Psychoanalysis is a frequent presence in films of the 40s and 50s. It was implicit in This Gun for Hire, and it’s explicit in Whirlpool, a noir thriller by Otto Preminger. Ms. Sutton (Gene Tierney) is a kleptomaniac, but is afraid to divulge this secret to her psychiatrist husband. Tierney is beautiful and the plot is unbelievable, but what really struck me about this film is how often characters referred to stupidity, their own and others’.
Mrs. Sutton is nabbed in a swank department store for stealing a pin. Korvo (Jose Ferrer) helps her out of her scrape and then insinuates himself into her good graces. He says he can cure her with hypnosis.
Korvo lives by bilking rich women, but one has turned against him and is demanding her money back. He hypnotizes Mrs. Sutton so that he can pin the rap on her after he murders his uncooperative patient. He has a perfect alibi – he was having gall bladder surgery when the killing happened. But Korvo, master of mental powers, hypnotized himself in post-operative recovery so he would feel no pain, and then went on his murderous errand.
To cover his tracks, he has to do the self-anesthesia again to retrieve some recordings that are evidence against him, hidden in the victim’s house. He slinks out of the hospital in a great shot of the lobby, the lines on the floor pointing ominously to the outer world that lies asleep, unsuspecting.
Korvo’s a smug, supercilious fellow. He describes the police, other doctors, patients who don’t worship him anymore, as stupid. Listening to the recordings, his former patient says, “Even his voice, which used to thrill me, sounded so stupid! ” She thought she was free of his spell.
Mr. Sutton, the shrink-hubby who refuses to believe his wife killed the woman, tries to convince the police chief. He realizes he’s being stupid: he can’t expect the chief to see his wife through his eyes. But the chief gives in finally, they all go to the scene of the crime to try and jog her hypnotized mind out of its rut.
As she begins to remember, Korvo comes out of his hiding place to confront them. He’s hypnotized his pain away, but he’s still bleeding to death. “You’re clever, but you’ll never make it, Korvo,” warns the chief. Noticing that he is indeed dying, Korvo replies matter-of-factly, “Yes, I believe you are right. Tonight I appear to have done something stupid.”
Improbable, at best. But Gene looks splendid in her outfits, and Jose is a nice Svengali.