Our movie this week is Whirlpool, from 1949, starring Gene Tierney, Jose Ferrer and Richard Conte. Once again it’s a 20th Century Fox film produced and directed by Otto Preminger. I say “once again,” because with this movie we come to the end of our complete retrospective of Preminger’s film noir projects at Fox—Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and tonight’s film—and we even got to see Preminger’s only other film noir, Angel Face, which he made at RKO. In fact if you throw in only a couple of other titles, such as Daisy Kenyon and Forever Amber, you’ll have seen all of Preminger’s good movies from his early period. After this Preminger moved off into his big, sometimes blockbuster-big, later phase, which includes most of the movies he’s known for: The Man With the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, and Exodus, amongst others. But there are lots of people who think Preminger’s first period was his best. Well, I don’t know—Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent are pretty good movies. But it’s hard for me at least not to have a real soft spot for the Preminger films we’ve been looking at. Once more we’ll see those visual characteristics of the whole series, dominated by subtle camera movements and a beautiful fluid quality.

            Whirlpool, one of the least known even of this relatively unknown set, is another of those noir films that doesn’t fit really comfortably into any category. You’ve got Gene Tierney, an educated and refined and well-to-do, and of course beautiful, woman married to eminent psychiatrist Richard Conte. In the opening scene of the movie she’s grabbed outside a swanky department store in the act of shoplifting a piece of jewelry. The deed is witnessed by a totally strange man played by Jose Ferrer—a kind of astrologer/hypnotist/parlor-trick-artist—who arranges for the incident to be covered up but who then starts to slide himself into Tierney’s life. Right away the story divides into two parts. On the one hand there’s Tierney and her perfect marriage to her perfect husband—but obviously there’s something not right there because why is she shoplifting stuff and having insomnia and a bunch of other things? Then on the other hand there’s the slimy and fascinating Ferrer, who hypnotizes her into a good night’s sleep, starts making discreet passes at her, and explains that her whole condition is the result of the pretence involved in her too-perfect marriage. He’s also obviously up to something, and probably something unpleasant, but for a long time we’re not sure what. Later on the movie swerves into something else again, a kind of crime movie. But at no time is it really easy to classify.

            That first section of Whirlpool doesn’t look noir and doesn’t act noir. The photography and settings have a bright, well-manicured quality that’s anything but anxious and foreboding. And whatever the story is doing, it seems more like what they used to call a women’s picture than a film noir—in other words a drama about relationships and misunderstandings and melodramas of suggested or actual infidelity. As a matter of fact there are a number of movies from the noir decade after 1944 that are similarly a cross between, what shall we say, “female melodrama” and film noir with its basis in crime genres and its general male bias. Joan Crawford personally appeared in a bunch of them, including most famously Mildred Pierce. Like virtually all of these movies, Whirlpool seems like an attempt to bring noir perspectives and styles, the noir sense of disorientation, into this area of traditionally female interest. And in fact of all the different movie areas film noir spilled over into—including westerns and period dramas—I’d say that women’s melodrama is the most successful and the most interestingly fertile. After the movie I’ll have some more to say about these questions of gender in Whirlpool.

            There’s another element at work in the film, and that’s the element of psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind. This was a hot topic in Hollywood movies of the 40s. Freudian psychology was all the rage, and there were lots of movies that were just fascinated by this intriguing and vaguely scandalous notion that you could have a whole set of desires and compulsions in you that you had no idea about. As a model of human existence it’s certainly the opposite of forthright. The highly talented screenwriter Ben Hecht, who co-wrote Whirlpool, was particularly struck by the idea, and was also responsible, 4 years earlier, for possibly the most lurid example of the Freudian thesis-movie, Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

            Anyway it’s certainly true that the psychological confusion of the Gene Tierney central character is an open doorway to all the noir qualities of subjectivity, disorientation and nightmarish helplessness and compulsion. Towards the end of the movie things get really quite twisted, and by then it’s completely obvious why Whirlpool is talked about as a film noir. But even from the beginning, there’s the sense of a hidden layer of pathology. There’s something sick under this too-happy, too-wealthy, too-perfect life, something whose immediate symptom is Gene Tierney’s kleptomania. Of course the horrible feeling that something’s going to go wrong, that things may look okay but that they’re really tainted and diseased, is a recurring noir situation. In Whirlpool this realm of hidden disease is suggested by the strong presence in the story of psychoanalysis, and psychoanalysts—but above all of the sinister, mesmerising Jose Ferrer character, who’s a kind of black-magic pagan psychiatrist. So that neat, nice, bow-tied eminent shrink Richard Conte cleanses people and makes them well again, but oily, suggestive, insinuating Jose Ferrer maybe invades people’s unconsciouses to befoul them and make them sick. Ferrer and the sick Gene Tierney are certainly far more noir, and far more interesting to the movie, than Conte and the well Gene Tierney, except insofar as the perfection of their relationship suggests its opposite. Anyway, Ferrer absolutely gets all the best lines—kind of like Clifton Webb did in Laura except that Ferrer is much creepier.

