Black Widow

June 4, 2020

blackwidowNot since last year’s The Fly has a movie insect been so welcome on the scene: Black Widow is a voluptuous, sinful modern film noir, featuring two of our surest actresses. It’s a seductive mystery, teeming with delicious touches and unexpected colors.

What elusive director Bob Rafelson and his actors have done is transform a reasonably good story – about a federal investigator (Debra Winger) tracking down a woman (Theresa Russell) who marries rich men and kills them – into something entirely richer, more suggestive, than your average mystery movie.

Rafelson, an odd figure who makes movies only every few years (this is just his fourth since Five Easy Pieces in 1970), has come up with his most stylish film to date. The screen shimmers with knockout primary colors and perverse images: a red fan atop a deadly ebony liquor cabinet, the orange spout of a Hawaiian volcano as two characters stand in “the newest place on the planet,” the shiver of expressionism as Theresa Russell strides into a darkened room like Murnau’s Nosferatu. The story takes place mainly in Hawaii and Seattle (many interiors were shot in the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer building), and Rafelson extracts the maximum atmosphere out of each.

In terms of sheer suspense and the nimble unspooling of a complicated plot, Black Widow prohably offers more chewy fun than any film of this genre since Body Heat. My only nag is that the ending, in which justice is served, is actually something of a letdown (that’s how perverse the film is).

Rafelson is interested in more than simple yarn-spinning. As with his previous film, The Postman Always Rings Twice, he uses the film-noir mode as a vehicle for exploring the furtive passions and anxieties of people who are outside the mainstream. He’s intrigued by the dark, strange undercurrents that course through his characters’ lives.

So that, for instance, the murderess played by Russell – a character who ought to be repellent by realistic standards – becomes deeply alluring, both to the audience (well, to me anyway) and to Winger’s investigator. But it’s not black-and-white; her victims (played by Dennis Hopper, Nicol Williamson, and Sami Frey) are all sympathetically portrayed.

There are also surprises for Winger’s character; she is increasingly revealed as an empty figure, whose pursuit of the criminal becomes obsessive: she even strikes up an uneasy friendship with Russell. It’s some of Winger’s most controlled work ever.

Russell is a powerful actress who generally works for her husband, Nicolas Roeg, which means that lately she hasn’t been seen much (Bad Timing, Insignificance). I hope this role places her in the forefront of American actresses: that’s where she belongs. She moves through the film with delectable dangerousness, a ripe candy apple full of poison.

First published in The Herald, February 1987

Until going through these 80s reviews, I did not realize my Theresa Russell drum-beating was quite so strident. But there it is. There was something luscious and mysterious about the film; I wonder if that quality survives today? David Mamet turns up as an actor (he might have been shooting House of Games in Seattle at the time?), and the cast also has Diane Ladd, James Hong, Terry O’Quinn, and Mary Woronov. Conrad Hall shot it.