Sunday, December 23, 2012

Whirlpool and I Wake Up Screaming

Christmas. Bah. Humbug. These are dark days. With good cheer in short supply, I’ve been watching movies from the Fox Film Noir collection.
Whirlpool stars Gene Tierney, Jose Ferrer, and noir icon Richard Conte. It’s a movie that I recall sort of half watching one summer evening in 1971 when it aired, as so many Fox titles did at the time, on a local television station’s late night movie. It’s an oddball little mystery from 1949 written by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt (from a novel by Guy Endore) and directed by Otto Preminger who made quite a few contributions to this subgenre (including Laura) before directing a bunch of less interesting “prestige” items like Exodus and The Cardinal in the 1960s. Tierney is the wife of a psychiatrist who is taken under the wing of Ferrer’s hypnotist after she’s caught shoplifting. He then hypnotizes her to take the fall for a murder he commits himself. He has the motive, but he also has an alibi. While the victim was meeting her end, he was confined to a hospital bed, on the mend from a gallbladder operation. The nasty hypnotist (David Karvo is the character’s name) had hypnotized himself to block out the excruciating pain, snuck out of bed, and committed the crime. A little preposterous, perhaps, but fascinating stuff. Film noir is notable for many things, not the least of which is its perversity. Only the horror movies had more bizarre plots. Whirlpool is as weird as it gets, but it could have used a better title, something like . . .

I Wake Up Screaming.

Now, that’s a great title. All it needs is a movie as good, but the 1941 production directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, isn’t really it. It’s not surprising that Twentieth Century Fox considered renaming it Hot Spot and even had ads printed with that title before the movie went into release. If the movie isn’t quite worthy of its title, it does have an effective villain in Laird Cregar. The hulking, soft-voiced actor, a memorable menace in such films as Hangover Square and The Lodger, is first seen in shadow as he turns the hot lights on Victor Mature, a sports promoter being interrogated as a suspect in the murder of an actress. As the captain in charge of the case, Cregar ignores evidence of Mature’s innocence and even admits to investing his own time and money into finding a way to pin the rap on him. Cregar, of course, is the true culprit who we learn at the climax has a shrine to the murdered girl in his apartment. Betty Grable and Carole Landis round out the cast though I’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart, and Elisha Cook, Jr, who appeared as Wilmer the gunsel in The Maltese Falcon the same year, turns up briefly as a hotel desk clerk who is also a suspect. The best moment, and the only one that ties in with the title, is when Mature wakes up in his bed to find Cregar sitting in a nearby chair, rather nonchalantly keeping watch over him even as he sleeps. The movie, a fairly solid thriller, would be much improved without its musical score. Except for the snatches of “Over the Rainbow” (yes, that “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz), I could swear the musical score is identical to the one in Whirlpool.

Merry Christmas.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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