Monday, 4 April 2011
Black Widow (1954) dir, Nunnally Johnson
Starring: Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, George Raft
By Alan Bacchus
Nancy Orway is an ambitious social climber who ingratiates herself into the New York upper class elite through a friendship with big shot Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin). But with Denver’s wife Iris (Gene Tierney) out of town the friendship brings silent accusations of infidelity. It’s all very innocent until Nancy shows up dead in Peter’s apartment. Suddenly Peter’s seemingly innocent actions take on a whole new meaning. With the police quickly leaning towards a murder charge, Peter takes it upon himself to find the real killer. This fun whodunit setup makes Black Widow an effective mystery and will keep you guessing all the way to the end.
Beneath the surface, the fundamental question that drives the film is whether a married man can develop a true platonic friendship with a single woman. Peter apparently does this out of kindness to help a young writer get a foot in the business. But writer/director Nunnally Johnson never makes Peter out to be a saint. Though he appears to be honest in his philanthropy, there’s a dark side to Peter that keeps the audience on edge. In fact, everyone’s intentions are kept hidden from the audience. For the first half of the film, we’re not sure if Nancy is a crazed psychopath, if Denver is truly attracted to her or whether he’s trying to exact revenge for his wife’s affair a year ago. Johnson plants all the right seeds, which will pay off in the third act.
The film is presented in colour cinemascope, a format not traditionally associated with noir, but it works. The use of widescreen is fabulous. Johnson and his DOP Charles Clarke, along with the legendary photographic effects man Ray Kellogg, bathe New York in eye-popping colour and bold visual beauty. It’s rare to film a noir in colour, but remember that most of Hitchcock’s great colour films were essentially film noirs.
Van Heflin, whose prominent brow frequently got him cast as the bad guy in westerns, is completely believable as a reserved but confident Broadway producer. Ginger Rogers, though over the top, has fun with Lottie, a snobby elitist actress who bullies around everyone including the cops. Peter’s wife, Iris (Gene Tierney), is the most underdeveloped of the characters. Once the accusations of infidelity start, Iris never once questions Peter’s story. It isn’t until a confessionary letter in the mail from Nancy that Iris is sent over the edge; however, even with this information she is still inactive as a character. But then I watched the special features of the DVD and learned the great noir actress Tierney was suffering from severe depression and was heavily medicated during the time of the filming.
Two thirds into the film, I thought I had predicted the ending, but I was wrong. Johnson’s cinematic approach turns what could have been Murder She Wrote material into a tight, unpredictable whodunit with strong characters that stands out against most other films of its kind. Enjoy.