Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has a beautiful view of a parking lot as he writes this.
"The black widow, the deadliest of all spiders, earned its dark title through its deplorable practice of devouring its mate."
That bit of narration from the trailer and the movie's opening sounds nice and juicy, doesn't it? It promises a thriller full of menace and melodrama. So does the cover art on Black Widow, one of the latest entries in the Fox Film Noir series.
That's a lot to live up to, and some viewers might be disappointed the moment Black Widow comes on screen in all its 1950s color-soaked glory. True, Black Widow doesn't live up to the hype, but it's a fun little mystery that reminded me more of Dial M for Murder than Double Indemnity. (When Alan K. Rode points out the stagey nature of the film in his commentary, he compares it to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope instead of Hitchcock's Dial M. Go figure.)
Black Widow was based on a popular Cosmopolitan serial and novel by Patrick Quentin. Nunnally Johnson directed from his own script.
Facts of the Case
After Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin, 3:10 to Yuma) sees his wife, Iris (Gene Tierney, Laura), off at the airport, he goes to the party that his star actress, Lottie (Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle), is throwing in her apartment, just upstairs from the Denvers' place. There, he meets Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), a pretty young writer.
"My mother always told me that if a girl could be at a party for thirty minutes without getting a man to talk to her, she might just as well go on home and shoot herself. I've already been here twenty-five," Ordway says to Peter. Rather than see her shoot herself, Peter talks to her—and invites her out to dinner. He tells his wife about it on the phone, since the young lady ate like a horse.
Ten days after the party, Nancy calls Peter to tell him about her first sale. Soon she asks him if she can use his living room for writing because of its beautiful skyline view. He agrees. There's nothing going on, but people are talking—particularly Lottie.
When Iris returns home, she finds Nancy's coat and purse in the living room. Nancy is in the bathroom, where she apparently hung herself. The police, however, soon realize it's murder, forcing Peter to conduct his own investigation to clear his name.
Van Heflin's Peter does, during the course of his investigation, sound like the noirish tough guy. He's downright menacing as he questions Nancy's roommate (Virginia Leith, The Brain that Wouldn't Die), who's sure he did it. If you actually believed that a mild-mannered Broadway producer could suddenly turn into a bully of a noir detective, it would be disturbing. It still wouldn't be pure noir. Overall, I liked Heflin's performance as the man caught in the middle, despite the split personality he's given by the script.
George Raft (Johnny Angel), as Lt. Bruce, gives a pre-Columbo performance as the clever detective who's playing cat-and-mouse with a suspect. At first you'll think he's toying with Peter, but it shouldn't take you too long to figure out he's got a different squeaky mouse in mind. The movie doesn't tell us explicitly who did it, though, leaving that for an ending that gathers the suspects together and uses flashbacks from each character's perspective.
Gene Tierney's good as Iris, Peter's supportive wife, but she doesn't get much to do here. She's overshadowed by Ginger Rogers as the gossipy, opinionated, and nasty Lottie, who's sure to burn Peter with her comments to the cops; she creates a character you'll enjoy loathing. Reginald Gardiner (The Horn Blows at Midnight) rounds out the principal cast as Brian, Lottie's kept husband, who might not be as meek as he seems.
Black Widow keeps a good deal of the action to two apartments, but goes into Manhattan to get enough location shots to make it feel real (or as real as a standard Hollywood murder mystery from the 1950s can get). The early color cinematography holds up well for the most part, with few scratches or blemishes. Listening to the isolated score track let me hear how the music played a role in the picture without overpowering dialogue.
Short features on Ginger Rogers and Gene Tierney are included. Both are good but short (less than 10 minutes each). If you already are familiar with the actresses, you might not be impressed, but they're a good place to start if you aren't—and they do feature lots of clips from Rogers' Roxie Hart and Tierney's Leave Her to Heaven.
Film noir historian Alan K. Rode serves up the usual welcome tidbits about the stars, and even points out that "film noir was not made for Cinemascope and color." A theatrical trailer gives away too much of the story for my taste; I'd hold off on watching it until after watching the movie, but watch it if you like announcer excess. A stills gallery is divided into sections, so you can go directly into "Glamour Shots" to see Ginger Rogers looking glamorous and Peggy Ann Garner looking mysterious. If you like Hollywood overkill, take a look at the Interactive Pressbook, which reproduces text materials for media and for theater owners.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are a lot of things to nitpick. In the commentary, Alan K. Rode even speculates on whether a fake-looking backdrop of the city seen through a window on the set helps or hurts a movie. Somehow, it works overall, though. Just don't expect Peggy Ann Garner to look as sultry as she does on the DVD cover.
It might not be a perfect example of the cinematic art, but I know I liked Black Widow. If you like mysteries and enjoy movies from the 1950s dawn of Technicolor, you should, too. Hype aside, Fox put together a nice package.
Black Widow is not guilty, although the noirish DVD cover commits the
misdemeanor of misdirection.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Noir Historian Alan K. Rode
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