Black Widow (1954)
“All the suspense your system can take!”
Director: Nunnally Johnson
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney
Synopsis: A young writer insinuates herself into the life of a Broadway producer.
The cinema learned early in its life that there’s no more efficient way of frightening a woman than to prick a hole in that bubble of comfort within which most ordinary people live, to confront them with the fact that the cosy domesticity with which they cushion themselves from the realities of life is as fragile as a butterfly’s wings. In 1954, Nunnally Johnson fashioned this kind of movie out of Black Widow, an adaptation of a novel by Hugh Wheeler which was serialised in Cosmopolitan magazine. What was particularly effective about Black Widow was the way in which the main couple’s marriage – and the man’s liberty – was put at risk through no fault of their own – which made fighting back all the more difficult.
Peter Denver (Van Heflin – 3:10 to Yuma) and his wife Iris (Gene Tierney – Laura, The Razor’s Edge) are a successful couple living a comfortable life in an upmarket New York condo. He’s a Broadway producer and she’s a top stage actress, and while they’re likeable enough, there’s the tiniest hint of smugness about their privileged lifestyle which is more openly displayed by the attitudes of their friends and neighbours, Carlotta ‘Lottie’ Marin (Ginger Rogers – Flying Down to Rio, Roxie Hart) and her husband, Brian Mullin (Reginald Gardiner – The Lodger, The Great Dictator). While Iris is out of town tending to her sick father, Peter takes Nancy (Peggy Ann Garner), an ambitious young writer, under his wing, taking her to dinner a couple of times and even allowing her to use his and Iris’s apartment as a base to write from. What Peter doesn’t realise is that Nancy is what’s described in the movie as a ‘Purpose Girl,’ which is a girl determined to make her way to the top by any means necessary.
You might think you know where this story is going from the above synopsis, but one of the refreshing things about Johnson’s literate and intelligent screenplay is the way in which it so succinctly manages to wrong-foot its audience. It would be reasonable to suspect that Nancy is angling to come between Peter and Iris, but although Johnson provides some sly acts of misdirection to reinforce our suspicions, nothing could be further from the truth. Peter is never anything less than honest with Iris about Nancy, but is still a little annoyed when they arrive home after he’s picked his wife up from the airport to hear Nancy’s favourite music playing from behind the door of their apartment after she’d promised she would clear out before they returned. However, Nancy has a good reason for not having left – she’s swinging from a noose in the Denver’s bedroom, having apparently committed suicide.
The Denvers’ discovery of Nancy’s body proves to be only the start of their troubles, and the movie weaves such a compelling mystery around her death that one can’t help suspecting that the resolution will be something of a disappointment. Detective Lt. Bruce (George Raft – The Bowery, The Ladies Man) is immediately suspicious of just why Nancy would choose to commit suicide in the Denvers’ apartment if there was nothing going on between her and Peter Denver, and when her autopsy reveals that Nancy was actually murdered and then strung up after her death to make it look like suicide, his suspicions that Peter is responsible grow all the stronger. And when he later discovers that shortly before her death, Nancy’s stated reason for rejecting the marriage proposal of her room-mate’s brother was that she was pregnant by a wealthy man connected with Broadway, he actively starts searching for evidence to nail his man.
While Black Widow’s big reveal is something of a mild let-down, it’s probably as good as it could be given the options open to Johnson. Initially, the Broadway setting inevitably calls to mind Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, but Black Widow is an altogether different kind of movie, focusing more on Denver’s attempts to clear himself of murder than the back-biting world of Broadway divas. There is an element of that, though, in the catty performance of Ginger Rogers as a Broadway star who conceals her insecurities behind a bitchy, abrasive nature. To be honest, Carlotta comes across as a little uneven, with her opening scenes, in which she gaily insults party guests for no apparent reason, suggesting she’s going to be far more of a bitch than she actually is. It’s a good performance from Rogers, though — although it’s not the starring role that’s suggested by the credits. In fact, it’s nothing more than a supporting role, and is indicative of how difficult she found it to get decent roles once she hit her forties. Gene Tierney drifts in and out of the movie as Denver’s wife, and finds it hard to make any kind of impression — partly because her character doesn’t respond to the police accusation that her husband’s much younger lover has committed suicide in her bedroom in the way that you would expect a wife to — at least initially — and also because her mental health wasn’t good during filming; she was relying on large doses of medication just to get through each day, and would make only one more film before undergoing treatment for suicidal depression.
Black Widow makes for absorbing entertainment, but it doesn’t really deserve the Noir tag which is so often applied to it. Although it could almost be an adaptation of a stage play rather than a novel, Fox chose to film it in Cinemascope which consequently required Johnson to position his players at distance from one another as they talked simply to fill up screen space.
Watching Black Widow has cleared up one mystery, however. Seeing Peggy Ann Garner’s silhouette hanging from a noose finally provided the name of the film that scared the crap out of me so badly as a kid that I adamantly refused to venture upstairs alone after seeing it…
(Reviewed 3rd April 2014)