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            Whirlpool may be a noir women’s picture, but there’s certainly nothing feminist about it —totally the reverse. In academic film studies there’s been a lot of emphasis in the past decade on the gender-bias of mainstream Hollywood movies, and film noir has had its share of attention in this area. It’s been argued that film noir is basically a “male” genre—with male central characters trying to assert their masculine power and control in a hostile environment that features an awful lot of slinky spider-women trying to distract them, confuse them, and lure them to their doom. It’s a question how accurate this is as a general picture, but this much at least I’d agree with—film noir does present a kind of crisis of masculinity, where heroes find it very hard and even impossible to act like heroes, like “real men” as the protagonists of Hollywood movies are supposed to be. You can even see some of this perspective in Whirlpool in the Richard Conte character, who’s supposed to be good, wise, resourceful, in charge, and so on—but who keeps finding himself in these false positions. He’s a psychiatrist whose wife exhibits compulsive behaviour he doesn’t even know about; he spends almost the whole movie in a condition of bafflement at the hands of this sleazy charlatan Jose Ferrer; his whole armory of scientific knowledge and social prestige are nightmarishly ineffective; he just becomes powerless and confused.

            But if Richard Conte shows the kind of predicament that masculine dominance can get into, then Gene Tierney demonstrates how women are just creatures of unconscious impulse and compulsive behaviour, whose problems come from their necessary dependence on men, and whose health or sickness is totally a matter for men to take care of. Gene Tierney is sick because of her father, because of her husband, and because of Jose Ferrer. Her innate condition of passivity and childishness and self-indulgence simply passes from one man’s control to another’s. The whole movie is about establishing the correct hierarchy of male power, seen in terms of scientific knowledge and professional credentials: Richard Conte is supposed to be on top, then the gruff police detective played by Charles Bickford; and what they have to defeat is a kind of illegitimate perversion of male power as represented by Jose Ferrer, the quack, the unlicensed practitioner. And this power is, importantly, power over women—Gene Tierney in particular, but also the murder victim who was Conte’s patient, and women in general. Ferrer’s illegal, unholy, unnatural power is power over women too, whom he somehow enslaves through a combination of sexuality and mumbo-jumbo. In any case the women don’t have anything to say about it, they’re just under the sway of a good doctor or a perverted bad doctor, an indulgent father or a stern father, an all-knowing husband or a somewhat-uninformed husband. Gene Tierney here is infantilized, she’s made into a spoiled child who takes to stealing because she can’t have candy whenever she wants it, she develops a complex because her husband forbids her luxuries just like her father did. You’ll notice that when Richard Conte denied her money it was because he insisted she be a poor doctor’s wife. Why? To satisfy his male vanity, and the patriarchal structure that—in 1949—said that it was shameful for a man not to be the sole financial support of his wife.

            As I was saying before, though, it’s the underside of the movie that’s most interesting. The Mel Ferrer character becomes fabulously monstrous when he hypnotizes himself and drags himself from his hospital bed, finally when he bleeds to death while still trying to control and manipulate everything. Also, you have to see the hidden subtext of the scenario, where Tierney is having an affair with Ferrer, and where all of his analyses are simply correct, while Conte’s straight-arrow expectations and values truly are delusional. The movie can’t really look this subtext in the face—the subtext that says that the Contes and the Bickfords are the inhuman ones, and true humanity consists of really sexual Mel Ferrer giving Gene Tierney a satisfaction, and a good night’s sleep, she could never get from Mr Clean. In the end the story tries to set everything straight again, as it should be, as it should have been from the beginning. But as with so many interesting Hollywood movies, and of course as with so many noir films, Whirlpool has really taken too many things out of the box to put them all in neatly again, has uncovered a problem which it really can’t solve.


[Good news: Whirlpool is now available on DVD.]