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Black Widow (1954)

Twilight Time // Unrated // October 16, 2018 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Twilighttimemovies]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted December 3, 2018 | E-mail the Author
Peter Denver (Van Heflin) has nothing to complain about, really: the star of his latest play, Carlotta "Lottie" Marin (Ginger Rogers) creates drama and gossip, which can be frustrating when Peter and his wife Iris (Gene Tierney) live directly beneath them, but Peter enjoys the friendship of her husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner). So when Iris, before flying off to see her mother, asks Peter to make an appearance at Lottie's latest party, he begrudgingly agrees. There, he runs into Nancy "Nanny" Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), an aspiring writer struggling to figure out what famous author to imitate and harboring a nearly insatiable appetite. A platonic dinner gets Peter out of his party obligations, and they become friends, with Peter eventually offering to let Peggy write in his apartment while he's at work so she can enjoy the view of New York City from his living room. There's nothing illicit about Peter and Nanny's friendship, but when Nanny is found dead and evidence of an affair starts popping up left and right, it isn't long before Peter's on the run, trying to figure out what happened before he finds himself in jail.

Black Widow, written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, is a breezy little film noir that packs whip-smart dialogue and a host of rock-solid performances. Although it doesn't necessarily have much going on in subtext, or an unforgettably complex mystery at its core, it is reliable and consistent enough at hitting doubles that viewers aren't likely to mind the absence of any straight-up home runs.

Although Ginger Rogers is the film's top-billed star, she plays more of a supporting role, popping in for a moment here and there as the story dictates. The real lead of the film is Heflin, who is pretty perfect casting, generating a warm (and totally sexless) fatherly vibe toward Nanny that is enjoyable all on its own; it's easy to wish you were watching a charming little comedy about a Broadway producer and his protege that would end with success for both of them. When the film shifts into its central mystery, Heflin turns up the intensity, his eyes blazing like lasers in his exquisitely angular, old-fashioned movie star face. He and Garner have an excellent rapport with each other, with Garner matching him beat-for-beat on Johnson's crackling one-liners. Of course, Rogers makes the most of her appearances in the movie, vamping it up as a catty diva who manages to turn her own obliviousness into a character flaw on the part of the people who point it out to her. Gardiner is lovely as Lottie's cheerful but noticeably dispirited husband, slipping in a hint of weariness that betrays even his sweetest or most confident statements. Virginia Leith has a nice supporting role as one of Nanny's close friends, and Hilda Simms has one snappy scene as an ex-coworker who tells an anecdote about Nanny and Humphrey Bogart. Only Tierney feels a bit left out, with a role that is more functional than anything.

Those critical of Black Widow would probably be within reason to call it a bit slight. The movie has a good enough script and a good enough cast to coast on those two things, and it does. If the film contained any sort of deeper commentary on the theater world or the culture of upper-class elites, it isn't immediately evident watching the film today. The film mostly takes place on one of two nearly architecturally identical apartment sets, with drop-ins at Peter's office, the apartment where Leith's character lives with her brother, and a few other places. In that sense, it doesn't always feel like Johnson is taking full advantage of the CinemaScope format, although the shots of the New York City skyline seen from the window of Peter's apartment or the balcony of the apartment above where Lottie and Brian live are stunning. There is also one scene which -- even if his behavior is a gambit -- does make Peter slightly less sympathetic, as he chokes and even threatens to hurt an innocent woman (perhaps because Heflin's performance in the scene is so chillingly convincing).

Nunnally's script is packed with flair, dropping some especially funny bon mots even in throwaway scenes, such as one where a costume designer has dropped by Peter's office to show him some new sketches. Viewers may feel they've caught onto where the movie is going quicker than Peter, but Nunnally has a few twists and turns up his sleeve. If there's a mild weakness to it, it's the underdevelopment of Nanny as a character. Rogers is so charming in her scenes with Peter, and so different in flashbacks shown as Peter starts to unravel the mystery. Although Rogers performs the material well enough, the character of Nanny could stand to be a bit more fleshed out. Nanny may obviously represent a recognizable character type, but Nunnally doesn't really delve into what would make his version of that character tick. At the same time, the movie has enough wit to keep plugging along, anchored by Heflin and the rest of the cast.

The Blu-ray
Of the poster artwork for Black Widow, Twilight Time has gone with the most literal, depicting Rogers, Heflin, Raft, and Tierney in a spiderweb elevated over the title, and a sensually-posed Garner -- not really something she does in the movie -- lying across the bottom. The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is, of course, a booklet featuring liner notes by Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo.

The Video and Audio
As with many of the masters that 20th Century Fox produces in-house and provides to labels like Twilight Time, the 2.55:1 1080p AVC presentation on this disc is generally very good, with one notable quibble. The overall qualities of the image are strong, with a nice grain field visible, strong depth, and mostly striking colors. However, there is a clear and obvious lean toward teal in the transfer, noticeable especially in low-light or dark scenes in the shadows, which turn skin tones greenish and push blacks toward dark blue. All things considered, fans should consider this a healthy upgrade from the 10-year-old DVD, but those with a sensitivity toward the "teal and orange" treatment will want to go in with caution. Sound is available in three different configurations: a modern DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix, an original DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 track, and a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. At a glance, having listened to the 4.0 track and then sampled the 5.1 and 2.0, there isn't a huge difference between the various versions that I could hear, and the movie isn't so much of an aural spectacle that there's much surround depth to be had anyway. Voices sound clear, and the music has a nice vibrancy. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.

The Extras
20th Century Fox previously issued Black Widow on DVD in 2008, and all of the extras on this Blu-ray initially appeared on that release. These include an audio commentary by film historian Alan K. Rode, the featurettes "Ginger Rogers at 20th Century Fox" (8:31), "Gene Tierney: Final Curtain For a Noir Icon" (6:18), an original theatrical trailer -- even the Twilight Time staple of an isolated score (in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0) was originally offered on the DVD. Missing from this Blu-ray iteration are the gallery-based extras: an interactive press book and a photo gallery.

Black Widow is a fun film, elevated by the strength of its ensemble cast. It's hard to imagine the movie having as much replay value as a more dramatically complex film, or one with an even more commanding performance, but it's a sturdy movie that lets off a handful of especially memorable sparks. Twilight Time's Blu-ray is an A/V upgrade even with the blue-leaning transfer, and the extras have been largely preserved. Recommended.

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