Black Widow


I'm admittedly a sucker for these Hitchcockian 'wronged man' "on the lam" murder mystery thrillers. Black Widow (1954) is not quite on par with anything Hitchcock produced to the public at this time, but it has his tendencies in its theme of a man trying to clear his name and how he's avoiding the police in order to "gumshoe" so he can offer the authorities an alternative (while also finding the culprit when the cops can't). This film has an A-cast from the 40s with their careers all edging towards "aging veterans" status, occupying lesser glamour parts. At least none of them were necessarily trapped in the glorious hag roles so beloved by many of us horror/cult fans.

Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, and George Raft have quite a career of riches behind them so all of them together was quite a coup for the casting director at 20th Century Fox. Shot in the grand beauty of Cinemascope and lush De Lux color, this tawdry soap story has quite a classy production machine behind it! I keep reading all the unpleasant critique towards it, especially the performances and characterizations, but besides an underused Tierney I thought the cast was fun. The material is a bit salacious, dealing with a strangling disguised as a suicidal hanging, with adultery, lies, betrayal, and possible blackmail arising out of it all. Heflin is a Broadway hotshot producer with a current play starring unbearable, acid-tongued Rogers. Wife of Heflin, Tierney, is away momentarily while an aspiring writer, from Georgia, named Nanny Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) convinces the producer to lend the apartment to her for a few weeks to write a play for him to possibly produce. It is innocent as Heflin loves Tierney and he has no feelings at all for Ordway, having been won over by her passion to be a success. But when he returns with Tierney to the apartment and finds Ordway hanging in the bathroom, his life becomes a living hell.

The dialogue stood out to me as quite adult, smart, often witty, full of heft and emotion, sometimes raw and angry, with lots of introspective agonizing and reactionary response to accusations, developing secrets made known, unearthed and concealed feelings no longer hidden behind the veil, and treachery towards an innocent man spotlighted in the big concession scene at the end, most of the time on television revealed in a court of law on Perry Mason or Matlock. Heflin flees from his office on foot as the police, led by chief detective played by Raft, put out a BOLO on him. Rogers, called shrill by critics for her performance, to me was a dynamo, ripping asunder whoever she feels deserves it, an actress of certain caliber overstaying her welcome often with folks only tolerating her antics due to her audience reception. The show goes on because her name on the Marquee carries weight, but Heflin can only stomach her pointed accusatory comments at him so many times. Heflin shows you the tiresome albatross this death weighs down on him, slumping his shoulders, popping in the smokes to ease him however they can, and that gnawing continuance hangs on his face. He seems more than capable of holding the film as the suspect Raft eyes while trying to find the real killer. Tierney is the sensible wife who doesn't rush to judgment but a letter to her, part of a scheme Ordway concocted, makes an impact. Rogers seems to enjoy Heflin's crises a bit too much. She's only too willing to conclude Heflin was cheating and perfectly a candidate behind her demise.

It's a film that positions Heflin in quite a pickle. And then his accuser, though dead, seems to be implicating him wrongly from the grave. Heflin certainly goes after the artist roommate of Ordway, played by Virginia Keith, who seems to be his worst enemy. Her vocal support of his guilt, and this snide undercurrent of suspect behavior she exhibits raises doubt about what she does and doesn't know. Homeier, the former boyfriend, seems to be a nice young man duped by her because he wasn't going places high enough to support the lifestyle she so desired. While I agree Garner is miscast as the conniving, scheming, self-absorbed harlot, willing to lie, cheat, and steal her way to wealth and privilege, the irony of falling mad for a valueless freeloader leeching off his wife (Reginald Gardiner), under constant reminder of his position as a beneficiary of a spouse's success, was priceless to me. She isn't in the film much so her miscasting doesn't necessarily drag the film down too much to me. It seemed to be a bigger deal to others. Why Gardiner couldn't see her as a liability to his existing lifestyle gets some decent exposition when spilling the beans to Heflin, no longer willing to take any secrecy held from him. Still, how Gardiner gets himself in the fiasco and why Ordway could appeal to him then just turn on him if he doesn't comply with her blackmailing Heflin is quite a change of behavior from romantic to psychotic quickly; only if Garner was a bit more convincing as the schemer, this might have been a humdinger.

Raft aggressively confronting Rogers and her breaking was a hoot to me. She is all tough and fiery, confident and assertive, in control and command of her narrative that Heflin is the most likely suspect, and then a lie weaved well shatters the illusion and an eyewitness supporting him brings her walls down. Soon nothing is there to protect her ruse. The gig is up.