Whirlpool

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, Jose Ferrer, Charles Bickford.

As movie-related tantalizers go, Whirlpool’s casting of a young Jose Ferrer as a sociopathic quack astrologer easily tops most, and it’ll continue to do so until the day when concession stands once again begin selling Jujyfruits and Dots (I’m partial to the green ones). This is especially true when we’re also talking about a straight-faced narrative with “A” production values — and also when the Ferrer character proves to be far more than a stock villain, given that he does have intellectually powerful hypnotic powers, notwithstanding his quack-dom. Given that few actors could do “smarmy” as well as Ferrer, the picture gives us a hook that challenges the rest of the package to live up to its potential.

Despite a narrative that gets loopier in increments after a terrific extended set-up, Otto Preminger’s prototypically cool cookie (script by heavyweights Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, from an interesting sounding novel by Guy Endore) gives it a polished shot that qualifies as a clean standup double. And, actually, it’s one of the better movies the famously tyrannical one directed during his long early career tenure at 20th Century-Fox — a few years before he ultimately “went indie” with the once scandalous The Moon Is Blue, which got all Dinner Theater-ribald about Maggie McNamara’s virginity.

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But 1949’s Whirlpool is a studio product all the way, laced with in-house craft contributions that were once almost unfathomably routine: Alfred Newman conducting an instantly peggable David Raskin score; three-time Oscar-winner Arthur C. Miller as cinematographer; and, in a guest shot, Oleg Cassini as the costumer for Gene Tierney (the movie’s lead) at a time when they were married in real life. In other words, we’re not exactly talking Attack of the Crab Monsters, though there’s probably no shortage of jumbo shrimp at the fancy parties where Ferrer has recently been showing up with married Tierney at his side as his mind-reading (he does that, too) wows posh L.A. society.

This is not, though, the setting in which the two of them meet — which, in its grabber of an opening, might offer a perverse twist on the old “meeting cute” screenwriters’ concept were Ferrer only interested in her money. With a psychoanalyst husband (Richard Conte) who does fairly well on his own plus inherited family riches that can satisfy just about any whim on her frivolous wish list, Tierney suffers from kleptomania and has just been busted for snatching a $300 pin from a posh department store where she has a large charge account. Opportunist Ferrer just happens to be on the scene, and, like an ambulance-chasing lawyer who in those days might have been putting a happy face on another Tierney (Lawrence’s) real-life rap sheet, defuses the situation in a smoothly executed scene. Say what you will, the guy is competent.

So we have a kleptomaniac and an astrologer who has at least some knowledge of the human mind, which isn’t exactly your everyday 1949 screen twosome. Of course, there’s also the husband, but Conte’s role is unwritten (in contrast to his co-stars’), and a key sub-topic here is his significant ignorance of his wife’s hangups, even though he treats patients in their home all the time. In a way, Ferrer fancies himself as an under-appreciated professional rival to Conte, the way a chiropractor might when being compared to an NFL orthopedic surgeon. And yet, we also get the sense — is this Preminger’s much written-about “objectivity” in action? — that were Ferrer willing to clean up his act and use his gifts in a positive way, he might be be seen as some sort of genius practitioner, as opposed to Conte’s more common competence.

Ferrer’s act is hardly clean. He has a history of fleecing women patients in sometimes dreadful ways and now has his eyes on Tierney’s fortune. This occurs just as a previous one-sided relationship goes bust to launch the movie’s second half on a melodramatic path — one that gives audiences a lot to swallow and is perhaps less interesting than Ferrer’s initial and artful burrowing into Tierney’s mind. This said, the film’s second half has a lot of Charles Bickford, an actor who always merely had to show up to convey instant credibility. As for Tierney, she goes through much of the movie in a wide-eyed daze but effectively so: a risky performance in a difficult role that doesn’t rate that far behind her defining roles in Laura, Leave Her to Heaven and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Too be sure, it’s a bit creepy watching her with knowledge of the own real-life mental breakdowns that kept Tierney off the screen for protracted periods. If you know something of Tierney’s background or have read her excellent autobiography (Self-Portrait), you know the degree to which her emotional problems were not just honestly earned but tragically so.

Preminger, and not just at Fox, had a way of treating melodramatic material with exceptional restraint, and the combination made his best films (and this doesn’t mean Hurry Sundown or Skidoo, whose rewards are more perversely twisted) come off as exceptionally grown-up for their day while perhaps not delivering the catharsis melodrama fanciers demand. Twilight Time’s release, which adds a commentary by the late Richard Schickel carried over from the long-ago DVD, delivers another keen rendering of that Fox black-and-white “look” that has given me so much pleasure over so many decades.

I’ve said this before, but I think that from about 1945 to ’55, Darryl Zanuck was the most competent studio head ever. By no means were all the Fox films of this period masterpieces, and, in fact, few of them were — though Joseph Mankiewicz and Henry King were fashioning the best work of their careers around this time. But nearly every example of the studio’s output gave you something, and here it’s a pro job with one performance that’s so inarguably great that I can’t believe that it has fallen into obscurity. I first saw Whirlpool for the only previous time in 1961 almost immediately after it was sold to TV, and Ferrer’s oiliness has stayed with me for almost 60 years.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Local Hero’ and ‘Whirlpool’

The Return of Frank James

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper, John Carradine.

