Thursday, March 28, 2013

Black Widow (1954)

'Black Widow' is a 1954 whodunnit mystery that Fox conveniently lumped into their 'fox film noir' DVD series for marketing purposes, but really is only marginally noir at best. Not that it matters, as it's a pretty good movie that is both fun and thrilling. It was produced and directed by Nunnally Johnson, who also wrote the script which was based on a story by Patrick Quentin (which was really one of several pseudonyms used by a group of authors, 2 of which wrote this particular story, namely Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb). The beautiful (in a non-noir way) cinematography, in colorful and 2.55:1 widescreen Cinemascope, was done by Charles G. Clarke.

At the start of the movie successful Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) is putting his wife Iris (the ever-so-beautiful Gene Tierney) on a plane, so she can take care of her sick mother. He then goes to a party thrown by Carlotta 'Lottie' Marin (Ginger Rogers), who is the star of his latest production. She happens to live in the apartment right above the Denver's with her husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner). At this party he meets Nancy Ordway (former child actress Peggy Ann Garner, who looks nothing like that hit, seductive girl in the poster), an aspiring writer. She throws him a classic line '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.' and ofcourse he's more than happy to save her life. But no, he's not into her that way. After all, he's married to Gene Tierney, if you know what I mean. He does take her out to dinner, which he later jokingly talks about to his wife over the phone, because she ate a ton (there's a running gag throughout the movie where Nancy claims she's 'hungry enough to eat a bear'). The movie then does a flashback and recounts how Nancy arrived in NYC from her hometown of Savannah, GA and visits her uncle Gordon Ling (Otto Kruger), who is a stage actor in one of the Peter's plays. She then befriends siblings Claire and John Amberley (Virginia Leith and Skip Homeier) while working as a waitress, and eventually moves in with them, and it is with Claire that she ends up at Lottie's party. Some time after the party, she gets Peter to allow her to work on her writing from the Denver apartment, because the view is inspiring her. This ofcourse raises more than a few eyebrows, but Peter ignores it, and Iris is more understanding than any woman I know. When Iris returns to NYC she finds Nancy hanging dead from the ceiling in the bedroom, and there's a note with a drawing of a hanged person with a quote from 'Salome' about love and death above it. It is assumed this is her suicide note. Detective lieutenant Bruce (George Raft) is investigating the suicide, which eventually turns out be murder. And not only that, but the persons who knew about Nancy working at the Denver apartment are all under the impression that Nancy and Peter's relationship was not quite as platonic as Peter makes it seem. Nancy wasn't quite as innocent and sweet as Peter thought she was, as she's been telling Claire she was having an affair with Peter, which also ruined her relationship, and possible engagement, with John. And to make matters even worse, the autopsy revealed she was also pregnant! Peter quickly becomes the #1 suspect and he has to conduct his own investigation to clear his name.

Peter Denver's character has two sides in this movie. Before Nancy's death, he's a very friendly, almost naive good guy who's liked by pretty much everybody, and who holds no grudges. After her death, he becomes almost a polar opposite of himself and has no qualms about squeezing a girl's arm hard and shaking her wildly to get an answer out of her. He's desperate and determined. That is one aspect of this movie that does have a noir element to it, Peter is forced far out of his comfort zone in order to be able to clear his name, but it is also never truly clear if he's on the level about his relationship with Nancy. Van Heflin is a great actor and he gives a good performance here.

Ginger Rogers is the real star of the movie however. Her Lottie is a true bitchy diva, who has to put everybody down in order to feel good about herself, she enjoys gossiping, thinks very highly of herself and has to be the centerpiece always. Rogers almost radiates in every scene she's in, you can definitely tell she enjoyed this role greatly. Lottie does show at some point that she has a heart and has her own insecurities and that it is really Brian who controls her rather than the other way around (tho not in a mean-spirited way, more in a loving way). Reginald Gardiner plays the loving husband who introduces himself not by his own name but as Carlotta Marin's husband pretty well, with a thin smile that can be thought of as meaning both amusement and resignation.

The weakest character/actor in the movie is George Raft because well... he's George Raft and the only character he can play is George Raft as he rattles off his lines without emotion. Also Gene Tierney was going through a bad depression at the time and was taking heavy medication so her part is understandably kept to a bare minimum, and she comes across as slightly lethargic at times. Which is unfortunate, she was a great and dropdead gorgeous actress, but her truly tragic life also held her back a lot. In fact, this was one of the last movies she did before she took a break from acting due to her personal issues. Also, I couldn't help but notice that Otto Kruger looked so much older in this color movie compared to his 40s black & white movies, even though timewise it was only 10 years earlier that he played in 'Murder, My Sweet' for instance. His portrayal of the dandy-esque Gordon Ling is good tho, unfortunately his part is quite small.

The movie has only a few scenes that were shot on location, the majority of the scenes take place on studio sets and more specifically in the apartments of Peter and Iris Denver and Lottie Marin and Brian Mullen (which was really the same set but with different props, especially the Marin/Mullen apartment is beautifully decorated). The living room is quite spacious and is the perfect location for the 2.55:1 aspect ratio. I understand that this movie is occasionally shown on TV in a cropped pan & scan version, it must look awkward that way with actors positioned on the edges of the widescreen regularly. Even though it is fairly obvious that the daytime & nighttime backdrops of the apartments of the NYC skyline were painted, they look really good and real enough to not be distracting. Visually the movie is far from noir, but the extreme widescreen look and the usage of the large apartments, the backdrops, the way the actors are generally occupying as much of the available space as possible, and the fairly subdued colors give the movie a very pleasing and classic, almost stage-y, aesthetic.

While the movie is not exactly a film noir and it is even debatable whether it is borderline noir, it's a fun and beautiful-looking movie with a bit of a surprise ending, and personally I rate it much higher than the 6.6 it currently has on IMDb.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, nice review of a good movie. Ginger Rogers was terrific as Carlotta. It's a shame she struggled to find decent movie roles once she reached her 40s.