Whirlpool is one of a series of films, including Hitchcock’s Spellbound and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, inspired by Hollywood’s infatuation with psychiatry, hypnotism, brainwashing and analysis. Most of these films are faintly silly: they demonstrate a deep fascination with the surface of the science, but very little interest in exploring it in depth. Indeed, their interest is not really in the thing itself, but in how it can be exploited for cinema.
In this way, the science of the mind is no different to the science of climate change, or the business of people trafficking; cinema lights upon a subject, mines its most obviously dramatic elements, then moves on, having barely grazed the surface, but nonetheless still offering a tidy moral message on the way. Is this an ethical problem with movies? Not necessarily; if we want to understand the grisly business of blood diamonds (and the term itself is as loaded as pro choice or friendly fire), most people would accept that they’ll need more than — well — Blood Diamond as a source. But it can often lead to work that feels empty: a brightly lit shop window on a subject that fails to deliver on its promise.
The great Ben Hecht, co-writer of Whirlpool (and also of Spellbound, among many other classics including The Front Page, His Girl Friday and Notorious) was fascinated by the science of the mind, and a partnership with Preminger, one of the very best directors at conveying subjective experience, should have been a perfect fit. But Whirlpool never really comes together as a story: the science feels fakey and the plotting retro-fitted, as Jose Ferrer’s sinister hypnotist draws Gene Tierney’s high society kleptomaniac into his dark web of blackmail and murder.
But there’s still a lot to enjoy here. Tierney is terrific as Ann Sutton, the coltish, nervy beauty trapped in her marriage to a passionless psychiatrist, who only seems to value her for the envious looks of his colleagues and friends. And Jose Ferrer is one of the great creeps of cinema as David Korvo, who lurks in the corners of cocktail parties, wet eyes searching the room in search of his next mark. He’s helped by a series of witty, bleak one-liners, from “A successful marriage is usually based on what a husband and wife don’t know about each other” to “I hope that your new marriage will give you something to live for — if only a divorce,” and even “I dislike inspiring terror in such a lovely woman,” which I don’t recommend as a chat-up line. And his appearance here is an opportunity to repeat one of the great Hollywood stories, as told by Dustin Hoffman, about the making of Tootsie: