Falling Down the Whirlpool at the End of the Sidewalk

by Arthur B

An overview of the BFI's Otto Preminger boxed set.
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Otto Preminger was one of the film noir directors who really pushed the envelope in terms of the sort of content they would include in their movies, offering an important alternative to the bowlderised, homogenised, unthreatening fare demanded by the MPAA Production Code’s de facto censorship. In recognition of his accomplishments, the BFI have put out a slim blu-ray set of some of his greatest works. Two of these are noir classics; one is a weird little misstep held together only by the strength of one of the actors’ performances.

Fallen Angel


Eric Stanton (played by Hollywood legend and regular Preminger collaborator Dana Andrews) is an utter sleazeball - a short con artist who we first meet as he makes an unplanned stop on his trip from LA to San Francisco at the small seaside town of Walton. There he spots the work of two con artists of a different stripe - Professor Madley (John Carradine), a spiritualist medium and charlatan, and his assistant - and Stanton manages to use his smooth-talking ways to turn around their flagging ticket sales and ensure that the local auditorium is packed for their show. In the meantime, he’s started to fall for Stella (Linda Darnell), a local waitress who it’s heavily implied is working on the side as a prostitute.

Having heard tell during the seance of local heiress Clara Mills (Anne Revere) holding onto some $12,000 in bearer bonds, and infatuated with Stella - in a nasty, stalkery, grabby, boundary-violating sort of way (which to my eye the film acknowledges as being not cool) - Stanton hits on a plan: charm Clara’s sister June (Alice Faye), get close to her, grab those bonds, and skip town with Stella. Stella doesn't quite agree to go along with this so much as she fails to overtly and unambiguously reject it; she’s more annoyed with the way Stanton insists on her not doing any sex work whilst he’s working the con - or the way he marries June as part of the scam.

Stanton and Stella argue - with Carol overhearing - and then Stella shows up dead. Stanton’s a natural fit for the crime, and local snoop Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), a retired New York cop, knows it all too well. But if Stanton wasn’t responsible, who is? And can he persuade anyone of his innocence when he’s been such a colossal arse to everyone?

This movie is largely an exercise in stripping the pleasant facade away from small-town life to reveal the dark undercurrents beneath the surface. This, of course, was one of David Lynch’s trademarks, and there's parts here which make me swear that Lynch saw this movie and was taking careful notes. The sequence of Stanton walking with June Mills along the street discussing matters is very reminiscent of Jeffrey and Sandy’s nighttime walks in Lumberton in Blue Velvet, and the opening credits depicting a driver’s-eye-view of a trip down a nighttime road with credits emerging from the street signs is reminiscent of both Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway.

Andrews is great here as not so much an antihero so much as a villain who happens to not be responsible for the worst act of villainy in the film, able to turn on the insincere charm for June and then display a more violent and reprehensible sort of passion for Stella. He isn’t even depicted as being an endearingly cunning crook; there’s a bit where Stella is dancing with her date of the evening and Stanton is dancing with June and there’s a moment mid-dance where they exchange a few words, Stanton unable to resist propositioning Stella even as he’s mid-con. The overall impression is of a man who isn’t in the habit of restraining his own desires and whose desires tend to be pretty cruel and tawdry at that.

On top of that, he doesn’t do the expected thing you do in this sort of film where you start digging into a crime in order to outwit the cops and prove yourself innocent - after his first interrogation he cuts and runs with June and it looks for all the world like they’re going to go on the lam. It’s only really there that his redemptive arc begins, and only right towards the end that he does any sleuthing. In fact, his redemption comes so late in the film that it feels like he kind of gets away with an awful lot. The fact that June stays loyal to him, and even claims to have fallen in love with him (despite having mostly only known his phony, charming facade), is an infuriatingly dated plot point steeped in the “woman as prize for victorious male lead” storytelling tradition.

There’s other ways in which the film ends up a snapshot of the oddities of society at the time. People smoke all the time. When Andrews and June are eloping they consult a service advertised in the phone book as offering a “marriage health certificate” on the quick for eloping couples. Literally only one black character appears - he shines Dana’s shoes. Most of all, the plot walks fine line between outright shaming Stella for her sexual activities and simply acknowledging that these things happen.

Still, the movie has dated less poorly than many similar works from its era because of how different it feels from typical 1940s-1950s fare from Hollywood. It’s really shocking to see an American movie of this vintage being so frank about its subject matter - this was the era of the Hays Code which put sharp constraints on Hollywood productions, which Preminger became infamous for pushing the boundaries of and at points outright ignoring (and by doing so helped to erode its grip on the industry). Judd’s matter-of-fact way of beating answers out of suspects, in particular, is frankly and unflinchingly depicted in a manner at odds with the era’s typical respect for authority.

Whirlpool


Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) is the beautiful young wife of famed psychoanalyst William Sutton (Richard Conte) - but when we’re introduced to her, she’s indulging in some compulsive shoplifting at a swanky department store. Before the store staff can take the matter to the police, in swans the mysterious David Korvo (José Ferrer), who claims to be the Suttons’ attorney and smoothly talks them into dropping the matter.

The problem is, Korvo isn’t the Suttons’ lawyer, but a complete stranger who seems to have sussed out all too much about Ann’s affairs; for her part, Ann is so dedicated to maintaining a picture-perfect facade for William that she would do anything to keep things quiet. Korvo dismisses any suggestion that he’s some common blackmailer, and purports to simply want to help Ann. His real line of work is as an astrologer - and as a hypnotist. He convinces Ann to accept his help with her neuroses and her insomnia… but instead, he turns her into a pawn in a deadly game of his, and it comes down to William and grizzled homicide detective Lt. Colton (Charles Bickford) to untangle what has happened.

I hadn’t seen any José Ferrer before this (though I had enjoyed his son Miguel’s work in Robocop and Twin Peaks), but his performance here is really quite excellent, to the point where it more or less saves the movie. Rather than being a swish Svengali, he’s very believable as the sort of guy who is dorky in bearing and interests but manages to dominate a room anyway simply because of the air of confidence he carries and the melodiousness of his speech; he’s the sort of guy who could tell you that he killed all of your friends and loved ones and go into excruciating detail about how he did it, but you don’t mind listening because he sounds so good saying it.

Ferrer has the advantage of a clever script by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt. Korvo’s patter with Ann when he is talking about her marriage being a prison for her and all these desires she doesn’t acknowledge is some outright PUA shit (though well-observed, since PUA shit is basically attempting to use psychological trickery to get ahead). It’s also very interesting how Ann sees full well that Korvo seems to be trying to seduce her (though that may a deliberately heavy-handed feint to cover for his real agenda - and to establish a narrative about him and Ann which is essential to his plot later), but she continues seeing him for the hypnotherapy sessions anyway, despite the fact that she seems to be in a position to stop them if she wanted to. Are we meant to read that as there being more to his suggestions that she isn’t happy in the marriage than she claims?

Come to think of it, for much of the film the script doesn’t overtly explore what is prompting her bouts of kleptomania or her inability to discuss what is troubling her with William. For a film which puts such an emphasis on psychoanalysis (both the medically approved variety William uses and experimental, abusive quack therapy Korvo offers), that is a blind spot so interesting that I think it must be deliberate, particularly when Ann lashes out at Bill when he visits her in prison and claims that Bill somehow made her put on that perfect facade. After this, unfortunately, we go deep into armchair psychology territory, which is kind of a shame - especially when the movie offers a rather pat and simplistic explanation of Ann’s kleptomania.

