Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Whirlpool (1949)

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.


Edward Copeland said...

Just a quick note: I finally talked Josh R into being a contributor at my site, so he's posting things as I concentrate on other matters this week.

Gloria said...


Never mind the dumbest mallgoers, they will similarly believe that James Dean is the only great actor ever (for a guy who just managed to play three films in which he played three troubled teenages -or immature teenage-minded guys- in the obnoxious model triumphant today... ). These folk are bound to do whatever the MTV tells them to do and buy, subsequently, they will be only aware of heavily iconized subjects (i.e. Monroe, Audrey Hepburn or the Bride of Frankestein - the icon, not the picture-).

It is sad that they may ignore Tierney, or, say Hideko Takamine, but that's the worse for them. It may be off some consolation to you that Miss Tierney used to be very admired around my place

I wonder when did she had her Kennedy affair... and wonder then ho w she must have felt when doing "Advise and Consent" (Remember Peter Lawford as the womaniser Democrat senator? that's wicked piece of casting if there ever was one!)

(BTW "Dragonwick" should make into a list of underrated movies too. I got to see it by chance and wondered why it is not better known)

Richard Conte... well I suppose that this is the type of actor the "ham-hating" directors (and critics) warm to. Some call this thing "sobriety" (other examples of such Bressonienne sobriety could be Vin Diesel or Jean Claude Van Damme)

Richard Gibson said...

Gene Tierney - can't get enough of her. Agree with your thoughts re: Marilyn. It's tragic how some actors disappear from view yet they were so well known in their day.

Exiled in NJ said...

Are you sure you are not occupying our spare bedroom? Mrs. Muir is my favorite film to calm the jagged nerves of work during busy season. I slip it in the VCR and let Bernard Hermann's score and Tierney's creamy voice send me off to dreamland. I rarely make it to Sander's appearance.

We do not use Netflix; we cannot bare to return our films, so two months ago we bought Laura and Whirlpool to go with Mrs. Muir, Heaven Can Wait, Return of Frank James and perhaps another Tierney or two.

The Laura has what must be an A&E Biography of her. Thank god she did not have an affair with a non-entity, else no one would remember her.

We've watched Whirlpool twice and both times were let down by the 'solution.' Then again, the story was set up so that any ending will dissatisfy.

One thought: who was the stylist who gave Tierney those hairdo's when she was supposed to play a middle age woman? The Heaven Can Wait one takes the cake.

Exiled in NJ said...

The thought struck me as I was composing my last comment that there is food for an essay in your last three posts: Tierney, Jennifer Jones and Gail Russell.

I wonder if Jones would have reached greater heights without her Svengali influencing her choice of roles. To watch her in another underrated gem, Cluny Brown, is to realize she was a gifted comedienne, but eight years passed befope she put on the blond wig in Beat the Devil and had me in stitches.

Brian Darr said...

I haven't seen Whirlpool, but if these questions aren't supposed to be strictly rhetorical, here's my answer for #1: Marilyn was a buxom blonde as much immortalized for future generations by her appearance in Playboy as by her film roles. And she died young, which is unfortunately another advantage in mythology-building. Tierney was gorgeous (stopped my heart in Night and the City among others) but saddled with a unisex first name. And she died much less glamorously of emphysema at age 71.

For #2, I'm no big Conte fan, but I thought his "regular schmoe" persona worked well to bring out the blistering critique of corruption in the marketplace in Thieves' Highway

#3: I have no idea, and though I'd like to figure out how to work in a mention of Rififi for a Dassin-on-Criterion tryptich, I'm afraid it will feel forced.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Actually some of today's kids don't know Marilyn either. I read an interview with an American Idol contestant who thought MM was "the Paris Hilton of her day". I haven't seen Whirlpool yet but it's on my Netflix queue with some other Premingers now on DVD. By the way, I will take your advise and write what little I can recall of seeing Raoul Walsh in conjunction with one of his films (hint: it features Lee Marvin in the role of "Blinky").

The Siren said...

Edward, I have already checked in over there, and Josh is doing a great job. I wish you well in what must be a sad task for you.

Gloria - As I recall, Tierney had the affair with Kennedy when she was still married to Cassini, which would have put it somewhere in the early 50s, I guess. Back then an aspiring politician couldn't marry a divorced woman, period. You're not the only one to note the irony of Tierney's casting along with Lawford, but by then she was over it; I guess, she voted for Nixon :). I love Dragonwyck, it has a good role for Vincent Price in it too. Conte was a New York theater actor, so it is surprising how little he registers on screen in a lot of movies. Though to be fair he did turn in some good performances, including Don Barzini in The Godfather.

Richard & Brian - I didn't really mean to dis Marilyn, who was very good in some movies, but the mechanics of whose legend lives on never ceases to amaze. I think Brian is right, dying young was what put Marilyn over the top. And she was a sex symbol in a way Tierney just wasn't, though reading some male critics write about Tierney makes you want to hand them a paper bag and say, "Breathe, darlin', breathe." Right now I am watching Ava Gardner's legend status grow, goosed by "The Aviator" and this latest biography of her. It will be interesting to see if she gets to the same icon status you see for the Hepburns (A. and K.) or Marilyn. I haven't seen Thieves Highway; but I plan to get our Netflix subscription when we return to NY and I will probably have quite the queue.

The Siren said...

Exiled - The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is such a wonderful movie. Tierney would be worth writing about if she had made nothing else. It would never do as a sedative for me, though. I would be determined to stay awake for Sanders, looking at a rainstorm and drawling, "It's easy to understand why the most beautiful poems about England in the spring were written by poets living in Italy at the time."

I have no idea who the Heaven Can Wait hair culprit was, but wouldn't be surprised to find out s/he was jealous of Tierney too!

You remind me of an old idea I have kicking around in my notes, for a post about Jennifer Jones and Marion Davies. I think they are both actresses who were rather badly served by their Great Loves. But to write it I would need to view more Davies, no easy task. I do admire Jones in several movies; I thought she was a very creditable Madame Bovary. Shame that her two most-viewed movies are the worst I have seen her in (Duel in the Sun and The Song of Bernadette). I remember reading an actor (might have been Olivier) who said he thought she was the Meryl Streep of her day, disappearing into characters and consequently never developing a "star" identity.

Peter - I'll look forward to the Walsh post! I am gathering Lana material even now. American Idol - I'll bet that was that NC bimbo. I spotted her right away, the type of Southern woman who has playing dumb down to a fine-tuned science, 'cause you get more guys that way. Want to hear a more depressing story? I saw an interview with Dustin Hoffman, talking about giving a talk at a film school, UCLA if memory serves. He started talking about The Graduate, spotted some blank looks, and asked, "Okay, how many here have seen The Graduate?" and saw about a dozen hands go up in that very crowded lecture hall. At a film school!

goatdog said...

I don't know enough about the backstory to be positive, but I always think of Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg when I think of Svengalis steering actresses wrong. I love Shearer in the rare comedic performances she gave (Private Lives is one of my favorites, and she was a hoot in the modernized Romeo and Juliet balcony scene in Hollywood Revue of 1929), but she sometimes seemed lost in her more serious Oscar-mongering films, especially The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Smilin' Through. (I still loved her in The Divorcee, though.)

Koneko said...

oh oh oh oh oh oh oh!!!
Dearest Campaspe, you always know how to make this koneko squeal with happiness! A Gene Tierney movie?! I am so excited! Another movie to add to the endless list of movies to see. It's so strange, I was (stupidly) worrying just last week that maybe I had gone through all the good old movies that I wanted to see. (I think foolish thought when I am sleep deprived!) Thank you!!

PS to Gloria... if you get the DVD for Laura, there is a wonderful Biography (same version as the ones on A&E) of GT on it (as well as Vincent Price.) It gives a good timeline of her life.

Patrick Wahl said...

The elevation of MM to iconic status has struck me as absurd for many years. Not to say that she isn't good in a couple of movies, while being somewhat limited in the roles she could play, but the aura about her exceeds what she actually did. Tierney is good, Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Laura are a couple of favorites, but she probably wasn't all that distinctive from some of the other actresses of the day.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Why Dick Conte?

"First is first and second is nobody." -- The Big Combo (1955/Allied Artists)

In addition to the previously mentioned Thieves' Highway, there's Call Northside 777, Cry of the City, House of Strangers, The Sleeping City, The Blue Gardenia...

It's noir, baby. (Though the manicotti line did make me laugh.)

The Siren said...

Ivan: The Siren loves noir, but still thinks Conte overacts his underacting. :)

Goatdog: Shearer is a taste I haven't been able to acquire, for the most part, though she was a very interesting person. I think you're on to something, though, because her high comedy is much easier to watch than her emoting, with the qualified exception of Marie Antoinette.

Koneko, glad to be of service! I have a DVD of another Tierney I haven't seen, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and I'm sort of holding off, like a kid saving a really good piece of candy.

Patrick- I do think there is something that makes Tierney stand out from some of the other romantic beauties of the 40s, a certain purity and gentleness. The 40s were more about dames, and I don't mean the kind the Queen makes. So it's all the more shocking to see Gene play against type in Shanghai Gesture or Leave Her to Heaven.

Bill said...

I've been wondering about Whirlpool but will be in no big hurry to see it now. However, I do have The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Leave Her to Heaven, and Laura all on disc and loved them all. (The Ghost & Mrs. Muir is a favourite.)

Alex said...

Gene Tierney:

The problem with Tierney is that, extraordinarily beautiful as she was, she's a very bland, bland actress. She's only a sexpot until she opens her mouth.

Marilyn was simply a much better actress, and one that really opened up new ground for American actresses, which Tierney did not.

tes said...

Great blog! We covered Whirlpool at our Noir of the Week website recently. I agree with most of your comments but I do find Whirlpool to be a guilty pleasure...

Would you be interested in posting a link to my site here?

The Siren said...

Hello, and thanks! I will happily link to your blog, but don't be surprised if it takes a bit -- I am not the most html-efficient in the world and so I tend to update the sidebar in chunks. Should be getting around to another update soon.

off to read your thoughts on Whirlpool ...

Anonymous said...

I find your blog very interesting. The thing is that today it is not a problem to find a brand name household appliance item. They are numerous and are improved every now and then. Whirlpool is also known all over the world. from I learned much about the company and the quality of products as well as the level of customer service.

The Siren said...

den, ordinarily I delete comment spam, but this is the most hilarious one I have ever had, so up it stays. Truly, with a new dishwasher all Gene Tierney's problems might have been rinsed away.