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Black Widow
Fox Film Noir #22

Black Widow
1954 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 95 min. / Street Date March 11, 2008 / 14.98
Starring Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft, Peggy Ann Garner, Reginald Gardiner, Virginia Leith, Otto Kruger, Cathleen Nesbitt, Skip Homeier
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Art Direction Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Dorothy Spencer
Original Music Leigh Harline
Written by Nunnally Johnson from a story by Patrick Quentin
Produced and Directed by Nunnally Johnson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Nunnally Johnson wrote, produced and directed this slick Fox murder whodunit set among the New York theater crowd. One of the earliest CinemaScope productions, it suffers from lumpy construction yet continues to appeal thanks to an uneven but interesting cast. Ginger Rogers is an outspoken and imperious Broadway star, and Van Heflin is a man unjustly accused of infidelity and then murder. Former child actress Peggy Ann Garner (Daisy Kenyon) is interesting as an unstable Broadway wannabe. The film's main problem is that star billing immediately reveals the identity of the murderer.


Aspiring writer Nanny Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) comes to New York from Savannah. She stops briefly with her Uncle Gordon Ling, an actor currently working in the latest hit play starring Lottie Martin (Ginger Rogers) and produced by Peter Denver (Van Heflin). Nanny rooms with artist Claire Amberly (Virginia Leith) long enough for Claire's brother John (Skip Homeier) to form a crush on her, and also meets Lottie Martin's househusband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardner). When Peter Denver's wife Iris (Gene Tierney) stays away for several weeks, Peter befriends Nanny and allows her to write in his apartment when he's away at work. But when Denver brings Iris home from the airport they're greeted by a horrible scene that brings Detective Bruce (George Raft) to their high-rise apartment. Within a few hours, witnesses claim that Denver was having an affair with Nanny, an accusation that Peter seemingly cannot disprove.

Black Widow is an entertaining but flawed murder mystery that makes use of Fox's declining roster of contract talent, and not in the best way. Van Heflin plays yet another good guy in a frame for murder, and comes off fairly well. But the mystery aspect is so transparent that we can see that characters like Gene Tierney's wife are superfluous. Ginger Rogers does not appeal, whether trying to pull off a Bette Davis-like diva impersonation (she's much too obnoxious) or flying into dramatic fits at the finale. That leaves the non-entity George Raft as a dull detective and Reginald Gardiner as an obvious weakling.

The real enjoyment comes from watching the non-stars. Skip Homeier is barely on-screen, but beautiful Virginia Leith (Stanley Kubrick's Fear and Desire, Violent Saturday, the hypnotic disembodied head in The Brain that Wouldn't Die) makes a strong impression. Peggy Ann Garner plays a variation on the generic Eve Harrington character, a young woman that tries to get ahead by forcing herself into the lives of important people. The 'type' has several names, none of them flattering. Garner's Nanny Ordway charms her peers and makes an irresistible show of her supposed innocence and enthusiasm, only to plot and scheme like a fresh-faced Lucretia Borgia. Foolishly swayed by Nanny's artistic pretensions (expressed in morbid music and poetry), Peter Denver is taken unawares. Before he knows it, he's alone and hunted by the police, running around town trying to clear his name.

Black Widow doesn't exactly cheat, but as mysteries go it's rather lazy. Characters seem to exist only to hinder Peter Denver or to pose as potential long-shot murder suspects. Nanny's poorly defined uncle character is seen hiding a pair of women's gloves, which turn out to signify exactly nothing. One of the film's few insert shots singles out Detective Bruce picking up a pad with some doodles on it. As the only other drawings we've seen are cartoons by Nanny, we know the doodle will become important evidence.

The 'truth' about Nanny is finally revealed in a series of dramatic flashbacks related by Brian Mullen and Lottie Martin. These seem a serious cheat: if both of these witnesses are telling highly subjective stories, how can we accept their accounting of Nanny as the absolute truth?

The film's pat ending isn't particularly satisfactory, and neither is the film's handling of Peter's beautiful wife Iris (Tierney). We're supposed to like Iris, but when she finds Nanny's coat on her sofa she immediately checks its label. Presumably discovering that the coat is some off-the-rack piece, Iris drops it as if it were garbage. Obviously this creature Nanny is a 'nobody'; the message of Black Widow is that outsiders to show-biz need to be shunned like the plague.

Bea Benaderet and future TV mogul Aaron Spelling appear in small roles.

Fox's Black Widow looks terrific in an enhanced widescreen transfer with excellent color; hardly anybody's seen this film in its original screen shape in 54 years. The packaging quotes the film's correct 2.55:1 aspect ratio but the actual transfer looks more like 2:35. As with many early CinemaScope films, the movie is largely set up in wide master shots that make many rooms look as big as tennis courts, including Peter Denver's apartment. The ubiquitous painted backdrops of Central Park aren't particularly convincing either. Every once in awhile we see a shot taken on location, and the film immediately opens up.

The extras start with a commentary by Alan Rode, and include an okay featurette about Ginger Rogers' career at Fox, with cute clips from Roxie Hart. Another brief piece on Gene Tierney tells us that during the making of Black Widow, the actress was already showing signs of a nervous breakdown and having difficulty reading lines. Along with an interactive pressbook, still gallery and original trailer, the disc gives us the very welcome bonus of Leigh Harline's score isolated on an extra track. The packaging and insert text are laden with plot spoilers, and are to be avoided.

The film begins with a giant close-up of a black widow spider to launch the theme of females that murder their mates. The movie has neither a widow nor a mate-killing woman. The poster art also cheats, in that the film offers nothing to correspond to the illustration of the voluptuous 'pulp fiction' dame reclining in red silk.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Black Widow rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Docus on Ginger Roger and Gene Tierney; interactive pressbook, stills, trailer, isolated music score
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 9, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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