Private screenings: Whirlpool

Fox Noir Classic

Otto Preminger made one of the masterworks of film noir, the mystery-romance "Laura" (1944), but he went on to do several terrific movies that, though lacking the haunting aura of that sublime death-dream, arguably delve more suggestively into the nitty-gritty textures of the noir zone. Two of them aren't out yet on DVD in this country, "Fallen Angel" (1945) and "Where the Sidewalk End" (1950). But one of them is about to be: the fascinatingly slippery "Whirlpool" (1949), releasing Sept. 6.

"Whirlpool" does reunite Preminger with Laura herself, Gene Tierney (who's also in "Where the Sidewalk Ends"), playing a haut-bourgeois-glam wife married to a successful and unimpeachably uxorious psychoanalyst (Richard Conte). He might have a professional as well as personal interest in knowing she's a sometime kleptomaniac. An ultrasmooth mesmerist and con artist (Jose Ferrer) happens to be on the sidelines when she's caught shoplifting at an L.A. smart shoppe, and in the guise of helping her - and ­maybe seducing her - he sets her up to take the rap for a murder. If this seems to be giving too much away, well, it still leaves the last hour of the movie unaccounted for, and doesn't begin to suggest what a twisted web Ferrer, and Preminger and the movie, are weaving.

The script by Ben Hecht and Andew Solt is cunningly structured to divide the movie into several separate movements, each dominated by one of the key characters - among them a homicide detective played by Charles Bickford - and in each case a few minutes go by before you realize that the ground has shifted. Preminger's mise-en-scene isn't as lush as that of "Laura," but there's a sinister, serpentine fluidity to it that almost passes as a business-as-usual way of covering simple dialogue scenes. This goes hand-in-hand with the director's celebrated aversion to encouraging identification with any one character, however apparently sympathetic; they all, as it turns out, have their little peculiarities. The great black-and-white cinematographer Arthur C. Miller lit and shot it (one of his last films in a career that began early in the silent era), and in its subtle way it's a beauty.

Seeing "Whirlpool" decades ago on the late show, I missed most of this. I also didn't much care for Jose Ferrer, who on TV always seemed much too overbearingly pretentious to be married to a nice lady like Rosemary Clooney. Now I relish every unclean move his David Korvo makes. The guy could be the illegitimate son of Waldo Lydecker ... if that didn't present a certain technical problem.


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