As difficult as this can be to parse, there was a brief period in the early 1940s where the director of M and Metropolis almost could have considered going “Two-Gun Fritz,” given the two Technicolor Westerns he filmed consecutively at 20th Century-Fox. There they are, right on Fritz Lang’s resumé: Western Union preceded by The Return of Frank James — both of them a little more than a decade before Lang’s 1952 direction of Rancho Notorious for RKO release, also a Western-of-sorts that is so damned weird that I’ve never been quite able to figure out what, exactly, it   is.

By printed accounts I’ve read, Lang apparently enjoyed the experience of seeing a little sagebrush tumble across his resumé — though few would dispute that the standout picture of his Fox tenure was more in his wheelhouse: 1941’s Man Hunt, which preceded Frank James as a Twilight Time Blu-ray release. But looking at the latter’s new Blu-ray, many will opine that Lang easily picked up where Henry King left off with 1939’s also-Technicolor Jesse James — it a huge hit that wears some notoriety even to this day due to its alleged treatment of horses and subsequent American Humane Society policing (though the studio disputed the charge). Neither director brought to this saga what fellow Fox director John Ford might have, especially amid some courtroom burlesque that dominates FJ’s climax. Though Ford was enough of an American History buff to make you wonder you wonder if he could have swallowed either movie in terms of textbook accuracy.

Even so, this 1940 sequel — which picks up after Tyrone Power’s Jesse concludes the first film by getting shot in the back by Bob Ford — is attractively slicked-up escapism that has the added historical benefit of featuring Gene Tierney’s screen debut in a fairly sizable role following her belated initial appearance. This is even one of those occasional Fox productions where studio chief Darryl Zanuck took an on-screen producer’s credit he usually reserved for prestige projects, though I’ve always wondered if he also tried to get Tierney on his famed casting couch.

We open here with Henry Fonda’s Frank behind a plow and living with a former outlaw associate’s teen son (Jackie Cooper, who looks a little old for the role) and a black farmhand (Ernest Whitman). The latter goes by the name of Pinky but is mostly treated with dignity — though in one scene, he has to endure the green and fairly dopey Cooper referring to him as a “darkie” before a hacked-off Frank sets the kid straight about loyalty and respect. Frank is loyal as well to Jesse’s memory, so when he hears that brothers Bob and Charlie Ford were his own brother’s killers and are now even claiming that the fatal shooting was some kind of brave act, Frank takes off to plot revenge after hatching a scheme to make everyone (the law and railroad execs, of course, included) think he’s dead.

This sets up a major subplot involving a Denver newspaper publisher’s daughter (Tierney) who, in a somewhat unexpected twist for a 1940 Western, is insistently vocal about wanting to be a reporter in lieu of settling down with marriage and babies (and probably growing old 40 years before her time while her husband is out working the plow). This is refreshing to see, but unfortunately, her first big scoop turns out to be a factual catastrophe that would sink any career for good before it got out of the gate — a little item that’s conveniently ignored for the rest of the picture after her father’s initial blow-up (maybe her nickname is Ivanka).

To be more specific, inexperienced Tierney swallows an intentional whopper from young Cooper’s character (posing as just some kid) about having seen Frank gunned down a couple weeks earlier on some faraway street. Worse, Fonda’s Frank, who has caught her eye while also being in new disguise, is sitting right there when Cooper spins this bogus yarn. So naturally, the bogus killing gets splashed across papa’s front page as Tierney wonders when she’ll see this nice gentleman again.

It’s around this time that one is forced to quit taking the movie too seriously and simply glean the pleasures to be had, one of which is John Carradine’s performance as Bob Ford from a time right after he and Fonda worked in synch together for John Ford in Drums Along the Mohawk and The Grapes of Wrath. It isn’t easy to reconcile the visage of Carradine’s Ford with John Ireland’s in Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James or Casey Affleck’s in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but in terms of appearance and flamboyant manner, he does come off as the ideal heavy to combust the ire of the far more reserved Fonda at this point of their careers.

There’s also the quality of the overall production, which again cements respect for at least the professional Zanuck, who managed to make Fox proficient at turning out pro-job ‘A’s’ and ‘B’s’ throughout the entire 1940s. But the Blu-ray is a little disappointing — did the original negative get destroyed in one of the studio’s periodic nitrate fires? — and only gets some of what one would hope we’d see from cinematographer George Barnes, who later shot a lot several Technicolor stunners at Paramount. Only the brighter outdoor shots offer hints of what opening night in 1940 might have been like.

Though Fox Home Entertainment released Jesse James on Blu-ray, Twilight Time has covered the other Fox bases with not just this release but also with its recent issuing of 1957’s The True Story of Jesse James, which has always come off as one of those relatively rare pictures (like Flying Leathernecks) where Nicholas Ray directed what almost inevitably came off as a pure assignment, with him trying just to do the best he could. Story’s a nice-looking disc, though, in color and Scope — even if the blown-up footage it cheekily recycled from the 1.37:1 Jesse original wasn’t going to match very well under any circumstances. Meanwhile, you have to wonder if the forefathers intended there to be a zillion more movies about Jesse James than George Washington.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Year of the Dragon’ and ‘The Return of Frank James’