Like Laura (1944), which it continually references, Otto Preminger’s subsequent Whirlpool may be partly or entirely a dream. Kristin Thompson alerted us that the living Laura Hunt’s return to her apartment after McPherson dozes off in the room with her gigantic portrait could be the police detective’s wishful dream inasmuch as he has fallen in love with “her” in the course of investigating (what we at least initially presume to be) her homicide. The same beautiful woman, J.F.K.’s Gene Tierney, plays Ann Sutton, who spends much of Whirlpool in a trance, the patient of a villainous hypnotist, David Korvo (José Ferrer, going the whole hog), who she thinks is doing nothing more than helping her fall asleep. Ann is arrested by the police for the murder of Theresa Randolph (Barbara O’Neill, terrific), Korvo’s former mistress and patient, and until Korvo’s strangling her the patient of psychoanalyst Bill Sutton (Richard Conte, likeable for a change), Ann’s husband. At one point Ann shouts out in misery, “I’m dreaming all this!”
Lt. Colton convinces Bill that Ann has been having an affair with Korvo, thereby delaying Bill’s understanding of his wife’s behavior—his professional territory; when he does “get” what has really been happening, and why, he tells Ann, “You’re someone I’ve injured by being blind.” But Colton also has been blind in “seeing” Ann as the killer—this, the result of Korvo’s alibi involving his operation for removal of his gall bladder; Colton’s wife recently died during identical surgery. The mystery solved, Colton informs Bill that Ann will be released in the film’s closing line: “It’s nice to have a wife come home to you.” A framed photograph of his wife right by his bed, Colton may dream her back into his arms one of these nights.
Incredibly, some fault the script (by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, from Guy Endore’s novel Methinks the Lady), finding unbelievable these two cases of “blindness,” when of course the whole point is that personal biases interfere with both men’s objective judgment. Such carping reviewers also fail to take into account the film’s (brilliant) stylistic dreaminess.
Much of this dreaminess hangs on Ann’s hypnotic trance, her seeming sleepwalking amidst night’s darkness and shadows, and all the reminders of Laura hanging about, including the looming portrait of Theresa in Theresa’s home and, at the last, Korvo’s farewell gunshot and a shattered phonograph recording of Theresa’s yet living voice, which hauntingly echoes Waldo Lydecker’s prerecorded voice playing on the radio as he is about to die in Laura’s apartment.
For me, the most poignant line in Whirlpool comes when Ann tells Bill, “I wish I could help you,” when it is she who most needs his help—and, perhaps more to the point, her own.
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