The main issue with Whirlpool is that for it to seem remotely credible, you have to buy into the idea that hypnosis can exert way more control over people’s behaviour than it is generally admitted to. (It also includes old chestnuts like “hypnosis can’t override your strongly-held beliefs”, which is the sort of thing people spout when they are rattling off pseudoscience.) When the movie came out in 1949 people were very interested in hypnosis and thought all sorts of wild things about it; this was, after all, the America in which Dianetics became a hit, and despite L. Ron Hubbard’s constant protestations to the contrary Dianetics is basically a fancy sort of hypnosis.

Nonetheless, the serious, gritty tone of the movie means that a lot of the crank claims about hypnosis it makes render the plot ridiculous. If it had been a more cartoonish affair, it would be different, but as it stands it asks us to suspend more disbelief than the general style of the movie sets us up to suspend. It doesn’t help that the last third or so of the movie, once William becomes proactively involved in investigating stuff, ends up much less interesting than the preceding hour or so - or that the resolution involves Ann trusting in Will to cure her because she needs a dude to fix her.

Without Ferrer’s performance the movie wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. As it stands, it’s worth watching for Ferrer at the height of his powers - the following year he’d be the first Hispanic actor to win an Oscar when he took Best Actor for his role in Cyrano de Bergerac - but Whirlpool is so dependent on him to cover his weaknesses that it ends up stumbling whenever the focus shifts away from him.

Where the Sidewalk Ends


Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) is a bad cop, and not in a deliberate good cop/bad cop interrogation strategy sort of a way; he’s just a bad-tempered little man who uses his fists enough that even his superiors in the 1950s New York City police department are appalled; at the start of the movie he’s demoted because there’s too many complaints about him. Dixon has a particular grudge against gangster Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), who Dixon’s criminal father was associated with somehow.

When big spending Texas businessman Ted Morrison (Harry von Zell) is accidentally killed at Scalise’s dice game by fellow gambler Ken Paine (Craig Stevens), Dixon jumps at what he sees as a chance to take down Scalise, if only he can pin the murder on him. Sent to Paine’s apartment to try and bring him in for questioning, Dixon gets into a fight with Paine; unfortunately, Paine was injured in World War II and is more fragile than he looks, and a good sock to the jaw from Dixon kills him stone dead. Knowing that he will at very least lose his job if this comes out - assuming he doesn’t face a murder charge - Dixon decides to hide the body, attempting to lay a false trail that ties Paine’s death to Scalise.

However, as the investigation of Paine’s life continues, it emerges that salt-of-the-earth cab driver Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully) had been around the apartment building that night hoping to have his own confrontation with Paine - for Paine was married to Jiggs’ daughter Morgan (Gene Tierney), though the two had separated with Morgan returning to live with Jiggs, and she’d come home that evening with a nasty black eye from Paine hitting her at the gambling joint. The rest of the police force think Jiggs is a decidedly viable suspect; Dixon doesn’t have the heart to see a basically good-natured innocent like Jiggs take the rap, but he doesn’t have the spine to come clean - but with his web of lies unravelling around him, can he save both himself and Jiggs?

Interestingly for the noir genre, we have our detective flying off the handle on a hunch which isn’t correct: although Scalise does lie a little about the circumstances surrounding the death of Morrison, Paine really did kill the poor guy. And there is a cruel irony that by coming at Paine hard, Dixon finds himself guilty of a crime which could be the mirror image of Paine’s.

From this starting point, the movie ends up offering what is largely a darker take on Fallen Angel - rather than being a small-time crook who takes down a murderer, Andrews here is playing an outright murderer and abuser of the authority given him legitimately to go after a crook who actually seems to only murder at a last resort, but whose authority is more illegitimate and entangles people in its web of corruption; working out who is the bigger heel between Dixon and Scalise is a tough call. Moreover, whereas Andrews more or less gets away with his misdeeds in Fallen Angel, he doesn’t get away with it here - the house of cards eventually falls, and if there’s a redeeming feature to him, it’s that it falls at his own instigation.

