Black Widow (1987)

Director: Bob Rafelson

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.

Since Play Misty for Me came on the scene in 1972, numerous contemporary films have explored the horror of the psychotic femme fatale. Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and even the deranged female fan of Misery all want to love their men to death. The one that has stuck with me the longest is Black Widow, in which it appears that Theresa Russell and Debra Winger were more made for each other than for any man, but in which Winger, a federal investigator named Alexandra “Alex” Barnes, tracks Russell, a black widow who marries rich men and kills them.

The film offers no doubt that our black widow, known by many names and in many guises, kills her husbands. Our first real encounter with her is as a Texas-style belle, all blonde and big-haired, with long, red-painted nails, injecting a liquor bottle with something that will make it appear as though her rich husband died of a rare syndrome called Ondine’s Curse. After the funeral, she takes a trip to forget, or rather, a trip from which she never intends to return. She moves to Seattle after carefully investigating the background and habits of another rich man, William McCrory (Nicol Williamson), and adopts another, more studious and refined persona, one that would appeal to McCrory. Once again, she marries, and once again, her husband dies.

Alex insists that these men were murdered. She obtains photos of the dead men and notes that the bride they all have on their arm is the same woman. Unfortunately, her boss (Terry O’Quinn) cannot believe that a woman would be capable of a complex series of seductions and murders. Frustrated, Alex quits her job and follows the black widow’s trail to Hawaii, where she has set her sights on another rich man (Sami Frey) to seduce.

The classic noir structure is in place, one involving murder, a sexy and duplicitous femme fatale, money, and a detective trying to unravel the whole rotten puzzle—indeed, a detective who has to go outside the normal channels to catch the villain. The twist, of course, is that the sparring partners and almost-lovers in this film are both female, and that the femme fatale’s motive for murder doesn’t really seem to be about the money at all. The noirish atmosphere and psychological underpinnings of Black Widow are found more in the characterizations than in an overarching style of expressionistic cinematography and cynical dialogue that typify classic noir. There are some shots that are clearly indebted to noir films’ contrast of beauty and sordidness, for example, a shadow of our femme fatale and her next victim set in a tropical paradise, and one can never go wrong with Conrad Hall behind the camera. Yet, the camerawork doesn’t set the mood—the two lead actors do.

Like classic noir, Black Widow is a critique of its times. Rather than look at the black widow’s money grabs as a hunger after years of wartime deprivation and malaise, or a chance to have power after an era of powerlessness under fascistic oppression, we see instead no easily discernible reason for her actions at all. She seems in thrall to grasping for more money than she could ever waste and afflicted with a restless mobility, both attitudes that infected the 1980s. The bond Russell and Winger form seems post second-wave feminism if it seems like anything. Winger’s boss underestimates women, including Alex, who has been laboring in the trenches for six years with no apparent road being paved to higher responsibility. Russell, calling herself “Linny” when she meets Alex, clearly feels at ease only around women. Alex is the only person we see her drop her guard with; all the men she so calculatingly seduces have no idea who she is or what she’s capable of. Yet, like a classic femme fatale, when cornered, she’ll strike out to survive, even at those she cares about. She nearly drowns Alex when she discovers that Alex is really on her trail—a warning shot across Alex’s bow that, had “Linny” been a little more frightened, would have been fatal.

It’s telling to me that Alex is a career woman with no apparent romantic life and a nickname that could belong to a man. The homoeroticism in her dealings with “Linny” track butch/femme, including sharing a regulator when they both take diving lessons that later finally is realized into a hard, fast kiss at “Linny’s” fourth marriage, with “Linny” still in her wedding dress and flower veil. It’s very easy to see the pair as Sam Spade tangling with Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and in many ways, the film plays like The Maltese Falcon, with a sad parting for the women. Alex is pledged to nail a killer—and just like Bogey, her professional life and values are on the line, so she can’t play the sap for Russell—but there’s an air of regret at losing the one person she might truly have loved.

Alex was allowed by “Linny” to “have” the man she had set her sights on for her next conquest, only to have “Linny” coolly steal him back with a nude swim after weeks of denying him sex. Will Alex pick up where she and the man left off—she saves him in a clever ruse—after “Linny” is carted away? Many modern films punt to the triumph of romance, but Black Widow isn’t buying it. Alex, like Russell’s character, has become a black widow, too.

For an interesting companion film, I suggest Paul Verhoeven’s 1983 psychohorror film The Fourth Man, which opens and closes with a spider killing and eating its prey and offers a black widow character in between, though the protagonist is a gay man after sex, not money.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    21st/02/2011 to 10:53 pm

    I felt Winger was overwhelmed in this one by Russell, easily, and not just because of the script, she’s kinda strident – I always thought it would’ve been more fun if the roles were reversed. It’s a little predictable, even the ending didn’t surprise me, but I liked it more that way – even better if Winger’s character had really been learning the trade from the beginning. I watched it again on TV about a year ago, and it’s still a well paced film, still fun to watch.

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