The plot of Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949) concerns Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), the kleptomaniac wife of a respected but inattentive psychiatrist, Bill Sutton (the oddly-cast Richard Conte) and how she is framed for a murder via hypnosis by a slimy quack, David Korvo (Jose Ferrer) who works his way into her confidence.
Whirlpool is not a movie to watch obsessively like other Preminger efforts Laura or Fallen Angel, and the film lacks the swirling imagery of its own theatrical trailer. In fact, Whirlpool cries out for a surreal hypnotism sequence, and it’s disappointing that the scene in the film itself is ineffective. Perhaps Preminger was relying solely on Jose Ferrer's power, because this lesser Otto entry is worth savoring just for Jose Ferrer’s lascivious performance as Korvo, who uses hypnotism to aid his murder plot and frame the lovely Gene Tierney for the deed. Whirlpool was only Jose Ferrer’s second film but he steals the movie from his first appearance onscreen and his absence is keenly felt whenever he’s not seen, as he delivers many of screenwriter Ben Hecht’s best lines:
“A successful marriage is usually based on what a husband and wife don’t know about each other.”
“I hope your new marriage will give you something to live for---if only a divorce.”
“You’re in top form today…almost makes me lonesome for your faded charms.”
I was so impressed with this early Ferrer performance (only his second movie) that I wanted his scheme to succeed! Ferrer makes it easy to like him; his entire performance is hypnotic, with his mellifluous voice pulling Tierney into his murder plot. Ferrer's Korvo is quick witted and charming and his appeal is helped by the fact that the Tierney and Conte characters are complete idiots! Weary flatfoot Charles Bickford is just too…weary…to care. If Whirlpool is to qualify as a Film Noir, it’s Bickford’s police Lieutenant Colton who is the typical Noir character: a tired-out, widower cop who just wants to believe that Tierney’s Ann Sutton is the killer of her husband’s patient, Theresa Randolph (Barbara O’Neil), who Korvo romanced and then bilked for $60,000. You know a movie’s in trouble when the audience cheers for the villain. But who cares? Ferrer is brilliant and makes off with every scene he’s in.
Jose Ferrer was at the cusp of a great career when he made Whirlpool. He had already earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for his film debut, 1948's Joan of Arc. In 1951, Ferrer would go on to win a Best Actor Oscar for his role in Cyrano de Bergerac and receive another nomination in 1953 for his portrayal of artist Talouse- Lau Trec in Moulin Rouge (1952). Ferrer worked steadily during the next few decades, appearing in dozens of TV movies and series like many actors of his era. For those unfamiliar with his work, Whirlpool is a good place to start, even if the film is no masterpiece, Jose Ferrer makes it all worthwhile.
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