Saturday, March 9, 2013

Black Widow (1954)

Director: Nunnally Johnson                               Writer: Nunnally Johnson
Film Score: Leigh Harline                                 Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney and George Raft

One of a series of color films noir produced by 20th Century Fox, the most notable in the series being Leave Her to Heaven, which starred Gene Tierney. Black Widow was written, produced and directed by Nunnally Johnson, who was best known as a screenwriter, penning scripts for films as diverse as The Grapes of Wrath, How to Marry a Millionaire and The Dirty Dozen. He only directed eight films in his career, but they include The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Three Faces of Eve. The film benefits tremendously from Johnson the writer, especially in how it defies expectations in such a great way.

The story, which revolves around the New York theater, begins with a whiff of All About Eve to it, especially in the title character played by Peggy Ann Garner. Primarily a television actress, Garner had few film roles in her career but her character here, and even her look, suggest Anne Baxter in the famous Bette Davis film, and she maintains that same kind of coolness throughout. Because of the title, there is an expectation that the film will follow something on the lines of The Bride Wore Black, and the first half-hour goes along fairly predictably. But then Johnson takes quite an unexpected turn, and it’s almost impossible to guess where things are going after that.

Van Heflin plays Garner’s hapless victim in all this, and after what seems like a slow start, he does a great job playing the typical noir hero, whose life is going to hell. Gene Tierney plays Heflin’s wife, a straight role and not very much of one, amounting to little more than a cameo. George Raft’s role is intended to be a detective on the order of John Williams in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder from the same year, but he doesn’t have nearly the charisma or range to pull it off. Ginger Rogers is Tierney’s friend, as well as the lead actress in Heflin’s play. The role of the snobby and nosy neighbor is a bit of a departure for her, but she pulls it off.

In the end, it’s a great piece of fifties filmmaking that is severely underrated. Despite some flaws in casting, the plot itself is enough to recommend it. It’s not as if the mystery is difficult to figure out. Nunnally stays true to the code of mystery writers who leave enough clues along the way to make sure we can. But by the end of the picture it almost seems a shame the thing wasn’t filmed in black and white. The big Cinemascope and Technicolor screen, well lit in the muted tones and pastels of the fifties, sort of diminishes the impact of the plot. Still, Black Widow is an incredibly satisfying film that deserves far wider recognition that it has achieved. It’s available as part of a great set of four Fox noir films and well worth seeking out.

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