Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Gene Tierney Reunites with Otto Preminger: ‘Whirlpool’ 1950


Gene Tierney thinks she has troubles as a kleptomaniac in "Whirlpool."
Wait till she meets Jose Ferrer's hypnotist!

20th Century Fox upper middle class luxury meets lurid film noir via a charlatan hypnotist, in 1950’s Whirlpool. The con man (Jose Ferrer) takes advantage of a well-to-do housewife (Gene Tierney) who is a kleptomaniac. Once David Korvo has a hypnotic hold on Ann Sutton, he sets her up for murder.

Gene Tierney's Ann Sutton is under hypnotic suggestion to carry out crimes in
1950's "Whirlpool." The good news is she sleeps like a baby!

Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was hoping for another Laura, as Whirlpool had the same director, female star, and composer. As the smooth-talking hypnotist, Zanuck wanted an elegant villain along the lines of Laura’s Clifton Webb. Filmed in mid-1949, I understand why Jose Ferrer was considered a casting coup at the time, as he was a huge Broadway hit as Cyrano de Bergerac.

Gene Tierney's troubled housewife falls under phony Jose Ferrer's spell in 1950's "Whirlpool,"from 20th Century Fox.

However, I think Fox should have stuck with one of their charming cads, Vincent Price or George Sanders. Ferrer is all sonorous voice but looks and acts like such a little weasel that it begs why someone like Gene Tierney would give him the time of day. At least with the two Fox stars, they had stature and good looks that allowed them the guise that hid the wiles. Or best of all, James Mason, who had a great face and voice, and was new to American movies.

Jose Ferrer's unctuous hypnotist is short on charm & long on creepy in "Whirlpool."

 Richard Conte seems somewhat miscast as Ann’s shrink hubby Bill, but Conte at least has conviction. I think that Conte is a handsome, solid, and intense actor. Conte would have thrived over at WB playing either cops or robbers; he has that kind of face. With those piercing eyes and jutted jaw, Conte always looks like he is gonna belt somebody!

Richard Conte is the psychiatrist husband of Gene Tierney's kleptomaniac in
1950's "Whirlpool."

Charles Bickford is always instantly believable, here as no-nonsense Lt. Colton, who finds the whole story beyond belief—and he's right! The police detective is also mourning the recent loss of his wife, which gives him some depth.

Charles Bickford is the no-nonsense police detective solving a nonsensical crime in
1950's "Whirlpool."

Barbara O’Neil, beloved by film fans as Scarlett O’Hara’s mother and   memorable as the deranged wife in All This, And Heaven Too, plays one of Korvo’s victims. To distinguish O’Neil as the older woman, she is given a skunk-like white streak in her dark hair! Her performance is much more subtle.

Barbara O'Neil's older socialite tries to give Gene Tierney's matron some friendly
 advice in 1950's "Whirlpool."

As for Gene Tierney, I've always admired her great beauty, class, and intelligence. Tierney always seemed to do best in roles where she seemed other-worldly. Here is no exception, given that Ann Sutton's under hypnosis half the time. There's a certain amount of psychology here, with a wife who seemingly has everything, but resorts to shoplifting for some kind of release. Tierney's performing is not electric, like Bette Davis, or deeply empathetic like Ingrid Bergman, but she performs well within the studio era’s stylized acting. 

Hey, when hypnosis doesn't work, drastic measures are required! Jose Ferrer and
 Gene Tierney in 1950's "Whirlpool."

Even for a studio era film noir, the plotting in Whirlpool is preposterous. The movie opens with moneyed suburban matron Tierney getting busted for shoplifting in a swanky LA store. When Ann Sutton is escorted to the manager’s office by security, onlooker David Korvo follows, and imposes his opinion about the awkward situation. In reality, the security would have escorted him out before he could finish his first sentence! Nor would anybody in their right mind meet with this obviously smarmy character in public, despite red flags galore. I won’t give away the finale, but it goes beyond the pale of believability.

One of the most unbelievable scenes, Jose Ferrer in 1950's "Whirlpool."

At the time, Whirlpool was considered an “A” picture, though it feels a bit minor by today’s standards. Zanuck had a personal hand in this film, the book was considered a hot property, Ben Hecht was the screenwriter, etc. And yet, all the ingredients didn’t create a memorable melodrama.

Part of the problem was the miscast leading men, plus neither were particularly box office magnets. Which meant the burden of carrying the picture fell on Gene Tierney’s slim shoulders. Even in her greatest vehicle, Leave Her to Heaven, Gene was bolstered by a strong supporting cast. As Laura, she got great support from Dana Andrews and especially, Clifton Webb. Tierney was a leading lady who always benefited from a strong leading man.

The direction by Otto Preminger, score by David Raksin, cinematography by Arthur C. Miller, and costumes by Oleg Cassini for then-wife Tierney are all top class. But the characters don’t click, due to off-target casting and absurd plot contrivances. Whirlpool is worth a watch, but it’s not exactly a hypnotic film.

Richard Conte and Gene Tierney call it a night in 1950's "Whirlpool."

My take here on Laura, the first and best of four films that Gene Tierney and Otto Preminger made together:





  1. I know nothing about this film and it's really never crossed my radar much, so I was interested to see what you had to say about it. I'm so-so on Tierney, but I have never understood the appeal of Ferrer.... You mention him being weaselly and an unlikely love interest and yet in real life he was apparently quite the swordsman!! Eeekkk. I also am not much on Conte, though he could be very effective. What got me was the mention of Barbara O'Neil! I love, worship and adore her. Probably will have to watch this just to see her. I always thought she was wondrous as Ellen O'Hara, but after "All This and Heaven Too" I've had to see as much as her as possible... ;-) By the way, my grandmother had a heart attack at 16 and it gave her a small gray patch near one temple. As the '40s dawned and ladies began deliberately putting "skunk" streaks in their hair, people would ask where she got hers done!! LOL

    1. Gene is in her lane with this role, so she's very effective. I like Conte, but he's miscast. And Ferrer, the most unlikely and unappealing leading man since Raymond Massey. Both dour, homely, and better as villains! O'Neil is quite effective in her role as one of the hypnotist's victims... Cheers, Rick

  2. Hi Rick! When I saw your post, I decided to rewatch Whirlpool before reading your comments, as it's been several years since I first saw the movie. It's an enjoyable film in many ways, especially for the presence of Miss Tierney. But, as you point out, there is much in the story that is unbelievable. The most outrageous plot point is the evil doctor hypnotizing himself in the hospital in spite of his gall bladder surgery! Come on now, writers!! I think you're right that someone like Vincent Price could have done a great job with a role like that. But Ferrer is so unappealing that it's kind of perverse to watch him manipulating all of these people. And I love Richard Conte in everything I've seen him in!

    1. Hey Mike, always good to hear from you! I found Whirlpool an intriguing but odd movie, for all the reasons you concisely state. I always thought Ferrer was a hambone who sounded like he had a head cold! Cheers, Rick