The trouble with Whirlpool (1949), an Otto Preminger film noir about a housewife in thrall to an evil hypnotist, is that its best mysteries aren't on screen.
Mystery No. 1: Why is Gene Tierney so little known to people other than old-movie buffs, while Marilyn Monroe (for example) is known to the dumbest mallgoer in the farthest corner of the land? Tierney had the more beautiful face. She made great, easy-to-love movies: The Shanghai Gesture, Heaven Can Wait, Dragonwyck, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Leave Her to Heaven, Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Advise and Consent. She struggled bravely with mental illness and the tragic fate of her first child, Daria. She was a consummate professional who managed to work not once, not twice, but four times with the legendarily obnoxious Otto Preminger, a director who had far less fragile actors tearing their hair out. Monroe, on the other hand, drove even "women's director" George Cukor crazy with her inexcusably self-centered behavior. Marilyn had an affair with John F. Kennedy, but so did Tierney, and Tierney almost married him. Seriously, what does it take?
Mystery No. 2: Why Richard Conte, in his Whirlpool role or most others? He's so stolid, an actor who could beat the hell out of Susan Hayward (in I'll Cry Tomorrow) and still make the audience yawn. In this film he plays an allegedly brilliant psychoanalyst who can't see that his wife (Tierney) is a. unhappy, b. a kleptomaniac, c. not lying to him when she says she didn't have an affair with Jose Ferrer. When the crusty detective (Charles Bickford, who else?) tells the great shrink his wife's motive for murder was infidelity, Conte's expression is that of a man who's been told the kitchen ran out of manicotti.
Mystery No. 3: What did the film's hair stylist, Marie Walters, have against Tierney?
There are some pleasures in Whirlpool. Jose Ferrer, in only his second film role, has a high old time playing David Korvo, the silky con man who uses hypnosis to draw Tierney into his schemes. The actor lets his warm, insinuating voice suggest why a woman might look beyond his homeliness. Talented Barbara O'Neil, who should have made more movies, plays Korvo's first victim, nobly trying to warn off Tierney. Overall, despite Preminger at the helm, it's dated and the hypnosis angle doesn't have much juice, if it ever did. Mr. Campaspe walked in on a big scene, observed Tierney for less than a minute and remarked, "She's hypnotized." Not much mystery there.