Infuriatingly, Morgan ends up deciding to stand by Dixon on discovering this, the two having fallen in love over the course of the investigation; OK, fine, maybe she’d decide to do that in the long run, but she doesn’t seem nearly as angry and upset with him as you’d expect she’d be. This is not the only point which strains suspension of disbelief. In particular, the plot relies on assuming that police procedure is sloppy to an absurd extent. OK, fine, it’s the 1950s, best practice hadn’t been refined to the point where it’s at today. At the same time, is it really credible for the cops to send Dixon alone to talk to Paine - a murder suspect, potentially still armed with the murder weapon, who is reported to them as being drunk as a skunk and foul-tempered with it? You don’t need to be an expert on policing to realise that this sounds like a recipe for a dead cop.

This also makes Dixon’s attempt to cover up the whole thing seem like even more of a huge mistake than it already is: they did in fact get in a fight, and sure, Dixon was warned earlier about throwing punches at suspects, but “the murder suspect came at me with a weapon; he was drunk and bad-tempered” is about as perfect as an excuse as he could possibly hope for. (If anything, the department would surely want to back him up so it didn’t have to answer awkward questions from the unions about why the fuck Dixon was sent into that situation by himself and then hung out to dry when it very predictably went bad.)

That said, part of the charm of the piece is how it embraces the idea of Dixon as a guy who just isn’t that good at his job and just isn’t that upstanding a human being, and who makes bad, sometimes irrational decisions because of that. Andrews’ performance, along with the excellent supporting cast, buys into this dark journey entirely and helps us buy into it, and Preminger’s work ends up, once again, a billion miles away from the quivering idolisation of authority figures that was Hollywood’s stock in trade at the time.
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Comments (go to latest)
Orion at 01:24 on 2017-04-03
This reminds me a bit of the trouble I had with the TV series Gotham. It came highly recommended, but the very first (or maybe second?) episode ended with an absurdity that had, in the 3 years between when it aired and I watched it, become retroactively offensive.

It's clearly an ensemble show, but the first protagonist we get is an idealistic young Detective Gordon who has just joined the Gotham PD and is immediately horrified to discover that it is brutal and pervasively corrupt. The partner he's assigned is in fact himself friendly with various mob bosses and urges Jim not to make waves. His first job, of course, is to work out who killed Bruce Wayne's parents and stole their jewelry.

They get a tip naming a possible suspect. When they knock on his door, he jumps out the window and flees several blocks on foot. I think he pulls a gun and shoots at Gordon while he flees? Anyway, Jim catches up to him and attempts to take him down with nonlethal martial arts, but fails. He's about to be killed by the suspect when his partner shoots and kills the guy, saving Jim's life. So far, so good.

Then, inexplicably, Jim's partner worries that they could lose their jobs over this, and persuades Jim that they have to cover up the shooting. I literally LOL'ed at the idea that an explicitly corrupt department would discipline two officers for shooting a suspect who attacked them with a deadly weapon in close quarters in a public alleyway after fleeing his home (a home which turned out to contain both drugs and stolen jewelry). I watched it just days after one of the first Black Lives Matter demonstrations and (although this suspect was white), that pushed it over the line to where I couldn't keep watching.

In retrospect it occurs to me that the dirty cop may have been outright lying about the risk of punishment as part of his long game to corrupt Gordon (which is something he does attempt to do elsewhere). Maybe I should give it another chance.
Arthur B at 10:04 on 2017-04-03
Yeah, that example totally makes sense as a "I am going to persuade you to join me in an incriminating crime so that your personal mortality gets eroded by breaking this taboo and you end up with this difficult-to-shake connection to me I can play on to ensure your loyalty" thing. Especially when used against a naive cop panicking about someone being dead on their watch.

But of course, that isn't necessarily how the show plays it.
Arthur B at 10:08 on 2017-04-03
...it occurs to me, in fact, that the writers probably realised that they needed the coverup to retain Bruce's motivation for becoming Batman.
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