A Beautiful Invention
It is almost 35 minutes into Whirlpool before recognisable film noir elements appear in force: the classic sequence in which a sleepwalking Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), dressed in black, walks calmly through surreally open doors and, acting on hypnotic suggestion, goes to an apartment to hide incriminating evidence.
Until then, and indeed for much of the rest of the movie, director Otto Preminger prefers the disquieting, frequently public spaces of Los Angeles in daylight (as caught by cinematographer Arthur Miller): outdoor lunches, well-lit department stores. It is a mode – film blanc? – to which Preminger will return in the immortal Angel Face (1953).
This personal adaptation of noir style and iconography by Preminger goes hand in glove with a very particular presentation of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy (kudos to scriptwriters Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, adapting the 1945 novel Methinks the Lady … by Guy Endore, which reportedly served up a left-leaning parody of psychiatry).
The narrative premise is rich, and could have gone in various directions. Ann is an unwitting, compulsive kleptomaniac – as well as being wife of a psychoanalyst, William Sutton (Richard Conte). When Ann is caught shoplifting in a department store, she swiftly comes under the ambiguous care and supervision of “the mysterious Dr Korvo” (as the film’s French release title has it), a suave astrologer and hypnotist. Korvo is played, indelibly, by José Ferrer – and is it possible, today, to watch his son, Miguel Ferrer, in Twin Peaks without imagining that David Lynch must have imbibed (possibly more than once) Whirlpool?
Although clearly in the tradition of Spellbound (1945) and many other Freudian-Gothic tales of repressed memory, Preminger offers a startlingly prescient depiction of the rise of pop psychology in everyday American life. For Preminger (unlike Fritz Lang in Secret Beyond the Door  or Jean Renoir in The Woman on the Beach ) is not terribly interested in dreams or the deep, liberating interpretation of unconscious traces.
Rather, the diagnosis of symptoms becomes a daily power game – Ann is constantly labelled and defined, by all characters, as one kind of person or another (to the extent of having her name labelled on her clothes!) – and, on this level, there is scarcely any difference between the officially certified practice of William and the more vulgar, showbiz techniques used by Korvo.
Preminger views the social world (and this is enduring throughout his career) as a constant courtroom trial: what matters is what you can make someone believe or accept, what you can render manifest (even via sleight-of-hand) – not what is necessarily real or true. And, in this light, what could be a better instance of Michel Foucault’s influential notion that social rituals rest upon a “work on the self” than Korvo’s self-hypnosis, so crazy and yet so undeniably effective?
That sequence – in which our dark anti-hero not only hypnotises but also “operates” on himself (via a small mirror) in order to cancel his physical pain – is deserving of anthology status. It is a prime instance of involuntarily surrealist poetry – and the card-carrying Surrealists of the time were very partial to the visions Preminger afforded them. It is also an almost shocking scene of “living psychoanalysis”: Korvo becomes his own Other in the mirror, complete with a visage and a voice to command and guide him. It is – if anything is – pure cinema. So is it any wonder that the suave Cahiers du cinéma critic Jacques Doniol-Valcroze once testified, before the marvellous, central apparition in another Preminger movie, the better-known classic Laura (1944): “We exclaim to ourselves: the cinema, truly, is a beautiful invention”?
Whirlpool, which is in many respects the companion piece to Laura (even David Raksin returns as composer), is based on a delicious, even perverse irony. As Jacques Lourcelles suggested in his 1992 cinema Dictionnaire, whereas William’s “blind love” misrecognises his wife’s situation, it is the sinister manipulator Korvo who, in fact, sees the absolute truth of Ann’s place in the world: being a privileged wife has transformed her into a neurotic mess (a condition indelibly captured in Tierney’s performance).
The powerful and masterfully controlled mise en scène of Preminger reaches a zenith here: his camera movements and fluid staging are not conventionally lyrical, but instead trace the fundamental tension between an open world in which surprises and chance encounters lurk everywhere (sudden entries into the frame frequently change the course of the plot), and a more Langian vision in which a cruel destiny is exposed, lying in wait at the end of every trajectory (as in the revelation of the dead body of Theresa [Barbara O’Neil] that concludes Ann’s hypnotised stroll).
Ultimately, as Preminger specialist Gérard Legrand remarked when he revisited the film in the pages of Positif, the fascination of this director’s work – and especially Whirlpool – derives from the dialectic at its heart: on the one hand, the brittle world of social games and, on the other hand, a dark, subterranean unconscious that forbids facile “decipherment”, but drives people mysteriously – as if through “still but dangerous waters” that are presented with the “hard clarity of an aquarium” (Lourcelles).
For extensive development of these ideas, consult my feature-length audio commentary on the British Film Institute (2015) or Madman (Australia, 2009) DVD/Blu-ray releases of Whirlpool.
MORE Preminger: Anatomy of a Murder
© Adrian Martin January 2008