel
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